HC Deb 10 December 1998 vol 322 cc503-41

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Home Affairs Committee of Session 1997–98, on Alternatives to Prison Sentences, HC486, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 4174; and the Home Office Departmental Annual Report 1998, Cm 3908.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £2,299,414,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, for or towards defraying the charge for the year ending on 31st March 2000 for expenditure by the Home Office on police; the Forensic Science Service; registration of forensic practitioners; emergency planning; fire services; the Fire Service College; criminal policy and programmes including offender programmes; the prevention of drug abuse; crime reduction and prevention; provision of services relating to the Crime and Disorder Act; criminal justice service research; criminal injuries compensation; organised and international crime; control of immigration and nationality; issue of passports; community and constitutional services; firearms compensation and related matters; and on administration (excluding the provision for prisons administration carried on Class IV, Vote 2).—[Mr. Boateng.]

4.51 pm
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

The interest of the Select Committee on Home Affairs in alternatives to prison arose from the single stark fact that, when we commenced our inquiry, the prison population appeared to be escalating out of control. It had risen from 43,000 in March 1993 to 65,000 in March this year, and was at that time predicted to rise to more than 80,000 in the next seven years.

A point had been reached when much of the undoubted progress of the past 20 years—in terms of providing constructive regimes, ending three to a cell and detaining convicted prisoners in police stations—was in jeopardy. We were moving back towards regimes that simply warehoused prisoners, rather than making any serious attempt to rehabilitate them or persuade them to confront their offending behaviour. Those in charge of the Prison Service were telling anyone who cared to listen that, if the prison population continued to rise at that rate, serious problems lay ahead.

So great was the concern among serious people that there came a moment during a debate in the House of Lords when three former Conservative Home Secretaries—the noble Lords Carr, Baker and Hurd, none of whom can be dismissed as a namby-pamby do-gooder—combined to challenge the then accepted wisdom that prison works. We took our cue from them.

For the avoidance of doubt, I must make it clear from the outset that none of us on the Select Committee is under any illusion about the need for prisons. All of us have constituents whose lives have been made miserable by crime. Some of us, particularly those who represent the less leafy areas of the country, have entire neighbourhoods devastated by criminal activity. We recognise that there are people—persistent criminals and those who engage in serious violence—for whom prison is the only appropriate solution. Nothing in our report is intended to suggest otherwise. I cannot stress that too strongly.

It would be foolish, however, not to recognise that the "prison works" philosophy has serious limitations. First, it is expensive. It costs an average of £24,000 a year to detain an adult prisoner, and double that to imprison a juvenile. It is arguable that the same amount of money invested differently could, in some cases, be spent a great deal more effectively to reduce reoffending among at least some of those now imprisoned.

Secondly, although prison self-evidently works as a form of containment, there is the difficulty that the overwhelming majority of prisoners will eventually be released back into the community, where a disappointingly high number of them simply pick up where they left off.

The point was eloquently made by the noble Lord Baker in the debate in the House of Lords to which I referred:

It was a mistake of the previous government to believe that just one phrase—prison works—was necessary. The phrase has a spurious and superficial logic. It is superficial because if a criminal is in prison, clearly he cannot be committing crime outside. It is spurious because it does not take into account … the fact that 99.9 per cent. of all criminals will one day be released. Society will then find that prisons do not work."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 March 1998; Vol. 587, c. 1244.] If we are to stand any chance of reforming those whom it is necessary to imprison, it is essential that we construct regimes where prisoners are obliged to confront their offending behaviour, and that we do not simply use our prisons as warehouses. That cannot be done if the efforts of the Prison Service to provide constructive regimes are simply overwhelmed by the need to cope with ever-increasing numbers.

That was the background to our inquiry. Our purpose was to discover whether credible alternatives to imprisonment existed that were both sufficiently rigorous and at least as successful—and preferably more—in rehabilitating offenders.

Those from whom we took evidence included representatives of the Prison Service, the police and the probation service. We saw the Lord Chief Justice, the Magistrates Association, Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons and the inspectorate of probation as well as representatives of voluntary agencies that work with offenders, in and out of prison.

I was anxious that those who take the view that prison works should be given an opportunity to state their case. We therefore took written and oral evidence from Mr. Peter Coad and Mr. David Fraser, retired senior probation officers, and Professor Ken Pease, a criminologist. In addition, we visited a variety of probation and other projects around the country in search of examples of best practice that we could commend. We visited projects in Manchester, Greenock, Dumbarton, Bolton, Burnley, Tyneside, Teesside, Blackburn, London and the Thames valley.

With two exceptions, all those witnesses who expressed a view argued that the present prison population was too large and that ways should be found of reducing it. The exceptions were the Police Superintendents Association and Mr. Peter Coad and his colleagues. They argued that the fall in crime in recent years could be ascribed wholly or mainly to increased use of imprisonment.

Mr. Coad and his colleagues went further, and argued that the reoffending rates for most, if not all, of those on probation or serving a community service order were as bad as or worse than the rates for those who had served a prison sentence. They alleged that the probation service had for many years misled Parliament and the public about the effectiveness of their work, and advocated an increase in the prison population to whatever level was necessary to protect the public from criminality. Mr. Coad and Mr. Fraser told us that that would entail a prison population of 200,000, "to begin with".

Professor Pease, sensing perhaps that Mr. Coad had been a little too frank, hastily suggested a further increase of no more than 10,000—a figure which on present trends will soon be exceeded. At that point, I felt—I believe that I speak for the entire Committee—that their evidence fell apart. We unanimously rejected the suggestion that a prison population of 200,000—three times the existing record level—was either feasible or desirable.

Although prison has some impact, I do not accept that the recent fall in crime can be solely, or even mainly, attributed to the rise in the prison population. There are a variety of factors. One is a general improvement in the quality of policing, which is certainly the case in Sunderland. Another, and surely the most significant, is the fact that unemployment has fallen by 40 per cent. over the past five years.

With the possible exception of the previous Home Secretary, I do not know anyone who believes that there is no connection between unemployment and crime, although that is obviously not the only connection. Hon. Members who represent areas such as mine and those represented by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends would have had to drop off a Christmas tree from a great height not to notice a connection between unemployment and crime.

Having said that, there is a significant respect in which the Committee found itself in agreement with the analysis of Mr. Coad and his colleagues. There is no doubt—Her Majesty's inspector of probation acknowledged this—that the probation service went through a period some years ago when many probation officers came to regard the offender, not the taxpayer, as their client. I am glad that those days are behind us, but I cannot stress too strongly that, if a sceptical public are to be convinced that there are credible alternatives to imprisonment, they will also need to be persuaded that those who supervise offenders in the community have their interests—not those of the offender—in the forefront of their minds.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee for giving way on that matter. Mr. Peter Coad indeed made the case that, given the number of offences that had been committed, 200,000 people should be locked up. I had some sympathy with some of the points that he was making. However, in the Government's response to our report, which was published this week, the Home Secretary said:

It is for the courts to decide the appropriate sentence in any individual case … The Prison Service then has a duty to keep in custody those sentenced to prison. If the courts decide that a custodial sentence is required, and that 200,000 people fit that bill, will the Prison Service not have to provide those places?

Mr. Mullin

Yes. The burden of our report, to which the hon. Gentleman subscribes—it was approved unanimously—is that there are, if we look for them, credible and effective alternatives to imprisonment, and that, if sentencers look for them, they too might find such alternatives. I entirely accept, however, that, if someone has committed a crime that merits a prison sentence and for which there is no effective and credible alternative, to prison he must go.

The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say a moment ago that there was one significant respect in which the Committee found itself in agreement with Mr. Coad's analysis: it is the point that I made a moment ago about the past role of the probation service.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

When we were going around the country and talking to sentencers, it soon became obvious that very few of them had sufficient knowledge of the alternatives to prison—even of schemes in their areas that have turned people away from reoffending and shown them how their lives could be worth while. That shows that, where there is knowledge and belief, the schemes are extremely valuable. We are not talking about allowing people to walk away from the court because they are not sent to prison.

Mr. Mullin

My hon. Friend is right. One of the problems is that none of us is sufficiently aware of the alternatives. In the past, some of the alternatives were not sufficiently rigorous to justify their being called alternatives. Happily, that is now beginning to change. I accept that a precondition of reducing the prison population is that there must be credible alternatives. It is not sufficient for those who favour a reduction in the use of imprisonment simply to assert that community service and other alternatives are at least as, or more, effective. That must be shown by reference to empirical evidence.

The Committee was surprised to discover that, of the 267 projects examined by the probation inspectorate as part of its "what works" project—an important piece of work—only 33 could provide serious evidence of the outcomes. That is not necessarily a criticism of the type of programme, but if one wants to sell that programme, however good it may be, and the outcome cannot be demonstrated, the programme deserves criticism. Of the 33 projects that could provide evidence of the outcome, in only four cases did the research demonstrate credible examples of good practice.

