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Last Updated: Monday, 19 June 2006, 17:59 GMT 18:59 UK
Baird apology for judge comments
Junior constitutional affairs minister Vera Baird
Vera Baird criticised Craig Sweeney's jail sentence
Government minister Vera Baird has been forced to apologise for suggesting that the judge in the Sweeney paedophile case got the sentencing "wrong".

Her comments had stoked the sentencing row after the lord chancellor said it was the system, not judge, at fault.

In another twist in the row, Attorney General Lord Goldsmith has said judges are not generally a "soft touch".

But he said there were question marks about certain cases and he would use his powers against "lenient" sentences.

I have complete confidence in your continuing role
Lord Falconer, Lord Chancellor in a letter to Vera Baird
Home Secretary John Reid provoked controversy when he suggested the sentence given to child sex offender Craig Sweeney was too lenient.

Sweeney, 24, was given a life sentence with an 18-year tariff after he admitted kidnapping a three-year-old girl from her home in Cardiff in January and sexually assaulting her.

This was reduced to 12 years because he pleaded guilty, and further reduced to 11 years to reflect the amount of time he had already spent in jail.

He will be eligible for parole when he has served half of his sentence.

'No right to parole'

Ms Baird told BBC Radio 4's Any Questions last week that while Sweeney was "not going anywhere for a long time" his sentence "should make people confident of that".

She said: "Now it seems to me that this judge has just got this formula wrong, so I'm critical of the judge for three reasons - one, starting too low; two, deducting too much for the guilty plea; and three, getting the formula wrong."

Her comments seemed at odds with the views of Lord Falconer, who earlier had said it was wrong for judges to become the "whipping boys" over flaws in the sentencing system.

I don't believe that in general judges are a soft touch
Lord Goldsmith

Now, in her apology letter to Lord Falconer, Ms Baird has said: "I should not have made those comments on the case following your statement outlining the position of the government.

"Accordingly I withdraw them and fully support the government's position both on this case and on the broader issues of sentencing and the sentencing framework."

Lord Falconer's reply, published by his department, said: "Your retraction and your clear commitment to the government's position brings this matter to an end.

"I have complete confidence in your continuing role."

Too lenient?

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith was also said to be unhappy during the sentencing row because of Mr Reid's intervention.

In his first public comments since the controversy broke, Lord Goldsmith said on Monday: "I don't believe that in general judges are a soft touch.

"I think there have been individual cases where there may be a question mark about them and that's where I will use my own powers to consider them if I think they're too lenient.

"And there may be individual crimes where the public thinks that perhaps we haven't all kept up in touch with public concern."

Lord Goldsmith said issues such as cutting sentences for criminals who pleaded guilty were being examined "urgently".

"But I think that it's also right to recognise that judges have to make decisions with the framework of sentencing and on the facts of the individual case," he said.

Lord Goldsmith said he would ask the Court of Appeal cases where he thought the sentence was too low.

And he suggested the way "life" or indefinite sentences were described also needed to be looked at.

"People are focussing upon what the minimum term is - which is only the earliest moment at which somebody could be released and not at when they might be released, as sometimes they might never released," he added.

Falconer backs judges in jail row
15 Jun 06 |  Politics

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