Mandatory sentences top Howard's agenda: The Queen's Speech

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The Independent Online
Michael Howard has savagely shorn his "law and order" programme of a range of additional measures in a bid to force through his plans for longer prison terms for serious or persistent offenders.

The Home Secretary wants the Crime (Sentences) Bill, to be published tomorrow, to have cleared all its Commons and Lords' stages by February so it can receive Royal Assent by Easter. Key measures in the separate Police Bill are the creation of a new national crime squad and an agency to vet the criminal records of job applicants.

The Crime Bill will concentrate on the core issues of abolishing parole and automatic early release, and bringing in automatic indeterminate life sentences for second-time rapists or violent offenders and mandatory minimum sentences for thrice-convicted domestic burglars and serious drug dealers.

There will also be stricter supervision of sex offenders on release, and new powers for courts to impose community service or curfew orders, backed by electronic tagging, instead of fines or as an alternative to prison for fine defaulters.

A series of further possibilities that Mr Howard had publicly paraded - including banning under 18s from drinking in public places, "naming and shaming" juveniles in magistrates' courts, and a new sentence of deprivation of a driving licence - were all absent from yesterday's speech.

The sentencing crackdown has provoked bitter opposition from the judiciary and a full-scale cross-party rebellion is in prospect when the measure reaches the Lords. Paul Cavadino, chairman of the Penal Affairs Consortium said: "Mandatory sentences will do nothing to reduce crime but a great deal to produce serious injustice. Automatic sentences for serious violent and sexual offenders will lead to fewer guilty pleas, greater distress to victims who have to give evidence, more plea-bargaining and more wrongful acquittals of dangerous offenders. This will reduce rather than increase public safety."

Penal campaigners have warned that the measures would see the record prison population of more than 57,000 soaring by at least another 10,000, at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds.

The crunch issue, however, is the attitude of Labour in the Commons. The Government hopes to trap the party into a position of appearing "soft" on serious crime. A key issue will be how closely the Bill will seek to define the "exceptional circumstances" when the mandatory sentences would not apply.

North of the border, the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill will omit the mandatory minimum sentence for domestic burglars, though a seven-year minimum is proposed for traffickers in Class A drugs. The omission, Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary said, was due to a downward trend in burglaries. In addition, some repeat burglars can be sent for trial at the Scottish High Court, where they are already at risk of a life sentence.

The National Crime Squad proposed in the Police Bill will have two wings. An operational one will be made up of the existing six regional crime squads who will support police forces in the investigation of serious crime. The intelligence-gathering role will be carried out by the National Criminal Intelligence Service.

New legislation will also allow police officers legally to break into homes, search them, copy documents, and plant listening devices and cameras.

The Bill also proposes the creation of a Criminal Records Agency for England and Wales. The agency would be able to charge private companies and individuals for checks on potential employees.

There would be three types of checks: a criminal conviction certificate which would contain information of current convictions; a "full" check for jobs such as teaching, lawyers, heathcare, which would include details of cautions and spent convictions; and "enhanced" checks for those seeking work with children or in the gaming, betting and lottery business.