We welcome the fact that the probation service now recognises that problem, and is taking steps to deal with it. However, if community service is to be promoted as a credible alternative to imprisonment—I believe that in many cases it is—it must be supported by hard evidence, not by assertion.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

There is one point on which I have seen no research. Obviously, it is possible to look at whether a disposal other than imprisonment has a better outcome for a certain group, but in respect of people on the margin of being sent to prison, is there much evidence to show whether being sent to prison has such an outcome? The alternative does not necessarily have to be probation or community service; simply sending such people to prison may be worse than not sending them to prison.

Mr. Mullin

I am not entirely sure that I understand the hon. Gentleman's point—I am sure that it is my fault rather than his. It may help him if I deal with some of the specific areas that the Committee examined.

We looked at a pilot project on electronic tagging, which has been operating in Manchester since 1995. Similar experiments are under way in other parts of the country. Although there were some initial teething troubles, we were glad to note that those appeared to have been overcome and that tagging was likely to come into general use next year.

Curfew orders enforced by electronic monitoring could have two applications. First, they could be used as a sentence available to the courts for someone who would otherwise be sent to prison, and could be combined with a probation or a community service order. Secondly, a home detention curfew order could be used as a condition of parole for shorter-term prisoners. It has been estimated—indeed, I believe that it is the Government's intention—that that could free 3,000 prison places a year in the medium term.

The key to the success of electronic tagging is enforcement. The technology enables the slightest breach to be registered. When a serious breach occurs, it is important that the offender understands that consequences will follow swiftly. In most cases, the logical consequence of a serious failure to comply with a curfew order is imprisonment. We shall watch with interest the rigour with which curfew orders are enforced.

We examined programmes of intensive probation. Of particular interest was the model based on the so-called Dordrecht initiative, which we visited in Burnley. That programme concentrated on the 100 or so most persistent offenders in the town. Many of them had served repeated terms of imprisonment, which had had no impact on their offending behaviour. To qualify for a place on the programme, each offender had to show a serious intent to reform. The programme offered them help to reconstruct often chaotic life styles by providing access to drug or alcohol rehabilitation, education, training and, one hopes, in due course, work.

We were impressed by the dedication of those running the programme, one of whom was a police officer. He told me that it was a pleasure to be involved in the project, because, instead of locking up the same old people time after time, it held out the prospect of addressing the roots of the problem. He found the work very satisfying, and we were impressed with him and his colleagues. At the time of our visit, it was too early to evaluate the programme, but we believe that it has every chance of success.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I am a member of the Select Committee. Does my hon. Friend agree that the visits we made and the documentary evidence we received made us aware of the persistent anti-social behaviour of many people on probation? In the past, some aspects of the probation service have been criticised. I have not done so, because I worked with the service for two weeks in 1973 and I recognise the tremendous difficulties that probation staff face when dealing with people with a history of anti-social behaviour, who have often been in and out of prison. It is not an easy job, and I imagine that no one in the House would want to undertake probation work.

Mr. Mullin

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. I take it as read that those who work with offenders often have to deal with extremely difficult customers, so we should not be surprised if there are some failures. We must acknowledge the dedication of people who work with offenders. We saw some impressive work in the many projects that we visited around the country.

We examined the extent to which probation and community service orders are enforced. The first thing to be said is that the available statistics in this area are inadequate. According to Home Office research, about 70 per cent. of such orders are successfully completed. It is far from clear what happens to those who fail to turn up. We were told that it can take between three weeks and two months to return to court an offender in breach of an order, and that the police do not attach high priority to tracking down those who fail to respond to court orders.

It goes without saying that the credibility of community service and probation orders is fatally undermined if those who decline to co-operate go unpunished. The Committee recommended that an experiment should be conducted to see whether civil enforcement agencies could be used more effectively. I welcome the Government's response that, as soon as an opportunity arises, legislation will be introduced to give effect to that recommendation.

Several members of the judiciary remarked to us that they regretted the recent restrictions on the use of the suspended sentence, which they regarded as one of the more effective tools in their armoury. I am glad to note from the Government's response to our report that Ministers are considering the use of suspended sentences, in conjunction with community service orders.

Our report should not be seen in isolation; it should be seen merely as a further step along the road to a criminal justice system that is more effective in protecting the public and reducing criminality. In particular, it should be seen alongside the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which has greatly increased the number of options available to the police and the courts when they deal with youth crime. Until the Act, our criminal justice system had become virtually ineffective against young criminals, and that, more than any other factor, has undermined public confidence in non-custodial sentences. I welcome all that the Government have done so far to speed up youth justice and render it more effective: I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary takes the issue seriously.

There is another issue, however, which we have hardly begun to tackle. It requires co-ordinated action by several Departments, not just the Home Office. I refer to diversion: diverting vulnerable young people away from criminal activity. When the former permanent secretary at the Home Office appeared before the Select Committee a few years ago—he has now gone on to more exalted things, if it is possible to become more exalted than permanent secretary at the Home Office—I asked him how much of the Home Office budget was spent on diversion. It became clear through our exchanges that he did not know what I was talking about; but the following year, when he returned, there was a paragraph in the Home Office annual report headed "Diversion". We make progress, but slowly.

At present, we spend far too much on locking people up after they have become criminals, and not nearly enough on diverting vulnerable young people from criminal life styles. The expenditure of relatively small sums could prevent us from having to spend much larger sums further down the line. During our inquiry, we visited a project called "Youth Works" in Blackburn, the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. We were told that the project cost about £180,000 a year to run, and that it provided a large number of vulnerable young people—who would otherwise be hanging around the streets in a high-crime area with nothing to do—with constructive activities outside school hours.

On the Pennywell estate in my constituency, there is a scheme called "Break-out", which helps to occupy nearly 700 vulnerable youngsters. It costs about £60,000 a year, the cost of locking up one juvenile for 18 months. The moral of the story is obvious, yet most of the money has to be begged, and those who run such excellent schemes rarely know where their funds will come from more than a few months in advance.

Miss Melanie Johnson (Welwyn Hatfield)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the work of the social exclusion unit may become particularly relevant to the problems that he is raising? I am thinking especially of children who are even younger than those of whom he is speaking. The all-party parenting group was recently given a presentation by the head of a unit for teenage mothers, which has a nursery unit for the women's young children attached to it. She said that she already felt certain that some of those children were tomorrow's criminals. In trying to divert people from a criminal life style, we need to consider the whole age span.

Mr. Mullin

I subscribe to all that my hon. Friend has said. The earlier we start, the better are our chances of diverting young people from a life that could lead to crime. In that context, I am worried by the trend towards excluding more children from school. Unless we get to grips with the problem, we shall build up great difficulties for the future.

As I have said, our report should not be seen in isolation. It should be seen alongside the Crime and Disorder Act, and the Government's literacy and numeracy programme. All that is relevant to our attempts to build a cohesive society, and to reverse the awful trends that have set in over the past 20 or 30 years.

I return to diversion, although I shall not dwell on the subject; strictly speaking, it is a matter for another inquiry on another day. I just say that, if we are serious about tackling the causes of crime as well as the symptoms, much more attention must be paid to helping to divert vulnerable young people before they become criminals, rather than picking up the pieces after it is too late.

As I have said, the report is unanimous. I hope that it marks the formal end of the "prison works" philosophy; indeed, it probably died on the day in March this year when those three former Conservative Home Secretaries repudiated it in the House of Lords. However, I accept that the burden of proving that our prison population is too high lies with those who want to reduce it.

The public are entitled to expect that non-custodial sentences are sufficiently robust to leave offenders in no doubt about the seriousness of their offending, and to reduce the possibility of repetition. Everyone from the Home Secretary and Lord Chief Justice downwards has a part to play in that.

The probation service must never lose sight of the fact that it represents the public, not the offender. Judges and magistrates must, for their part, show a greater willingness, where appropriate, to pass non-custodial sentences and to acquaint themselves with the range of possibilities that are on offer. The media, too, have an important role to play.

Every week in my local newspaper, one reads stories that so-and-so "walked free" from court with "only" 200 hours of community service. Two hundred hours of community service could, if it were sufficiently rigorous, be much more beneficial than a six-month prison sentence.

Finally, all responsible politicians should help to prepare public opinion for a reduction in the prison population by calmly drawing attention to the consequences of continuing to fill our prisons to bursting point and to the existence of credible and effective alternatives. I commend the report to the House.

5.17 pm
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

As always, I begin by declaring an interest as a recorder of the Crown court and as an acting metropolitan stipendiary magistrate.

