No one seems to have bothered reporting this – probably because this time Ken Clarke managed not to make a complete mess of what he was trying to say – but there was a Parliamentary debate on Monday afternoon on the government’s proposals to give up to a 50% discount on sentences for those who plead guilty at an early stage.

The debate came about because the Labour Party submitted a motion on the issue late last week, following on from Clarke’s by now notorious attempt to channel Whoopi Goldberg.

The text of the motion was: “That this House opposes changing the maximum discount for custodial sentences to up to 50% for those who plead guilty“, and it was actually a really constructive discussion. Well, I thought so anyway. The motion was lost unsurprisingly, but that’s by no means the end of things: the government is yet to announce how it intends to proceed now that the consultation period for the Breaking the Cycle Green Paper is over.

Anyway, as the debate has been met with such a resounding silence from all those who had so much to say about the issue last week, I thought I’d post the link to it here – Hansard debate, 23rd May 2011

And here’s Fiona Mactaggart’s awesome contribution:

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab):“I want to talk about this Government’s record on crime where women are victims or offenders, and to show that the latest attempt to propose a 50% discount for early guilty pleas—which was offered up by the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), as doing women rape victims a favour—is a desperate ploy that could only be the product of a men-only Department that, to be frank, just does not get it when it comes to women and crime.

It is not just Ministers’ fault, however: when I was a Home Office Minister working with the National Offender Management Service, I discovered that officials believed that women offenders in prisons were basically exactly the same as men and were to be treated the same. The consequence was an appalling deluge of women self-harming and killing themselves in jail. I realised that we needed a comprehensive rethink of the issue, and helped to commission Baroness Corston to look at it. She came up with an excellent report that showed many of the ways that prisons dealt ineffectually and unfairly with women, who are more likely to be jailed for non-violent offences than men, more likely to be remanded when they are later found innocent, and very likely to have been victims of violence themselves before committing any offence.

It seems that we are getting the same kind of cloth-eared view on how women as victims are treated. We need to approach them in the same way that Baroness Corston approached women offenders: by really looking at how to reduce future crime, by ensuring that the children of offending women are less likely to become offenders themselves, by listening to victims and those in the system, and by doing a careful study rather than what I believe we are facing, which is a back-of-the-envelope calculation—“This’ll get me off the hook with the Treasury.”

Let us look briefly at Labour’s record, which Government Members have mentioned extensively. The most striking thing in relation to rape is the increase of sentences served between 2005 and 2009, the period for which we have the most recent figures. Sentences served increased by 14 months over that period because of determined work by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and Baroness Scotland, who worked together to start taking unduly lenient sentences back to court and ensure that dangerous rapists were not released early. We then realised that we were not doing enough, so we commissioned Baroness Stern to look at how rape was treated in the criminal justice system. She was impressed by a number of the changes that we had made, including introducing specialist police units, which are now due to be cut by the Home Office, increasing by 15% the number of rapists convicted, improving the way cases were dealt with in court, and introducing specialist prosecutors in all 42 Crown Prosecution Service areas. Of course, the number of CPS areas has now been cut, so although every area might claim to have specialist prosecutors, I doubt whether there will be as many as there were.

The difference between that and what we see now is carefully thinking through what will make a difference. I am genuinely shocked by the Minister, who I do not think is a bad man. I share his desire to reduce reoffending, and I recognise his point that short sentences—those under four years—are ineffectual. That is one of the reasons why I want to ensure that no rapist is in jail for less than four years. He said that there was no loud opposition to the proposal. What that means is that he has not bothered to read the representations that women’s organisations made in response to his Green Paper. I am afraid that we are seeing a cloth-eared, don’t-get-the-women approach from this Department. I want Ministers to think again. We were told that victims’ organisations would really welcome the proposal because victims would not have to go through the horror of a trial. Yes, rape trials are horrible—they are very degrading for the victim—but if the trial does not go ahead, then although the judge hears the plea in mitigation, he never hears how the victim’s life has been destroyed…..

…..I do not believe therefore that what is proposed is being done to make the victim’s experience better. There is no evidence of that, because there is no evidence of careful listening to victims’ organisations, which is what I would have expected had that been the case. I would have expected real engagement with women’s organisations that deal regularly with the victims of rape and other sexual violence. According to the British crime survey, one in 250 women were victims of sexual assault in the last year. This is a widespread offence, and we are not taking it sufficiently seriously when the Secretary of State for Justice can say, “Well, there’s rape and then there’s rape.” We need to change the way we deal with this issue. We need to be really serious about these issues. Although there is a case for discounts for early guilty pleas, they should not be universally applied to people who have been responsible for some of the most violent and degrading crimes, and his Green Paper does not stop that”