Crime Bill teeters after Lords defeat

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The Independent Online
Ministers' plans to impose minimum sentences on persistent offenders were in disarray last night after peers inflicted a damaging defeat on the Govern- ment in the House of Lords.

Opposition amendments to give flexibility to judges were carried by just eight votes after the Home Secretary warned that the move would "drive a coach and horses" through the Crime Bill.

Last night, the Home Office confirmed that Michael How-ard would attempt to repair his Bill in the House of Commons. The move may leave him exposed to a further revolt from some Conservative backbench-ers who are known to be unhappy about the measures.

The Bill imposes compulsory sentences of seven years on third-time drug dealers and of three years on third-time burglars as well as imposing life sentences on second-time violent and sexual offenders. It allows discretion for judges in exceptional circumstances, but peers from both sides of the house argued that it was too narrow.

They voted 180 to 172 for an amendment which would allow judges to impose shorter sentences on burglars and drug dealers if they felt cirumstances demanded it.

Among those who opposed the Government in the Lords yesterday were the former Master of the Rolls, Lord Donaldson and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham. Lord Hailsham, a Tory Lord Chancellor, also voted against the Government.

Lord Bingham defied his opponents to find a criminal justice system that worked better than the British one.

"All we are asking is for the courts to be able to decline to pass sentences which are against their professional or moral consciences. Surely that isn't asking too much," he said.

Labour home affairs spokes-man in the Lords, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, said a huge variety of offences would be covered by the measures.

"Many burglars are pathetic losers, many dealers are themselves addicts who need treatment rather than lengthy prison sentences," he said.

However, Home Office minister Baroness Blatch said the amendments would wreck the Bill. They would allow judges to make exceptions in all cases if they wanted, she said.