22:07, October 13 64 0 theguardian.com

2019-10-13 22:07:04
PM seeks to thrust law and order on to agenda in Queen’s speech

Violent and sexual criminals as well as foreign national offenders who return to the UK will face drastically heavier penalties under measures that will form the centrepiece of a Queen’s speech aimed at wresting the agenda away from the delicate Brexit negotiations.

With just days to go before the deadline for Boris Johnson to clinch a last-ditch Brexit deal in Brussels, the Queen will on Monday set out his government’s priorities for a new session of parliament, including 22 new bills.

But with MPs deadlocked over Brexit, few at Westminster believe a general election will be long in coming – and the Conservatives hope the policies will form the basis of their campaign.

The proposals will see violent and sexual offenders serve a minimum of two-thirds of their sentence before becoming eligible to be released on licence, compared to half under current guidelines. But there were warnings from prison reformers that the plans could put staff in danger by taking away hope from inmates.

Meanwhile, amid claims from the home secretary, Priti Patel, that the UK has been a “soft touch on foreign criminals” for too long, maximum sentences for foreign nationals who breach a deportation order will be “drastically increased” from the present six months.

Critics of the proposals, including prison reform charities, have already warned they will impose extra pressure on overcrowded jails and that the public is being misled into believing sentencing policy is softer than it really is. Criminal barristers point out most serious offenders are not automatically released at the halfway point in their sentence.

The emphasis on harsher punishment is being urged on a criminal justice system that has been chronically underfunded since 2010 and in which ministers are accused of refusing to tackle the existing backlog of cases.

But Conservative strategists believe the move will appeal to voters in Labour-held seats who are believed to be sympathetic to a tougher line on law and order. The same voters are being targeted with extra spending set aside for schools and hospitals after almost a decade of austerity, and a recently announced increase in the minimum wage. At the Conservative conference in Manchester, ministers repeatedly called those plans the “people’s priorities”.

The changes to sentencing policy were outlined by the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, last month.

He announced that offenders guilty of violent and sexual crimes that carry a maximum sentence of life – such as manslaughter, rape, and grievous bodily harm – and who are sentenced to at least four years in prison will be required to serve two-thirds of the sentence in prison before being released on licence.

Targeting foreign national offenders who attempt to re-enter the UK after they have served their sentence and been deported is expected to affect an estimated 400 individuals a year, according to the government.

Priti Patel, who is emerging as one of the most hardline home secretaries in many years, said the new sentencing measures would “make our country safer”.

“We have been a soft touch on foreign criminals for too long,” she said. “The sentence for breaching a deportation order is far too low at the moment and many criminals conclude that it’s worth trying to get back in the country when all you get is a slap on the wrist. Deterring foreign criminals from re-entering the country and putting those that do behind bars for longer will make our country safer.”

In her party conference speech in Manchester, Patel said the Tories’ message to criminals was: “we are coming for you”.

But her Labour shadow, Diane Abbott, said it was the Tories who had been soft on crime by relentlessly cutting funding for police and the criminal justice system.

“Priti Patel is right that the Tories have been a soft touch for criminals, with policies that predictably led to more crime. We always argued that cuts have consequences, and now the Tories are trying to pretend the consequences have nothing to do with them,” Abbott said.

She added: “This Queen’s speech is farcical. It is just an uncosted wish list which the government has no intention and no means to deliver, and nothing more than a pre-election party political broadcast.”

Frances Crook, chief executive from the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the sentencing changes were not “a sensible, evidence-based policy”. She said: “It is the politics of the lynch mob … this is about making people spend more time in prison, which will affect thousands of men and will probably put staff in danger by taking hope away from people. We already know that prisoners are in appalling conditions, with a lot of violence, injury and suicides. A lot of it is directed at staff. It’s very irresponsible.”

She later tweeted: “Desperate and weak governments always try to curry favour by stirring up hate, increasing punishment is a race to the bottom of politics, particularly as it flies in the face of evidence and won’t protect victims.”

Other new laws expected to be laid out in the speech include the requirement for voters to present photo ID – a measure Labour has warned amounts to “voter suppression”; scrapping rail franchising; and a new environment bill, setting binding targets on reducing plastic and other forms of pollution.

There will also be several Brexit-related pieces of legislation, including the institution of a new “points-based” immigration regime from 2021.

The Queen will deliver the speech from a throne in the House of Lords, after processing from Buckingham Palace to Westminster in a carriage, amid the traditional pomp of a state opening of parliament.

Timeline

Boris Johnson's parliamentary defeats

In the first vote Johnson faces as prime minister, 21 rebel Tory MPs vote with the opposition to seize control of the order paper to allow a debate on a bill that would block a no-deal Brexit. 

Against Johnson's wishes, the Commons passes  by 329 votes to 300 the second reading of the European Union (withdrawal) (No 6) bill proposed by Hilary Benn.

Later the same day the Benn bill passes the third and final reading needed to become law, this time by 327 to 299 votes.

Johnson responds by attempting to force an early general election. The 298 MPs who support him are short of the two-thirds majority required by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, making it a third defeat in a single day for the government.

Dominic Grieve's bid to force the government to release documents related to the Operation Yellowhammer no-deal planning and on the decision to prorogue parliament defeats Johnson by 311 to 302.

Johnson's second call for an early general election is supported by 293 MPs, still short of the two-thirds majority required. Parliament is prorogued and MPs briefly occupy the chamber after the session is closed. 

The supreme court rules that Johnson's closure of parliament was unlawful and that MPs must return.

In the first vote in the reconvened House of Commons, MPs vote by 306 to 289 against a three-day recess to allow Conservative MPs to attend their party conference.

Johnson’s government suspended parliament last week, to prepare for Monday’s speech. A longer planned shutdown, from early September, was struck down by the supreme court amid fears that it would stifle debate on Brexit.

MPs are expected to debate the measures outlined in the speech for up to five days, and will then hold a vote – which Johnson could lose. He has lost seven votes in parliament since becoming prime minister in July, and won none.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, losing a vote on a Queen’s speech is no longer formally a no-confidence vote, but it would be expected to increase the intense pressure on Johnson’s fragile administration.

The extra demands imposed on the justice system follow a period during which the Ministry of Justice, which oversees the courts and prisons, has suffered deeper budget cuts – 40% since 2010 – than any other Whitehall department. Reductions in the number of judicial sitting days in order to make short-term savings have added to frustrations among lawyers.

A pledge to give police powers to arrest fugitives on the basis of an Interpol red notice without having to apply for a warrant will set a new precedent. Critics have warned some countries will abuse the system by targeting political opponents. The government said the scheme will initially apply to a only few trusted countries: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

The Queen’s speech proposals on the domestic abuse bill may be more broadly welcomed, with a proposal to allow victims to testify via video-link rather than in person. Campaigners have been urging the government to deliver on its long-delayed pledge on banning the cross-examination in court of victims of abuse by perpetrators in domestic abuse cases.

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