It was a privilege to be on the Select Committee and to take part in the publication of the report. One of the pleasures of being on a Select Committee is that one operates in what is effectively a non-party political way, discussing, in this case, a difficult, serious and important subject without anyone having to score political points but with members doing their best to put in their few pennyworth. The subject of the report is, indeed, a difficult subject: we have been a civilised country for hundreds of years, yet the crime rate keeps going up, and the debate about whether custody stops people committing crime will go on and on.

Not one of us on the Select Committee or in the House has all the answers, and it is difficult to find anyone who really knows exactly what to do when it comes to the twin duties of protecting society and promoting the welfare of the offender—if one can do that, because it is an almost possible task.

I pause to say, in passing, that we all acknowledge that, in the last five years of the last Conservative Government, crime fell dramatically. The then Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), rightly received much congratulation on that. However, the prison population went up. Who in their right mind believes that a very high prison population is, of itself, a good thing? I do not, but who would say that courts must sentence people to community service and other penalties if they believe that prisons are getting too full? The right punishment must be imposed in every case, so there are competing factors. As I say, it is extremely difficult to reach any solid conclusions.

The Committee took evidence from people who said that probation works, because the reoffending rate of those on probation is lower than that of those coming out of prison. I am not sure that any statistic can ever establish that fact to one's certain satisfaction, because statistics do not tell the full truth. The short answer—it must be right—is that a prison sentence will work much better with some offenders than with others. Equally, a community penalty or a probation order will be highly effective with some offenders. It depends on the individual case.

1 should like to dwell on four different nuts-and-bolts issues, and to bring them to the Minister's attention. The Minister has had a distinguished career at the Bar and—I know for a fact—takes a great interest in the subject. I am sure that he will be concerned about and interested in today's debate.

The first issue is community sentences, especially community service orders. Although the public have the misconception that community service orders are not tough, they can be very tough indeed. The missing element in such sentences is enforceability and proceedings on breach. From my experience I can tell the Minister that, quite often, people come before the court for breach of a community service order simply because they have not turned up—they have overslept, not felt like it or not bothered. What can the court do? Magistrates courts have a problem.

Technically, magistrates courts can imprison if the offence for which the community service order was passed was imprisonable; but that does not often happen. Quite often, the original offence was deemed not so serious that only a custodial sentence could be justified, but serious enough to warrant a community penalty. Magistrates generally are quite reluctant to exercise even their limited power to imprison. The court is then left to tackle someone who has breached a community service order with a fine or another community service order. The subsequent impression is that the offender has walked out of court without having faced the music, and that is a problem. The situation is even worse if the original offence was not imprisonable, because then breach of a community service order cannot result in the passing of a custodial sentence.

What is to be done? The Committee's report urges the Government to toughen up the provisions: to get those who are breaching community service orders into court more quickly—that is terribly important—and, once they are there, to have truly effective sanctions. In that regard, there is a very strong argument for the Government's considering introducing a new offence—breach of a community service order—for which one goes to prison.

I should tell the Minister that, when a United Kingdom court disqualifies someone from driving, that person is told: "You are disqualified from driving. If you breach that disqualification, you will be charged with it, and you will almost certainly go to prison." How good it would be to be able to say that when passing a community service order. I hope that we will get to that stage.

The second issue that I wish to raise is that of suspended sentences. Those who have the responsibility of passing suspended sentences have felt that such sentences are an extremely useful tool. In 1991, 28,000 suspended prison sentences were passed. However, subsequent legislation made it very difficult to pass such sentences, which could be used only in exceptional circumstances. The Court of Appeal has said that the "exceptional circumstances" are very narrow indeed. For my part, I cannot remember passing one suspended sentence in the past two years, because I could not think of any circumstances that were exceptional. However, I should have liked to do so on a number of occasions.

Among those giving evidence to the Committee were Mr. Allan Berg, a stipendiary magistrate from Manchester; Mr. Tim Workman, a stipendiary from London; and others, including court clerks and members of the lay bench. They all felt that suspended sentences were a really useful tool in a sentencer's armoury.

When should a suspended sentence be imposed? The Minister may say that it would not be easy to specify criteria in statute or to alter the current criteria, and I appreciate that. Equally, he may say that it would be allowing sentencers too wide a discretion to suspend a sentence when they felt it appropriate to do so. If there is confidence in our sentences, there is a good argument for bringing back the suspended sentence. It keeps out of prison some people who do not have to go there; it enables the court to take into account certain important factors; and it can be a tough threat hanging over someone's head.

Miss Melanie Johnson

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that suspended sentences may be an effective tool to prevent the problem of fine defaulters serving prison sentences, which is covered in the report?

Mr. Malins

I was coming to that. The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. Leaving a threat hanging over someone's head can be good, and could be more widely used for fine defaulters. The hon. Lady was not on the Select Committee at the time of our report, but she has made some good contributions since becoming a member. She is a welcome addition and is welcome in the Chamber today.

I shall be slightly controversial on the important subject of fines. The report talks about the problem of collecting fines, which is clearly not well done. Huge amounts are outstanding. For those who sit in the magistrates court, the pain of the week—it happens at least once a week—is sitting in the means court going through the outstanding fines to see what can be done. Sometimes it is easiest to remit the lot and go home early.

We have got ourselves into a mess on the procedure for collecting fines in our courts. Only three or four years ago, the person on the bench in such a case could say within seconds, "I believe this is culpable neglect or wilful refusal. Go to prison." It was common to say to a fine defaulter, "You owe £50. How much money do you have on you?" "Not a thing," would come the reply. "Very well," the sentencer would say, "How are you going to pay the £50?" "I'll pay a pound a week," the defaulter would reply. "That's not very good," the sentencer would say. "I'm thinking of sending you to prison for quite a long time. I'll tell you what. I've got a very busy morning. You can go down to the cells and I'll consider the case this afternoon and consider the nature of the sentence. Take him down to the cells, gaoler; do allow him two phone calls." The money would arrive by lunch time.

The courts have made a rod for their own back, because as the Minister knows, the sentencers can no longer approach the issue in that fashion. They have to go through the various possibilities. Issuing a distress warrant is ineffective. A deduction from income support is cumbersome and expensive, and the paperwork is complicated. As for a monetary payment supervision order, one can barely spell it, let alone decide how to work it. An attachment of earnings order? Well, who is earning anything in the court? Certainly not the stipendiaries sitting. Other possibilities include making an attendance centre order if the defaulter is under 25 or taking enforcement action in the High court.

Before prison can be considered, the whole checklist has to be gone through and reasons given why none of the measures is effective. No wonder those who handle the means courts scratch their heads and think, "Mmm. This isn't working very well."

It is important that fines should be at a sensible level. A young man in London needs his wheels to get around the city. A lot of young men have cars. The value may be £150 at most, but they need their wheels. I understand that. It is important and fair. By all means they should get the car insured, because if they do not they are in big trouble. However, the magistrates' guidelines tend to suggest that the fine for non-insurance of a motor car should be £400 to £700. I am afraid that too many benches—I exempt the stipendiaries—impose fines of £500, £600 or £700 for non-insurance on people who are on benefit and have not got a bean. That is hopeless.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend's extremely effective and interesting speech, but is not driving a car without insurance one of the most anti-social criminal offences? Crashing into someone in a car that is not insured has terrible consequences, and the courts are right to visit heavy penalties on those who misbehave in that way.

Mr. Malins

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right and he has great experience of these matters—[Interruption]—not of driving uninsured—far from it—but in the courts. Driving uninsured is a serious offence.

Many young people need their cars. They own bangers worth £200 or £300 and it is vital that they have insurance. However, it is ludicrous to fine them £600 that they do not have. In my view they should be fined £100 and disqualified from driving for a good long time. They should be banned for six to nine months and sentenced to community service. We should take driving uninsured seriously, but we must not overload the fine system. That would avoid the terrible problems involved in collection. I hope that the courts will bear that in mind.

I have covered suspended sentences, fines and enforcement of community service. As everyone who spoke to the Committee said, drugs are the biggest problem in the criminal justice system. I have heard such cases day after day, involving, for example, a young man of 25 who burgles and steals to raise money to fund his heroin habit and for no other reason. These young people—they are generally men—have had it by the age of 25. Their lives are ruined. There seems to be nothing that one can do—or is there? I give the Government credit for being well-intentioned in respect of drug treatment and testing orders, but I am not sure that they go far enough. We shall have to keep a careful eye on the matter.

An awful lot of young people who are on drugs may say, "I would like to get off them, but I just can't do it." They may have tried two or three times, but they cannot stop themselves. What is to be done? Someone in that position may have a drug treatment and testing order made against them. That is a community order under the Criminal Justice Act 1991 requiring someone to submit to treatment in such institution as may be specified.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Is that mandatory even if the offender is not in agreement with the treatment order?

