§ 1. Mr. Streeter
To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to introduce mandatory minimum sentences. 
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
I am considering the relevant provisions of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 against the need to ensure that sufficient provision is available within the Prison Service.
§ Mr. Streeter
I am afraid that that answer does absolutely nothing for me. The Labour party talked tough in opposition and, apparently, is already acting soft in government. Why will not the Secretary of State join us in sending a clear signal to serious repeat offenders, by agreeing today to introduce minimum mandatory sentences?
§ Mr. Straw
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I dare say that it will be the first of many occasions when I do so. The hon. Gentleman, however, is way behind the times. I made it clear on 19 May, in the debate on the Loyal Address, that I fully intended to implement section 2 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 relating to life sentences for serious violent and sexual offenders as soon as possible and, I hope, within the time frame laid down by the previous Administration.
§ Mr. Beith
What is the Home Secretary's estimate of the number of new prison places that would be required to implement each of the mandatory sentencing provisions of that legislation? Is he seriously prepared to contemplate the massive diversion of resources from policing and crime prevention that would be involved in building another 10 or 20 new prisons over and above those required to deal with the present trend in prison numbers to implement that legislation, which had much of the character of a confidence trick by the previous Administration, willing the end without willing the means?
§ Mr. Straw
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right in his last point. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) made several undertakings about the future of the prison population 776 without the backing of his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—a habit which he has not broken out of in opposition.
However, I was asked specific questions. It is estimated that section 2 would lead to an increase of between 600 and 800 prison places over a 15-year period. As most of those offenders—the serious violent and sexual offenders—are bound to be sentenced to prison in any event, the impact in the next five to 10 years on the prison population will be small.
It is estimated that section 3, relating to drug dealers, would have an impact on the prison population over a similar period of about 200 places.
The estimated impact on the prison population of section 4, relating to repeat burglars, is significant. It is also significant because the most that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe could do was to provide an illustration of when that policy might be implemented, sometime in 2001—near the next general election.
§ Mr. Llwyd
I remind the Home Secretary that, in Committee, there was much talk about the need for a working definition of "exceptional circumstances" in which a judge could exercise discretion not to impose mandatory sentences. In view of the considerable time spent on that subject in Committee—I remember that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) spent much time, as I did, trying to knead that out—does the Home Secretary have any information on that very important aspect?
§ Mr. Straw
My view is that section 1, which sets down the special circumstances that would apply to sections 3 and 4 of the Act relating to drug dealers and repeat burglars, is in satisfactory order. When he was Secretary of State, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe denied that. He put his argument to the people of this country at the recent general election. It was the only law and order issue that he argued about throughout a six-week campaign; the people of the country gave a clear answer in that regard.
On section 2, relating to automatic life sentences for serious sexual and violent offenders on a second or subsequent occasion, I am also satisfied that the narrower definition of "exceptional circumstances" is the appropriate one.