Falconer defends judges in sentencing row

Politicians should stop criticising judges for sentencing decisions when they are only following official guidelines, the lord chancellor has said.

Lord Falconer insisted judges should not become “whipping boys” for concerns that offenders were not being locked up for long enough.

His comments come after home secretary John Reid said a five-year minimum term for a convicted paedophile who attacked a three-year-old girl was “unduly lenient”.

The case of Craig Sweeney, 24, is being reviewed by the attorney general, but has prompted a political row over sentencing that yesterday saw Tony Blair and Conservative leader David Cameron vie in the Commons to prove who had had the toughest policies.

Yesterday Downing Street said new legislation would be announced before the summer recess to strengthen the parole system for early release.

But Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg warned this was simply “panic legislation” designed to get ministers “out of a hole”.

“There is a strong case for a wholesale review of our sentencing regime, but a short term legislative fix is not the answer,” he said.

Last night Lord Falconer weighed into the row, warning: “There is a real problem in relation to some sentences that are now being passed but I am absolutely sure the problem is not with the judges.”

The current system was “very complex and prescriptive”, he told BBC One’s Question Time, adding: “We need a system in which the public have got confidence.”

The problems arise over the public perception of a life sentence – although this suggests an offender will be in jail for the whole of their life, it actually means they could be released after only a few years, but could be recalled to jail for the rest of their sentence.

In the case of Mr Sweeney, he was given life but, thanks to a reduction of a third on his sentence for pleading guilty and an automatic right to apply for parole halfway through his sentence, could be out after five years. However, the judge said this was unlikely.

“We have to be extremely careful that we don’t attack the judges on these issues where it is the system – and it is not one or other political party – it is 30 years of statutes that have led to this,” Lord Falconer said.

Asked whether Mr Reid was right to intervene in the case – a move which has caused friction with the attorney general – he replied: “I don’t think it is right to say that the judges are at fault in relation to this.

“If a sentence is too lenient then there is a process by which it could be sent to the court of appeal.It is a matter for the attorney general to decide. He is making it clear it is not a political decision to decide to refer to the court of appeal.”

Earlier, Labour party chairwoman Hazel Blears defended Mr Reid’s intervention, and insisted he had not meant to criticise the judiciary.

“It is perfectly right and proper that an elected home secretary can express concerns that very many of the public would express as well. I do not think it was an unreasonable attack on the judge,” she told BBC Two’s Newsnight.