Mr. Malins

I do not think so. I think that there has to be an element of consent. No doubt I shall be corrected by the Minister. Under a drug treatment and testing order, the court says that the defendant must go and be treated.

Let us pause a moment here. I am not quite so worried about the person before the magistrates court, or possibly the Crown court, who is dabbling in drugs and sometimes causes problems. A drug treatment and testing order may be very good for such a person. I am more worried by the hard man of 25 who is a burglar. He burgles people's houses at midnight. He has committed a serious offence that requires custody. He is part of a gang of four and has carried out a heavy domestic burglary at midnight. It may be his fifth such burglary in the past six years, six months or even five days.

It is difficult to impose a drug testing order on a hardened criminal. Where should he be sent? I would not be happy to send him to a probation hostel, as it is not secure enough. What about hospital? Can anyone tell me where he should go? There is nowhere. The problem is where to put a heavy criminal to ensure that he is absolutely secure.

In our deliberations on the Crime and Disorder Bill, as it then was, I floated a new clause in an attempt to solve that problem. The measure would have put heavy drug takers in a drug-free secure prison—almost like a hospital—in which they could be treated. It would have been like saying: "Defendant, you have an option. You can do five years in Wormwood Scrubs for this domestic burglary or you can do 18 months' hard in the drug rehabilitation centre, which is like a prison and from which you can't get out." The idea did not get far, but I was flagging up the problem of people who are into drugs and are so dangerous that they cannot easily be given a non-custodial sentence. The Home Affairs Committee was united in the view that drugs were the big issue affecting us all in the criminal justice world.

It was a privilege to sit on the Committee. Many people are doing their best, but there are no straightforward answers. All members were impressed by some of the projects we saw. We came to the conclusion that diversion was good, and that some of the projects might be effective. We emerged knowing that prison would always be essential for many criminals, but we were given some hope by the fact that innovation and energy were being well directed to young people, who face much greater problems than we ever did. If such innovation, energy, interest and diversion are promoted hard, we will move—albeit slowly—down the right road.

5.37 pm
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

The most haunting statement in the Home Affairs Committee's marvellous report—I ask members of the Committee to forgive me for not concentrating on the main thrust of their valuable recommendations, which I hope will be implemented—comes from the evidence of the chief inspector of prisons, who said that 70 per cent. of women prisoners should not be in prison. He gave the example of a woman who was sent to prison for three years for misbehaving in Trafalgar square—a minor offence.

There is evidence of an enormous drugs problem in women's prisons. Although we do not have a system of capital punishment, two women died this year as a direct result, I believe, of their experiences in prison. Their relatives are happy for me to give their names: one was Josie O'Dwyer and the other was Emma Humphreys.

The enormous drugs problem in prisons has entirely unexpected effects. In a letter dated 22 October, Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Minister with responsibility for prisons, told me that the National Addiction Centre had found, in the only serious attempt to discover the effects of the mandatory drug testing system, that

Four per cent. of their sample of drug misusers had experimented with heroin for the first time because of MDT".

That is a rather surprising conclusion. We know from anecdotal evidence—not from prison governors but from prisoners themselves—that, because of the mandatory drug test, there is a move from soft, relatively harmless, non-addictive illegal drugs to deadly, addictive drugs.

Mr. Corbett

In prison.

Mr. Flynn

Yes, in prison.

The two unfortunate women, Josie O'Dwyer and Emma Humphreys, died as a result not of illegal drugs, however, but of medicinal drugs. To improve key performance indicators, prison governors can wean prisoners from relatively harmless drugs such as cannabis—which has never been known to kill anyone—and put them on killer drugs.

Emma Humphreys, who was abused throughout her life, became addicted to chloral hydrate in prison. She was released from prison when her sentence was judged to be unfair because of the foul abuse that she had suffered at the hands of a partner. She died in August this year, before she reached her 31st birthday, and her relatives are convinced that her death was due to her addiction to a medicinal drug that she acquired in prison.

On the final day of her life, Josie O'Dwyer took a list of drugs—I believe there were 13 in all—which I recorded in an early-day motion towards the end of the previous Session; it was an incredible cocktail of medicinal drugs that would have been enough to kill her many times over. Again, that woman was taking those drugs in prison.

Such is the regime of sedation in women's prisons that, on 13 August this year, there was a riot in Holloway—not because the women did not have their drugs, but because the drugs were delivered late. Three members of staff had flu that they had given to one another, and someone had to be brought in from outside to give the drugs. For a short period—a matter of a few hours—prisoners were without their sedation, which caused them to set fire to the bedding and the clothing within the hospital. We have a regime in prison which depends on women prisoners being sedated for most of the time.

By the time they get to prison, many young women have been abused in some way—by their partners, by society, by the care system or by their parents. A common reaction to abuse is self-mutilation. The almost universal medicine—it is a traditional, knee-jerk prescription—for such young women is largactol, a neuroleptic drug given to those who are deeply psychotic. The drug is used in other situations with which my hon. Friend the Minister will be familiar from his previous job.

Those young women form a special group in prison and, in the cruel jargon of prison, they are known as "muppets" because they walk in a funny way. These young women are not just damaged in prison, but probably their health has been damaged for life. The Committee recognised the importance of providing alternatives to prison and the probation programme which tackle the problems presented by women's programmes specifically. The Government have agreed with the Committee that the needs of women offenders should be effectively and systematically addressed.

I would commend to all hon. Members a book written by Angela Devlin called "Invisible Women", published in June of this year, about women in prisons. I challenge anyone not to feel moved and horrified by the evidence it provides of what has been created within women's prisons—not just by medicinal drugs, but particularly by illegal drugs. There are regimes of bullying and gangsterism in prison, and examples of horrific inhumanity of man and woman to women. Drugs are the currency of prisons, and the flow of the drugs coming into prisons is out of control. The searches carried out on women in prison are bestial and foul, and disgrace the name of this country. Many women's prisons can be described rightly as gulags, rather than the areas of solace, asylum and care that we would rather think them to be.

I look forward to the next report on the subject, and I am sure that the Committee will look in more detail at the subject. I am sure that we shall see an improvement—despite the rather complacent Government reaction. Governments always say, "Yes, there is a problem, but it is not as bad as it used to be and we are tackling it." They are not tackling it with sufficient speed.

Another of the Committee's recommendations is that handing out community sentences is an effective way in which to reduce prisoners' drug habits in the long term and to protect the public. Of course that can be done—it is being done elsewhere—but extraordinary situations can arise, such as the two separate cases in Gwent in which two offenders were found guilty of very serious offences for the second or third time, and told the court that they had become addicted to heroin in prison and that if they went back they would become addicted again, because more heroin is available in prison than on the streets of Gwent.

On those two separate occasions, the two different courts decided that the offenders should not go to prison. That is a sensible and civilised outcome, but hon. Members can imagine the howl from the tabloid press, saying that drug addicts can get out of going to prison. Certainly, the cost to society and to the individuals involved would have been far greater had they gone to prison.

I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister, who has deep knowledge of these matters, not to follow the traditional course of Governments, who are addicted to their daily fix of tabloid admiration by promoting policies that appear to be tough. I get tired of reading press releases on law and order from the Government and from the previous Government in which one can hardly get to the third or fourth sentence without finding the word "tough".

I ask the Government to study the report and come up with intelligent policies, instead of retreating to the comfort blanket of daily adoration from the tabloid press.

5.47 pm
Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Clearly, the best alternative to prison sentences is for people not to be put in the position of facing a prison sentence in the first place. The soundbite of being tough on the causes of crime deserves better than to be abandoned now that it has served its pre-election purpose.

I welcome the report. As one of the Committee's members, I stress the fact that every recommendation had unanimous, all-party support. I fear that Parliament is failing to address the need to formulate linked policies that will help to create a society in which there is less crime, and consequently less need even to consider sending so many people to prison.

As the Chairman of the Select Committee said, the need to gaol some people for serious and repeat offences is not at issue, but the record number of prisoners that was reached earlier this year is unacceptable. The statement in the Government's response that

Prison should be used only where necessary is to be welcomed. How will that message be conveyed to the courts?

I am in favour of joined-up government: matters affecting our daily lives should not be put into self-contained compartments, and there should be more understanding and consideration of how decisions in one area will affect activities elsewhere. Government and society generally need to adopt an holistic approach.

What will be the Government's definition of success regarding the statement that Labour will be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime? Being tough on crime presumably means that more people will end up in prison, while being tough on the causes of crime suggests that fewer people will drift into a life of crime. The prison population has increased by more than 5,000 in the past year; does the Minister agree that that suggests that the Government are failing to deliver on their promise to be tough on the causes of crime?

