§ 1. Mr.Arbuthnot
To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the use of community service orders, with particular regard to their effectiveness and appropriate application.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)
The community service order is a sentence which should provide a realistic alternative to custody for serious offenders. Its use has more than doubled since 1979. We welcome this and would like to see a further increase in the number of community service orders made.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
Is my hon. Friend aware that, valuable as community service orders are, if they are breached by the offender they must be backed up and enforced by penalties more severe than community service, not less severe, otherwise they will be treated as a soft option, and an avoidable soft option at that, rather than the sensible and effective punishment that they could be?
§ Mr. Patten
My hon. Friend has put his finger right on the point, which it is critically important if we are to develop the use of community service orders, which are commonly held by Government and Opposition Members as well as by the general public to be effective and proper punishment. That means that anyone who is in breach of a community service order must be dealt with correctly by the courts. I assure my hon. Friend that I am conducting a survey on the imposition of community service orders and how they are carried out. If we find that there are any problems, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department and I will not hesitate to act.
§ Mr. Bermingham
Does the Minister agree that, as the effectiveness of community service as a sentence has been proved over many years, the time has come to consider the length of community service orders so as to develop them as yet a further alternative to imprisonment and thus decrease the number of offenders sent to either youth custody or imprisonment?
§ Mr. Patten
Mr. Speaker, I crave your indulgence. May I take this opportunity to apologise to the hon. Gentleman, for I fear that he thought that in a winding-up speech three Fridays ago, in a debate on crime prevention, I slighted him.
§ Mr. Patten
I wanted to do it publicly. It may have been wide, but I think it was handsome.
In response to the hon. Gentleman's question, I think that we could develop the community service order by increasing the periods, by introducing a greater element of reparation to the victim who has been offended against, and by having a concept of custody in the community rather than custody in prison. The order must be tough, demanding and respected by the victim and the general public.