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20 December 2021

As 2021 draws to a close, I want to take this time to reflect on some of the work the Sentencing Council has completed over the last 12 months. It has been a busy and challenging year, during which our ways of working have been profoundly disrupted.

Despite this, we have developed five definitive guidelines, consulted on four, and published our five-year strategy to set our future priorities. We have also published a number of analytical reports, both to support the development of guidelines and to look back at the impact of the Council over its first 10 years.

Our five-year strategy was born out of a consultation we held to mark our 10th anniversary in 2020. The anniversary presented us with an ideal time to take stock of our achievements and consider where we should focus our energies in the coming years. We consulted widely across the criminal justice system and with the public, seeking their thoughts on where our future priorities should lie. I am pleased to say that it is clear from their responses that the Council is seen as an important and integral part of criminal justice system.

The strategic objectives we have set ourselves, and which we published in November, reflect our commitment to fulfilling the duties set out for us in legislation: producing guidelines that provide the courts with a clear, fair and consistent approach to sentencing and promoting awareness and understanding of sentencing among victims, witnesses, offenders and the public.  

The objectives also reflect the views we received during the consultation process that the Council could add even more value by broadening the range of research and analysis it conducts and continuing to develop its programme of public engagement.  The consultation also reaffirmed the Council’s view that it was right to continue to place a consideration of matters relating to equality and diversity at the heart of its work.

In terms of guidelines, we started the year with our publication in January of revised guidelines for drug offences, which came into force in April. Since the previous guidelines came into force in 2012 new drugs had come onto the market, new offences had been created and our own research had shown that there were disparities in sentence outcomes for some drugs offences associated with ethnicity and sex.

Our new guidelines responded to these changes by reflecting modern drug offending and new offences and by drawing the court’s attention to the evidence of sentencing disparities in specific offences as an integral part of the sentencing process. The Council is committed to continuing to investigate apparent disparity in sentencing outcomes across all offences and to reviewing our work for any potential to cause disparity in sentencing across demographic groups.

During the year, we also published new guidelines for modern slavery offences. These offences include forced labour, slavery and human trafficking. Victims of these offences are exploited financially and can experience serious physical and psychological harm. They are sometimes invisible in the community, working under coercion and afraid to seek help for fear of reprisals from their controller. They could be unable or unwilling to give evidence in court. The new guidelines clarify how courts should approach sentencing such cases. 

Revised sentencing guidelines for assault offences were also published earlier in the year following evaluation of the previous guidelines, which came into force in 2011. The new guidelines, which came into force in July 2021, bring our assault guidelines up to date and reflect changes in legislation, including those introduced in 2018 to increase sentences for common assaults on emergency workers. We also revised the guideline for attempted murder, the most serious form of non-fatal assault, to ensure it reflects changes to legislation for sentences for murder where weapons are taken to the scene.

This year, we consulted on revised sentencing guidelines for offences such as arranging a child sex offence or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity. The revisions clarify what the courts should consider when sentencing offences where no actual child victim existed, for example in cases where the offender was arrested following a police or concerned citizens’ operation. Under the proposed guidelines judges would consider the actual or intended harm to a child when sentencing. We are currently considering the responses to the consultation and will publish the guidelines in 2022.

Parliament introduced changes to the maximum sentences for some terrorism offences including preparation of terrorism acts and membership of terrorist organisations, and introduced a new serious terrorism sentence. The Council is currently consulting on revisions to terrorism guidelines to reflect those changes and to clarify the sentencing of offences where law enforcement officers were involved either through surveillance or infiltration. Once we have considered the responses to the consultation, we will publish the revised guidelines next year.

During the summer, we also published several analytical reports to explore the impact of the Council in its first 10 years. This included work to look at consistency of sentencing and changes in sentencing severity, as well as work that drew on the attitudes of the judiciary to sentencing guidelines. In September we also published the findings from a small study to explore sentencers’ views of our Totality guideline.

These are just a few of the achievements we made in 2021. I am very proud of the way my fellow Council members and the staff of the Office of the Sentencing Council have adapted to new, virtual ways of working while continuing to deliver the important work of the Council.  It seems likely that 2022 will continue to bring challenges, but I am confident that in the year ahead we will be able to deliver a full work programme in line with the strategic objectives we have set.

With best wishes to all for Christmas and the new year.

Lord Justice Holroyde
Chairman of the Sentencing Council