Apart from some of the former communist countries, Britain has a higher proportion of its population in prison than anywhere else in Europe: nearly 120 in every 100,000. I know that the Government want the United Kingdom to play a leading role in the European Union, but is the Minister proud of the fact that we are the current champions of the European prison league and are set to retain the title for the foreseeable future?

It is not an exaggeration to say that our prison system is in crisis. Paradoxically, it is a growth industry, and career prospects seem good—for prison staff, at any rate. The Home Secretary's millennium project appears to be to build several more prisons at £60 million a time to accommodate the unacceptably large numbers being sent to prison. No doubt those involved in the private prison sector, and promoters of the private finance initiative, are enthusiastically urging the Government to follow the example of the American privatised prisons. I suggest that we would do better to adopt what Finland has done in recent years to reduce its prison population while keeping crime levels in check.

In the past five years, the UK prison population has increased by more than 50 per cent., from 43,200 to 66,273 as at 4 December. It is good news that the previous estimate of a prison population of more than 82,000 by 2005 has recently been revised downwards, but even if next year's predicted figure of 63,200 proves correct, it will still leave Britain with a prison population out of step with most other developed countries. That is an appalling situation, and we must all endeavour to rectify it.

On financial grounds alone, the House should be united in wanting to see fewer people being sent to prison. In 1997–98, the annual average cost of keeping someone in prison was £23,000, which is a terrible waste of public money when one considers the cheaper and better alternatives to prison for people who receive relatively short sentences. That figure is not the true cost, but only the amount that comes from the Prison Service budget. To be added to that figure are any housing and social security benefits to which prisoners' families may be entitled, miscellaneous other costs and the loss of taxes and other contributions to the Exchequer that someone not in prison would pay if he or she had a job. For those in young offenders institutions, the cost soars to more than £30,000 a year for each person in custody.

The huge increase in the number of young people ending up in prison is especially worrying. From 1996 to 1997, the number increased by 12 per cent. to an average 10,800 over the year. In the same period, the number of women prisoners rose by 19 per cent., to 2,680. Currently, 53 babies are in prison with their mothers.

The evidence shows that prison is not working. The Home Affairs Committee's report addresses the need to tackle the prison time-bomb, and I had hoped that the Government would accept all the unanimous recommendations in the Committee's report. I am keen to see suspended sentences, curfew orders and electronic tagging for those who are convicted of less serious crimes and who are not a danger to society. I also feel that the introduction of criminal work orders—a title that more accurately reflects the reason why someone is doing the task that he or she has been directed by the courts to undertake, instead of the somewhat cosy-sounding community sentence, which implies some involvement with a voluntary organisation—would be another alternative to prison that should be developed, but to be credible they must be enforced stringently.

I am disappointed by the Government's negative response to the concept of weekend prisons, as unanimously recommended by the Committee. I urge the Minister to take an enlightened and positive step forward and introduce, as soon as possible, a pilot scheme to see how that innovative idea would work, as suggested by Sir David Ramsbotham, the chief inspector of prisons.

Mr. Mullin

The Committee recommended only that the Government consider weekend prisons, because the idea has serious logistical problems.

Mr. Russell

The Chairman of the Committee is correct, and that is borne out in the report and the Government's response. No one is saying that weekend prisons are an easy solution, but the Government should undertake a pilot scheme based on the suggestions from the chief inspector of prisons. Some of those who receive short prison sentences lose their jobs as a result. Their families then require housing and other benefits and, on release, the former prisoners often have difficulty finding work, with the consequence that they and their dependants continue to draw benefits. The public purse loses all round, and society has an ex-prisoner who may be tempted back into criminal ways.

As an alternative to full-time prison, someone who it is felt should still receive a short custodial sentence could be ordered to serve it at weekends, when his or her loss of liberty would arguably be most keenly felt. In that way, the individual could keep working and paying his or her way in the community. A criminal who might otherwise be gaoled for 28 days, could be sentenced to serve 14 weekends from Friday evening to Sunday teatime, undertaking rehabilitation, retraining, environmental projects or other constructive activities under the auspices of the Prison Service. Most people would regard the loss of 14 weekends as more of a punishment than serving 28 days consecutively.

Our overcrowded prisons are universities of crime. Prisoners are locked up for hours on end with opportunities for education, work, rehabilitation and recreation periods reduced because of past spending cuts. The consequence is that many prisoners return to society better trained as criminals than when they went to gaol. More leave prison addicted to drugs, and more leave with AIDS than arrived with it. Prison suicides have increased. There have been 74 self-inflicted deaths this year—more than in each of the past three years. Does the Minister think that prison is the right place for the estimated 28,000 prisoners who suffer from mental health or drugs problems?

The amount of what is called purposeful activity provided for prisoners has fallen to less than 24 hours a week on average. What plans does the Minister have to reverse the cuts? Does he agree that one of the best ways to reduce reoffending is to develop constructive regimes in prisons, with the focus on rehabilitation, retraining, education and work? Will he give an assurance that, after years of cuts by the previous Government, the probation service will be given the necessary resources for the critical role that it has to play?

Up to 90,000 offenders are released from custody into the community every year. Some 53 per cent. are reconvicted within two years, but the figure for young offenders is 75 per cent. and for juveniles, 89 per cent. The alternatives to prison sentences advanced by the Home Affairs Committee would result in fewer people going to gaol in the first place, and I am confident that they would lead to less reoffending.

The most effective long-term alternative to prison sentences is for the Government to adopt an holistic approach, especially to young people. Some 50 per cent. of known offenders are under 21, and 70 per cent. of adult offenders were convicted of a criminal offence before they were 21. The knowledge that most of those in prison committed their first offence before their 21st birthday makes it imperative that measures are taken to prevent youngsters from taking those first steps on the criminal ladder.

To target youth crime, however, we need to do more than deal with the situation when it arises, which is a classic example of looking at a situation in isolation. Slicing up life into compartments is a recipe for creating conditions in which criminal activity will result. An obvious example is housing. Bad housing is not an excuse for criminal activity—some of the worst criminals come from wealthy backgrounds—but poor housing can provide a breeding environment for criminal activity. More needs to be done to improve the nation's housing provision.

Does the Minister feel that his crusade to reduce the number of prisoners is helped when the Department for Education and Employment, and others, concentrate on demanding ever higher academic standards, without appreciating that many youngsters need greater encouragement in non-academic areas? We need to give equal importance to the different contributions that all young people can make to their communities. For many young people, there is more to life than the classroom and swotting. The Government should tell all young people that they have a contribution to make to society, regardless of their academic abilities.

Mr. Corbett

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not saying that, because young people grow up in deprived areas with high and persistent levels of unemployment, their schools, teachers, school governors and parents should say that it is not worth bothering to encourage those children to do better than they think they can.

Mr. Russell

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I was trying to make the exactly opposite point. I want us all to tell all young people that they are of value to society and have a contribution to make. I am criticising the idea that the only people of value are those who gain high academic achievement. I do not believe that that is true, and I do not believe that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) thinks so, either.

A major way in which to reduce criminal activity by young people, and therefore to reduce the prison population, would be for relevant Departments to take measures to encourage youngsters to become more involved in their communities. That would give them pride in their neighbourhoods and a belief that they were valued.

For example, instead of underfunding local government, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions could make specific grants to enable uniformed and other youth organisations to have free use of school buildings, rather than being driven out of them by high charges. The Ministry of Defence could offer better funding for cadet forces, so that they could expand and recruit more youngsters. The Department for Education and Employment could provide financial support for youth bands or arts projects. Encouragement for conservation and similar projects could involve more young people.

Financial investment in our young people will pay dividends. Better citizens will result if we abandon the previous Government's view that there is no such thing as society. There would be less cost later to the public purse if fewer people drifted into crime and had to be sent to prison. The more we can do to stop people committing crime, the lower the prison population will be. The best alternative to prison sentences is to fund youth activities, which would be a much better use of public money than spending £23,000 a year for everyone in prison. Keeping just 44 people out of prison would save £1 million, and we can all think of how that money could be more productively invested in young people and local communities.

There is an opinion that young people involved in uniformed and other activities are far less likely to be involved in criminal activity than those who do not experience such productive and organised activities. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that that is true. If he does not have the evidence, may I suggest that we survey young people currently serving custodial sentences? I am confident that investing substantially in recognised youth movements and encouraging youngsters to participate would result in fewer young people drifting into criminal or anti-social behaviour. Such expenditure would be cost-effective.

The best way in which to achieve joined-up government for young people would be the appointment of a Minister for youth. That person would need to be popular and charismatic in the eyes of young people. An obvious candidate would be the Minister of State himself.

As a first step towards reducing the UK prison population, the Home Affairs Committee's recommendations should be implemented. However, I urge the Minister to take a wider view of what should be done if we are seriously and realistically to tackle crime. Being tough on the causes of crime is a positive way in which to provide an alternative to prison sentences.

