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Lord Taylor denounces Howard reforms

Crime debate: Minimum sentences idea based on 'flimsy evidence', warns Lord Chief Justice in final speech
"Never in the history of our criminal law have such far-reaching proposals been put forward on the strength of such flimsy and dubious evidence," the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, told peers yesterday.

Lord Taylor, who is retiring because he is suffering from cancer, used his final speech in the Upper House to warn of the "very grave consequences" if the Government enacted its plans for minimum sentences for repeat offenders.

He opened a debate in which the Home Secretary's White Paper, Protecting the Public, on minimum sentences for persistent burglars, drug dealers and rapists, was mauled - suggesting a rough passage in parliament for the legislation.

Lord Taylor said: "The shallow and untested figures in the White Paper do not describe fairly and clearly the problems the Government seeks to address - still less do they justify the radical 'solutions' it proposes."

In a blunt appeal to Michael Howard to think again, he said: "Quite simply, minimum sentences must involve a denial of justice. It cannot be right for sentences to be passed without regard to the gravity, frequency, consequences or other circumstances of the offending.

"To sentence a burglar automatically to a minimum of three years on a third conviction is to take no account of whether he is before the court for only three offences or 30, whether they involved sophisticated planning or drunken opportunism ...

"To impose a minimum sentence of seven years on those convicted for the third time of trafficking in prescribed drugs will simply fill our prisons with addicts who sell small quantities to support their own addiction."

He said the Government's "escape clause" - allowing the court to depart from the tariff in exceptional cases - would be the "worst of both worlds".

It subverted the function of the court, which was to sentence according to the justice of each individual case.

He mocked Mr Howard's claim yesterday that 207 out of 217 convictions for second serious violent or sexual offences in 1994 had not led to life sentences.

"Presumably, the Home Secretary thinks [the Attorney General] should have referred all 207 ... to the Court of Appeal as being unduly lenient. In fact he referred only six. The problem is, therefore, nothing like as great as the White Paper makes out," he said.

In debate, only one peer - Tory Baroness Rawlings - defended Mr Howard's plans as the House united to pay fulsome tribute to Lord Taylor, who will be succeeded today by Sir Thomas Bingham. Sir Thomas will in turn be succeeded as Master of the Rolls by the law lord Lord Woolf.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill, a QC on the Liberal Democrat front bench, told Lord Taylor: "You will be recognised by future generations as the greatest Lord Chief Justice of this century."

He claimed that Mr Howard's proposals would "not deter but would actually encourage crime".

Lord Taylor prompted Lord Williams of Mostyn, Labour's spokesman in the Lords, to attack the Home Secretary's plans more aggressively than Jack Straw, Labour's spokes-man in the Commons. "Sentencing in a civil society should be flexible," Lord Williams declared, describing minimum mandatory sentences as "a perversion of justice".

Lord Carr of Hadley, Conservative former Home Secretary, led a chorus of five Tory ex-Home Office ministers who joined senior judges and the opposition in demanding "very, very substantial alterations" to the White Paper.

Lord Belstead, who was also leader of the Tories in the Lords, Lord Windlesham, Lord Carlisle and Lord Elton agreed. Several of Mr Howard's proposals had direct American origins, Lord Windlesham said, and the United States was hardly the best place to look for well considered and effective criminal justice legislation.

He urged: "If we want to avoid the adverse consequences of similar policies introduced for similar reasons in the United States, I suggest to the Government that the voices of those who do have first-hand experience are listened to."

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, winding up the debate, also paid tribute to Lord Taylor, before delivering a low-key defence of the Home Secretary's position.

He said he admired the clarity of judgments and the courage Lord Taylor had shown over the last few "sad" weeks.

Lord Mackay said it was right that the Government should respond to public concern about crime.