Top judge in savage Lords assault on Crime Bill

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Britain's senior judges launched a fresh attack last night on the Government's controversial plans for mandatory tougher sentences for persistent and violent criminals.

Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, and Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls, led a barrage of criticism during the House of Lords' Second Reading of the Crime (Sentences) Bill.

More than 30 peers spoke during yesterday evening's debate, a majority hostile to the proposals which have already cleared the Commons. The Bill represented an "indiscriminate, scatter-gun" approach which was "radically unsound" and which would lead to injustice, Lord Bingham declared.

The Bill obliges judges to pass minimum jail terms on third-time burglars and drug dealers, indeterminate life sentences on second-time violent or sexual offenders unless there are "exceptional" circumstances, and abolishes the present arrangements for parole and post-release supervision.

Opening the debate, the Home Office minister Baroness Blatch said that the proposals would provide "protection and reassurance for the public".

But in his first contribution in the Lords chamber since his appointment as Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham said in a bruising critique of the Bill that each of its three key planks had to be tested against four questions: "Will it be just? Will it serve to reduce levels of crime or increase the protection of society? Will it be cost- effective? Will it work in practice? I feel bound to tell your Lordships that in my judgement these measures conspicuously fail to pass all four of those tests."

Dismissing as a "subversive lie" any suggestion that judges were indifferent to the evils of crime and condemning a list of "vices" in the Bill, Lord Bingham said that the existing parole and remission scheme, put in place in 1991, was "clear and intelligible ... it enables offenders to be reintroduced into the community conditionally".

Attacking the proposals for obligatory sentences, the Lord Chief Justice warned that the imposition of the automatic life sentence would give rise to indefensible anomalies, while experience in the United States had shown that where the imposition of an automatic penalty offends the conscience of an ordinary person, prosecutors charged on less serious offences than were warranted."

The Master of the Rolls Lord Woolf also attacked the Bill saying it was an "extremely expensive way of making the criminal justice system worse".

He said it had "some virtue" in provisions for fine defaulters and the transfer of prisoners but added: "Its principle provisions are objectionable on at least six grounds."

Lord Carlisle, who chaired the inquiry that led to the current parole and remission regime, told peers: "I remain of the view that this is, for many, many reasons, a thoroughly undesirable measure."

The Tory former Cabinet minister, who is a Crown Court recorder, went on: "I think it is quite unjustified. I think that no attempt has been made to justify the major changes it proposes. I think it is largely unnecessary. I think it is ill thought-through.