6.2 pm

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Following my experiences during the inquiry, I thank the probation service, the social services, the police, the fire service and a raft of voluntary organisations, and I congratulate them on working with such commitment and dedication on our behalf. They try to give more hope and meaning to the lives of vulnerable and disjointed young people. Their jobs are not easy, because many of the people with whom they deal come from the most horrendous backgrounds. About a third of those sent to young offenders' institutions have no contact with home. About 40 per cent. have bad or intermittent contact with home. Many have no regular place to lay their heads at night. We should not underestimate the problems that we ask the various agencies to cope with for us.

My approach to the report and to the Government's response is that the argument is not over whether prison is better than non-custodial community sentences. There is widespread recognition that only custodial sentences will suffice for some people before the courts, especially for those who use violence against vulnerable people such as women, children and the elderly. It is not well understood, however, that the main victims of violence are, surprisingly, young people themselves. They are seen to be the perpetrators of most violence, but it is not so. They are in fact the victims.

That said, I have reached the conclusion that too many of those responsible for handing out sentences in our various courts are unaware of the menu of options available for community and non-custodial sentences. No doubt they are influenced by silly headlines in newspapers that ought to be more responsible. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) has said, it is wrong for newspapers to say that "so-and-so walks free". A community sentence is not walking free.

Mr. Vinnie Jones, the footballer, perhaps best demonstrates that fact. Having been sentenced for a cruel and grievous assault on a neighbour, Mr. Jones found that some publicity attached to the first hours of his community service. Perhaps Mr. Jones is unused to having his photograph taken, but he failed to turn up on three occasions, and instructed his solicitor to return to court to try to have his community service order reduced. I am glad that the court took the opposite view: it lengthened his sentence, and fined him for not doing what he was bound to do.

Mr. Jones, and anyone else in such a situation, should not accept a community service order if they prefer the alternative of prison. It is their choice, and they are free to make it, even if the courts may regret that fact.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South has mentioned that Mr. Peter Coad, a senior probation officer who had a low opinion of the probation service's achievements, said that the best alternative to prison was not to commit a crime. I took his meaning to be that the best alternative was not to be found committing the crime as well as not committing it. That is, of course, true: it is a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but solutions are not as easy as that.

During the general election—I suspect many of my colleagues found the same thing—in every part of my constituency, groups of residents raised the issue of anti-social behaviour and crime. They did not see those problems in party political terms, and they expected whatever Government were elected—it happened to be my party's Government—to help them to reclaim the right to live in peace and security in and around their homes. That is a simple enough demand. However, more police officers, more people in prison and longer sentences will not deliver it. They may make a contribution, but they will not deliver it.

Two stories from my constituency will illustrate the point. On a main road, a dreadful three-storey block of flats containing 20 or so families, with walkways on the outside, was an absolute shambles. The council decided to spend money on doing up the block, and letters went out to say that this, that and the other would be done in six months' time, and that the council would try not to wake the baby or anyone working nights.

All went well. There was landscaping, and the whole thing looked great. Towards the end of the work, I wrote to each resident to say how nice the work looked and that if they were having a party, I would bring some beer. I was not looking for votes; the matter was too important for that. I wanted to encourage those people to be proud of what had happened in and around their homes. The whole area had been transformed. Eighteen months later, it was almost as bad as it was before the work started. The lesson that I drew from that—I agreed with Birmingham city council housing officers on this—is that unless residents feel that they own the process, there is no point in proceeding.

I invite hon. Members to come with me about four miles further south in my constituency, to the former Castle Bromwich airfield, where 12,000 Spitfires, made over the road in what is now the Jaguar car factory, were personally flown by the chief test pilot. The site became the Castle Vale housing estate, which comprises 34 tower blocks and dozens of blocks of maisonettes. Anyone wanting to see a hell-hole should have seen Castle Vale 12 or 15 years ago. It embodied what I felt merited the description "civic pigsty".

Anyone coming across Castle Vale for the first time found it hard to believe what he was seeing—at least, I did. One wondered who cared for such places. Certainly, no one on the city council cared. I know all about cuts in housing budgets and so on, but I am not interested in that—there is some money. The whole place shouted total and absolute neglect. There was then an offer to set up one of only six housing action trusts in the country.

HATs were set up by the previous Government, who, by the way, had the wit and wisdom to change the rules to enable tenants, at the end of the exercise, to hold a ballot on whether they wanted to have the city council back as their landlord or, as I hope will happen in the Castle Vale area, to set up their own tenant management organisation.

When it came to the ballot, 93 per cent. of the tenants who participated voted for the HAT, which meant that about £300 million of public and private money would be put into the area. That was four years ago. I picked up a point made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) in this connection. We are now four years into the process. The eight great centre tower blocks, which is where the main Spitfire runway was, have gone. Not quite 12 months ago, the first buildings of the new Castle Vale became visible because they were on the central site. In a matter of weeks, the whole atmosphere of the estate changed, and I shall illustrate that with two examples.

First, I am very proud of the four primary schools on the estate, which is why I said what I did to the hon. Member for Colchester. Those schools achieve miracles. They regularly turn out children to go to the secondary school on the estate at the age of 11 with average reading ages of 14 and 15. It is difficult to get through the front door of one school because of all the national awards that it has won, not in soft subjects, but for mathematics marathons and achievements in science. The remarkable head teacher and her staff say that of course such things can be done, but that one has to work two or three times harder in such areas than in areas with less deprivation.

Secondly, the HAT was never wholly, solely or mainly about bricks and mortar, important though they are. It was about giving people back hope, training and jobs; it was about one-to-one counselling for single parents—mainly mothers—and the work of outstanding organisations such as Home Start, which will quietly hold out a hand to parents in despair. Parents might be in despair because of deprivation or unemployment, but also because they feel that they cannot cope and cannot bring up their children in the way they want. Home Start literally holds out a hand. When another hand is put in it, it gently grasps that hand. The success of that organisation can be measured by the fact that many of its regular volunteers once came through the door, holding out a hand.

What has happened on the estate in the past 12 or 18 months that makes me so proud? I am told—I am sure that it is true—that, if an autopsy were carried out on me, the words "Castle Vale" would be found engraved on my heart. Crime has been reduced by about a third, but I do not say that with surprise. I would expect that to be the case. It is almost as if people have grown a foot in height after getting jobs.

A magnificent range of about two dozen to 30 firms, large and small—including the Jaguar plant, Cincinnati, the machine tool manufacturer, and GKN Hardy Spicer, which makes front-wheel drives—on the rim of this isolated island estate are offering young people opportunities through the new deal. I am not criticising the Opposition when I say that—it might also be their experience—but, in this part of Birmingham, the new deal has not only held out a lifeline to young people who were detached and who were denied hope, but it has delivered.

I commend the Government on agreeing with the Committee about the importance of alternatives to custodial sentences. It might seem that I am going to say the opposite, but I ask to House to bear with me. The Kingstanding part of my constituency is virtually one large housing estate. There is nothing new in what I am about to say. On that estate, there is someone who is a one-man, anti-social crime wave. Let us call him John, although the warders now know him by his real name. Between the ages of 14 and 18, he was charged 34 times and was given the equivalent of three and three quarter years in young offenders' institutions. He was also handed heaven knows how many community service orders of one sort or another. As I understand it, he is in prison—and so he should be, given the opportunities that were offered to him but not taken.

I suppose that the easy thing to say is that John had his chance and did not take it, but I have to tell Mr. Coad and others who share his views that life is not like that. When I feel close to despair about such things, it is because of what the great city of Birmingham has achieved this year alone. It has been host to the G8 summit, the Eurovision song contest and 34,000 members of Lions International. It is a city where things are happening. I am getting parochial, but I get cross and frustrated when people like John cannot see that this involves them and that there is something in it for them.

We cannot walk away from the Johns of this world, because they cost everyone of my constituents something. They cost them in fear, because my constituents will not answer the door after dark and will not walk down the street after 3 pm at this time of year. Solutions have to be found. The probation service is now on the case—one might have hoped that it could have got on board earlier—and is involved in, for example, the "what works" programme. We need to design and carry out these programmes in such a way that they have better prospects of offering young people the opportunity to lead more successful and fulfilling lives. The new deal can help.

The hon. Member for Colchester has mentioned pupils being pushed at school to make them believe that they can attain more than they have. That is doubly important at schools where 60 or 70 per cent. of the pupils come from families poor enough to receive free school meals—their future is at stake, as well as that of those who come from a more comfortable background. We owe those pupils something, but there is more to it than that. This country, our society, and certainly the city of Birmingham need to engage them. We need their skills, and they need them to help them to settle into a happier, more fulfilling way of life.

