The King’s Speech of 7 November 2023 said the Government would bring forward a bill to “ensure tougher sentences for the most serious offenders and increase the confidence of victims”. It also said legislation would be introduced to “empower police forces and the criminal justice system to prevent new or complex crimes, such as digital-enabled crime and child sexual abuse, including grooming”.

The background briefing notes published by the Government give further details of the two Bills to be introduced: the Sentencing Bill and the Criminal Justice Bill. These Bills were both introduced in the Commons on 14 November 2023. The Library will publish briefing papers on each Bill in due course prior to second reading (dates to be announced). Some of the key proposals in each Bill are outlined below.

The background briefing notes also refer to the Victims and Prisoners Bill, which has been carried over from the previous session. 

The Sentencing Bill

Full background is set out in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill (PDF). A brief guide to some of the key measures relating to the subject of this debate is set out below.

Whole life orders

The background briefing notes (PDF) state the Bill will “mandate courts to impose a Whole Life Order in cases for which a Whole Life Order is currently the starting point, and murder with sexual or sadistic conduct, unless there are exceptional circumstances”. The cases for which a whole life order is currently the starting point are listed in paragraph 2 of Schedule 21 to the Sentencing Act 2020.

This follows a Government press announcement made in August 2023, in which the Government said that in the most serious cases of murder it would legislate to “place a legal expectation on judges to hand down whole life orders, except in extremely limited circumstances”.

The Government announced in a press release, Whole Life Order reforms to be applied to active cases, on 3 October 2023 that it intends that these reforms will apply retrospectively. This means that people who have committed an offence but are yet to be sentenced would have the new law applied to them when they are sentenced even if the offence was committed before the new law is commenced.

Release arrangements for people convicted of rape or other serious sexual offences

The Sentencing Bill will provide that people who are convicted of rape and other serious sexual offences who are sentenced to a determinate (fixed) sentence will be required to serve the whole of their custodial term in prison. They will no longer be released on licence at the two thirds point of their sentence to serve the remainder under supervision in the community.

Presumption in favour of suspended sentences for custodial sentences of 12 months or under

The Bill would provide for a presumption that custodial (prison) sentences of 12 months and under are to be suspended. A suspended sentence means that the person does not have to go to prison provided they commit no further offences and comply with any requirements imposed for the relevant period. The Government has said it will make more GPS tags available to allow for the monitoring of offenders’ compliance with conditions.

This proposal was announced by the Justice Secretary on 16 October 2023 as one of the measures being taken to ease the pressures on prison capacity. For further details see the Library’s insight, What is the Government doing to reduce pressure on prison capacity?, 19 October 2023.

Extension of Home Detention Curfew

Home Detention Curfew (HDC) allows for the early release of certain prisoners with an electronically monitored curfew before the date on which they would otherwise be automatically released. The maximum period of release on HDC was changed earlier this year from 135 to 180 days.

Currently only prisoners serving a sentence of over 12 weeks and under four years who meet eligibility conditions and are risk assessed as suitable can be released under HDC. The Bill would provide for prisoners serving sentences of four years or more to be considered, subject to the same conditions.

The Criminal Justice Bill

Full background is set out in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill (PDF). A brief guide to some of the key measures relating to the subject of this debate is set out below. The Bill also includes measures on a range of other issues including ‘SIM farms’, proceeds of crime, nuisance begging and rough sleeping, and antisocial behaviour. These are not covered further in this debate pack.

Knife crime

The Bill includes measures to increase the maximum penalty for sale of dangerous weapons to under 18s and create a criminal offence of possession of a bladed article with the intent to cause harm. The Bill will also create a new police power to seize, retain and destroy legally held bladed articles from premises when a constable is lawfully on the premises and they have reasonable grounds to suspect the bladed article will likely be used in connection with unlawful violence.

These measures follow commitments set out in the Government’s response to a recent consultation on a range of legislative proposals to tackle the use of machetes and other bladed articles.