6.20 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I am sure that the whole House enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). It was a remarkable personal contribution to the debate, and one full of emotion. I went misty-eyed when I heard mention of 12,000 Spitfires, quite apart from what he told us about the transformation of the Castle Vale estate as a result of the housing action trust.

I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Minister for Housing and Planning, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), when HATs were put in place. I hope that this will not be my only opportunity to remind the House that the Conservative party made important contributions to the improvement of our country. I think that all hon. Members who have HATs in their constituencies will recognise the important changes that HATs have brought about for the better.

The trouble with the debate is that it is largely well informed. It is calm and sometimes moving, as exemplified by the speech of the hon. Member for Erdington. It is therefore guaranteed to have no media coverage. We are among friends talking to ourselves. The outside world will not be listening, because we are not at one mother's throats.

I reject completely the idea that the Select Committee's report is soft and that it represents an attempt by an all-party Committee to come up with a soft option for criminals. It is an extremely hard-hitting report, and it deserves to be seen as such. I shall detain the House for a moment by quoting some examples and putting them on the record. There are too many people outside the House who have tried to read into the report that the Committee has been anxious to empty prisons—I speak rather crudely—to put prisoners on community service orders. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Committee's second conclusion and recommendation reads: Prison will always be necessary for the most dangerous and/or persistent criminals, but it must be closely targeted on them, with other offenders being given non-custodial sentences which are effective and in which sentencers and the public have confidence. Those are extremely important riders to our suggestion about the role of non-custodial sentences.

Recommendation 15 reads: Strict enforcement of community sentences is vital if they are to represent a credible alternative to prison and retain the confidence of sentencers and the public. If community sentences are to be credible they must be enforced stringently. Recommendation 16 states: It is essential that offenders who breach community sentences are returned to court quickly. Recommendation 18 says: We … recommend that the Home Office rectify this situation"— of breaches not being enforced—

and ensure that offenders who flagrantly breach the terms of community sentences may be sent to prison". This is a tough report, not a soft one. I hope that, by citing these examples, I can provide the House and those outside with evidence that it is tough. This may be a small point, but it is one worth noting: we were much impressed with the Lord Chief Justice's suggestion that community service orders should be renamed. He suggested that they should be called criminal work orders, and we supported him. I note that the Government have said that they are prepared to consider that suggestion. We hope that the Minister will make the debate a little more newsworthy by saying that he accepts that suggestion at least. That would send out the clearest possible message that community service orders are intended to be nothing other than criminal work orders.

For so long as society believes in the concept of repentance and forgiveness, offenders will have to return to the community at some point. We shall have to deal with their return and with what we do with them in the meantime. I said to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) that I had some sympathy with Mr. Coad. One of Mr. Coad's points was that, if offenders are in gaol, they cannot go out burgling people's property and causing them enormous distress. That is an irrefutable fact. However, if the prison population is to increase to 200,000, certain consequences have to be considered.

There is the small matter of planning consent for new prisons. We all know that, as soon as anyone proposes having a prison anywhere near us, our constituents are on our backs, saying, "Not on your life, guv'nor. You jolly well fight it." Tripling the prison population space would require considerable dexterity in the manipulation of planning regulations. The previous Conservative Government found a disused ship somewhere, which they parked off the south coast of England. That was one way of getting around the problem of people and their backyards. Presumably, in that instance, they were not too worried.

We must consider whether prison is the only answer to crime. Manifestly it is not, so what are the options? We, the Committee, were struck by the many schemes that were being tried out throughout the country. I think that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South said that there were 274.

Mr. Mullin

No, 267.

Mr. Howarth

There is a huge number of schemes, many of which are not well known to the public.

One of our important conclusions is set out in recommendation 9. We found that there was no real assessment—the hon. Member for Sunderland, South mentioned this—of the true effectiveness of these schemes. I think that the Home Office has taken note of that. I should like to say, in answer to the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), that I think that he had a fair point. The Government say, "We quite understand. The Committee is right on this and action needs to be taken, and we will be taking it. Things are a bit better."

I urge the Minister to take serious note of recommendation 9. If non-custodial sentences are to command public confidence, it is essential that they are evaluated on the basis that some are good, some are not so good and others are a waste of space. There will be inevitably an element of trialling. It will be necessary to suck it and see before deciding whether certain schemes will work.

Recommendation 9 reads: The absence of rigorous assessment of the effectiveness of community sentences is astonishing. Without it confidence in them must be limited and sentencing policy a matter of guess-work and optimism. That is strong language for a Select Committee. We state in print that we find it astonishing that there is that lack of effectiveness in the validation and assessment of community sentence schemes. I hope that the Minister will devote some attention to our recommendation.

The members of the Committee will know that I had already had wind of the interesting airborne initiative Scotland scheme. I probably had something of a reputation for being fairly tough on crime before the Government came up with "tough on crime, tough on criminals and tough on the causes of crime". However, I see cases for not banging up people in gaol as a knee-jerk reaction. There is a case for other schemes, and I was most impressed by the airborne initiative scheme in Scotland, as I was by other schemes that I came across throughout the country. It was noticeable that, where a scheme provided young offenders, in particular, with an element of self-respect and self-confidence—two key factors which had been entirely missing in their lives by virtue of their upbringing and background—they were capable of being rescued. I suggest that a key criterion in assessing the effectiveness of these schemes is whether they are able to instil in persistent young offenders a sense of self-respect and a sense of purpose in life.

We were able to see the operation of the tagging scheme. I am bound to say that at this stage I want to be a bit mischievous. We were all impressed by tagging, which we saw Securicor operating in Manchester. I thought that it was superb, but I shall not bore the House with the details.

I said that I intended to be mischievous. I remind the House that, when the matter was proposed by my noble Friend Lord Patten, who was then Minister of State, Home Department, his opposite number, the then shadow Home Secretary, Lord Hattersley, who is now clad in Irvine, or rather, ermine, in another place—a Freudian slip there, I fear—responded by saying:

Electric tagging would be a farce if it were ever implemented in this country."—[Official Report, 20 November 1990; Vol. 181, c. 160.] In Committee, during detailed consideration of electronic monitoring, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who was then a Front-Bench spokesman, said:

Opposition Members oppose the provisions on electronic monitoring with no equivocation whatever. We are totally opposed to electronic monitoring of offenders and on this issue, we have the overwhelming support of organisations working within the criminal justice system."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 18 December 1990; c. 273.] I should like to hear from the Minister an acknowledgement that the Labour party, when in opposition, got it wrong, and that it now congratulates the Conservative Government on having introduced a non-custodial sentence that has been of huge benefit. As that system is to go nationwide from the end of next year, I am sure that the Government will not be able to deny that.

I shall not detain the House too long, but I shall deal with a couple of other topics. The first is drugs, a subject that the Select Committee will address in more detail in our next examination. I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) on the matter. Drugs are a scourge in our country. Parents throughout the land have a paranoid fear that their child will fall foul of drugs and, even worse, that they will not recognise the signs. I have three children and I understand that fear, which is widespread.

Drugs kill people. They imprison young people for the rest of their lives. I hope that the Government will consider the matter carefully and accept that, if we are to deal with the problem, there must be an element of compulsion about it. When we travelled around the country during our inquiry, one of the saddest experiences was our visit to Dumbarton, where we sat with a group of youngsters who were hard drug addicts. They required £80 a day to fund their heroin habit, and to obtain the money they stole and burgled. One of the girls told us that, when she left our company, she was going to steal from a shop in order to fund the habit.

I do not believe that simply banging up such people in prison is the answer. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Woking. We need specialised residential institutions where those young people can be detoxified. That is the only way in which we will resolve the problem. It is draconian, but the crisis we face is of such magnitude that a draconian measure is justified. We would be ducking our responsibilities as Members of Parliament were we not to tackle the issue head on.

Other factors have not been discussed in detail in the debate. The minor crimes described by the hon. Members for Sunderland, South and for Erdington irritate our constituents and cause them grief. Minor vandalism and such offences are, in my view, the result of a growing lack of respect for parents, authority and our institutions. It is incumbent on us all to teach children not their rights, but their duties. The time has come to swing the pendulum back and to make them understand their duties and responsibilities.

As members of the Committee know, the other day I saw two young boys aged 14 breaking into my neighbour's car with a metal implement. Those were two kids out of school at lunchtime, walking down the street on the off-chance, but armed, with intent. What do we do about people like that? I understand that they came from respectable households. They have been let off with a caution. It was only because I got there, chased them down the road and caught up with one of them that we cleared up that bit of crime.

I should tell the Minister that I was appalled by the attitude of some other adults, who would not help me for fear that they would be charged with abusing children. I hope that he will say that the Government do not approve of that, and that they approve of members of the public going to assist the police.