Compelling offenders to appear at sentencing hearings

The Criminal Justice Bill includes powers to compel offenders to attend their sentencing hearings. The Government had previously announced this measure in an August 2023 press release, Offenders to be ordered to attend sentencing. The Government said offenders convicted of an offence for which the maximum sentence is life imprisonment who refuse to attend could receive an additional penalty of up to two years in prison.  

The Government has said the proposed legislation will make clear that force can be used in appropriate circumstances by prison staff and prisoner escort and custody services staff where they consider it necessary, reasonable, and proportionate to bring offenders to hearings.

See: House of Lords Library, In Focus, Forced to face justice: Will ordering attendance at sentencing hearings work?, 24 October 2023

Statutory aggravating factors in sentencing

The Bill will include a statutory aggravating factor at sentencing for child sex offenders in cases involving sexual grooming of a child.  This was announced in a press release on 2 April 2023, PM to clamp down on Grooming Gangs.

The Bill will also include a statutory aggravating factor at sentencing for offenders who murder their partner at the end of their relationship. This proposal would implement a recommendation from Clare Wade KC’s Domestic Homicide Sentencing Review published on 17 March 2023. The Government committed to this in its full response to the review (PDF), published on 20 July 2023.

Prisoners to serve sentences abroad

The Bill will contain provisions that would allow the Government to transfer prisoners abroad to serve their prison sentence in cells overseas rented from other countries. In a press release, Foreign prison rental to ensure public protection, 3 October 2023, the Government said prisoners would be allowed to be moved to another country’s prison estate provided the facilities, regime and rehabilitation are to the same standard as those in England and Wales.

Intimate images

The Bill includes measures on the sharing of intimate images. Intimate image abuse involves the non-consensual taking, making and/or sharing of intimate images.

The Law Commission has recently conducted a review of the law on Taking, making and sharing intimate images without consent, in which it noted that the existing criminal law had failed to keep up with developments in technology and sexual offending. It therefore recommended that the Government replace the existing law with a new tiered framework of offences.

The Government said in a statement in November 2022 that it planned to legislate to introduce a package of new offences based on the Law Commission’s recommendations. This follows more limited changes to the law on intimate image abuse made in sections 187-188 of the Online Safety Act 2023: see sections 4.6 and 9.19 of the Library briefing Online Safety Bill: progress of the Bill for background.

Encouraging or assisting serious self-harm

Section 184 of the Online Safety Act 2023 (not yet in force) introduced a new offence of encouraging or assisting the serious self-harm of another person by means of verbal, written or electronic communications: see sections 4.5 and 9.19 of  the Library briefing Online Safety Bill: progress of the Bill for background. The Bill will repeal section 184 and replace it with an expanded version of the offence that will cover encouraging or assisting by means other than communication: for example direct assistance such as providing an article with which to self-harm.

Confidence in policing

Following a number of high-profile incidents of serious police misconduct and criminality, the Bill includes two measures aimed at improving confidence in policing.

The first measure would introduce a statutory requirement for the College of Policing to issue a code of practice about ethical policing (including a ‘duty of candour’). The code would be aimed at chief officers and would require them to ensure an ethical culture in the forces they lead. There is an existing Code of Ethics that was issued by the College of Policing in 2014, although this is currently being reviewed. The new code would complement the existing legal duty on individual police officers to “give appropriate cooperation during investigations, inquiries and formal proceedings” set out in the Police (Conduct) Regulations 2020.

The second measure would introduce a new statutory right of appeal for chief officers to appeal to a police appeals tribunal against a decision relating to a member or special constable (or former member or special constable) of the force for whom they are the chief officer. This would implement one of the recommendations of the recent Home Office review The process of police officer dismissals.

The Victims and Prisoners Bill

The Government briefing notes on the Kings Speech also cover the Victims and Prisoners Bill, which is awaiting report stage in the House of Commons having been carried over from the previous session.

The Library has published a briefing Victim and Prisoners Bill: Progress of the Bill, 14 November 2023. This covers second reading and committee stage in the Commons and includes discussion of the Government’s commitment to introduce powers to automatically suspend parental responsibility from parents who kill a partner or ex-partner with whom they have children, also referred to as ‘Jade’s law’.

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