I hope that those outside will recognise that this is a tough report. Alternatives to custody are designed not simply to empty the prisons, but to provide tough and hard sentences. They are perhaps the only way in which we shall get young offenders weaned off drugs and reduce the crimes that are spawned as a result of drug taking. In that way, we shall make our society better.

6.36 pm
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

One of the advantages of attending debates such as this is that one leaves the Chamber at the end of the debate having learned something. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) for giving us a little tour of his constituency and telling us something about the conditions of the people whom he represents.

I remember speaking after the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) in the Second Reading debate on the Crime and Disorder Bill and being struck, and even appalled, by what she told us about the rate of crime in her constituency. If I remember correctly, the figures that she gave for crime in her constituency during the week preceding the debate were the equivalent of the crime figures in my constituency for the previous decade.

Our constituencies are entirely different. I represent a largely rural and well-to-do area. We have our criminal statistics. We have people who buy, sell and use drugs, but I am grateful to the hon. Member for Erdington for bringing me out of my rather comfortable existence and making me realise that England is a diverse country. Although we pass Acts of Parliament that are supposed to deal uniformly with the entire country, there are places that need special attention and particular measures to assist.

I am fortunate to participate in the debate because it gives me the opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his promotion. As many hon. Members know, he had my job not long ago—the shadow spokesman on the Lord Chancellor's Department—so it seems that my political life is not entirely without hope.

I congratulate the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the other hon. Members who serve on it and their Clerks on their industry in producing the report on alternatives to prison sentences. As a member of the Committee under the chairmanship of Sir Ivan Lawrence from 1992 until the end of 1994, when I left on my appointment as a Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury (Sir A. Goodlad) and for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) in the Foreign Office, I always take a particular interest in the Committee's reports and activities.

I am a quiet admirer of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South, although it may not do him any good for me to say so, for his work in bringing to wider public attention a number of criminal cases of miscarriages of justice. Some of that work that he did in collaboration with my late predecessor, Sir John Farr. They were, as the House will agree, unlikely collaborators, one being a traditional Conservative landowner of the old school and the other a Labour journalist and writer. It was a common interest in justice and fairness that brought them together. I hope that the same interest breaches the political divide this evening. Certainly, from all that I know of John Farr and what he did to see justice in the case of the Birmingham Six, I believe that he would have taken a close interest in the work that the Chairman and members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs are doing.

It behoves us all to keep a close eye on those matters that we sometimes take for granted: free and uninhibited access to the courts for every citizen; an impartial and incorruptible judiciary; a jury system that commands public confidence; lawyers who cannot be bought and sold and who can speak up for their clients without fear for their lives or careers; and—germane to our discussions—a criminal justice system that is capable of acquitting the innocent while dealing with the guilty humanely and firmly, but sensibly, and in such a way that the public are satisfied that they can sleep easy in their beds knowing that right has been done, and offenders know that they have got their just desserts and punishment that fits the crime.

I have been an assistant recorder in the Crown court for only a short time. My practice at the Bar could not be further removed from the criminal courts, but in the short time that I have been doing my judicial training—in court, sitting beside Crown court judges; on residential courses, run by the Judicial Studies Board; and sitting as a judge—I have been struck by the attitude of those on the Bench. They will do all in their power to avoid sending a defendant to prison, if a suitable alternative can be found and is available.

Judges do not send the guilty to prison because they enjoy depriving people of their liberty. Certainly by the time that they come to sentence, and often beforehand, judges know the backgrounds and family circumstances of the accused, and they see real people before them in the dock: the incompetent, the drug-addicted, the inadequate and the feckless, in human form. They also see the evil, the dangerous and the dishonest.

Whatever the characteristics, judges deal most often with a man, usually in his late teens or early 20s—in London or other big cities, he will probably be a drug user—who is in any event unemployed and in receipt of state benefits. He will probably be the father of at least one small child by a mother who is not his wife, and with whom he does not live in anything resembling a traditional family. He may have grown up in circumstances that mirror his children's.

That is the picture of human life facing the judge. It is a daily experience. In the House of Commons we see only the statistics about projected prison populations, reoffending rates and the expense of dealing with the never-ending parade of crimes and criminals. We see the story that is unfolding outside at a safe remove. We know what we are told and what we believe. We come here with our prejudices and our experiences, but we are unlikely to have shared the experiences of either the criminal or the sentencer.

Perhaps one of my prejudices—this relates to an intervention by the hon. Member for Erdington on the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South—is the belief that people who have a job tend not to commit crimes, but that unemployment of itself is not an excuse for committing crimes. There is a link—a correlation—between unemployment and criminality, but there is not a causal link. There should not be.

My first point beyond those happy introductory remarks is that it would do no harm—and, I believe, a lot of good—if Home Office and other Ministers charged with management of our criminal justice system, and with devising policies to improve it, spent time in the criminal courts to see for themselves what is involved in trying and sentencing a case. Ministerial visits to prisons, court buildings, probation offices and police stations are worth while, but they provide only a partial picture.

Ministers should go to see what happens to the defendant, the witness, the jury, the court staff and the judge or the magistrate in the stage between arrest and punishment, and then consider whether the criminal justice Bills that we pass almost annually are always the answer to the real or perceived problems that we face.

I was struck, as was the hon. Member for Erdington, with the evidence that is recounted at paragraph 134 of the Select Committee report. It deals with Lord Bingham's wish that sentencers should visit community sentence venues to see what is happening. The report states: He undertook to encourage judges to make such visits but reminded the Committee"— I urge the House to bear this in mind as well— that 'judges are under great pressure to try cases. The courts have a backlog, they are open to criticism if the delays build up, so this kind of activity has to get fitted in. It should be fitted in and I totally agree with the point that you'"— the hon. Member for Sunderland, South—

are making that this is a valuable way of educating oneself into the realities of what one is imposing on others'. One has to be realistic about that. As the learned Lord Chief Justice said, our courts are enduring a backlog of cases. Judges simply do not have time to make these visits, although they would do much good were they able to do so. I urge the Government, hon. Members and members of the Select Committee not to push too much on our judges, who are already overburdened. It is easy to make tabloid remarks about judges, but they are not as they are caricatured. They work hard, and requiring them to spend more time out of court looking at probation centres and so forth—although well intended—cannot easily be achieved.

On the subject of the Lord Chief Justice, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), and others who have referred to it, that it would be better and more publicly acceptable to describe community sentences as criminal work orders. I hope that the Government will give that rapid consideration.

My second point is that another thing that might be learned is that the system by which those who breach probation orders or other community sentences are returned to court is cumbersome and slow. A defendant who breaks the terms of the sentence has to be summonsed to appear at a magistrates court, irrespective of whether the sentence was handed down in the Crown court.

I have read that part of the report which deals with the return of offenders to court—indeed, I have read the whole report—and I accept and agree with conclusion and recommendation 16, save that I have reservations about the civilianisation of that aspect of the criminal justice system. I also agree with conclusion 18, about the steps that should be taken to reinvigorate that part of the community sentence regime, but I have a small practical solution to offer. Those who breach community sentences from the Crown court should be arrested and brought back directly to the Crown court, rather than being summonsed to appear before a magistrates court to be dealt with.

By the time that the summons is served—we know about the difficulties in effecting service—and the defendant appears before the magistrates, the original defence is part of distant history, the trial was some time ago and the breach is remote. If magistrates then decided to remand the defendant to the Crown court to be dealt with, we would face yet further delay.

Far better to cut out that circuitous route by sending the malefactor straight back to the sentencing Crown court. I wrote to the Home Secretary about that two or three weeks ago. I dare say that General Pinochet has been rather more on his mind than my letter, but I hope that either the Minister of State or the Home Secretary will in due course provide me with an answer that makes sense.

I am rapidly running out of time, but I want briefly to flag up one or two other points. Conclusion 20 of the Select Committee report deals with pre-sentence reports. My experience, for what it is worth, is that probation officers make it clear in drafting such reports that, if there is no available remedy other than custody, custody will be the one that they recommend. They are no longer shy about making that recommendation. I hope that the House and the Home Affairs Committee will take that point from me.

I urge the Government not to be persuaded by any argument that the probation service should have its name changed to some modern, "relevant" or "cool" title. We all understand the term "probation service". It would be sensible to have a national service, and I trust that that can be looked at carefully, but there is absolutely no need whatever to change the name of the service.

I support conclusion 36, about better use of suspended prison sentences. They are a weapon in our criminal justice system that has been allowed to fall away. I hope that the Government will bring them back.

At the risk of sounding fatalistic, I draw attention to paragraph 46 of the Select Committee report. Simply because of time constraints, I shall not refer to it in detail, save to draw the House's attention to the headline "Reoffending, deterrence and rehabilitation". The two-year reconviction rate for all types of sentence is horribly high. It is more than 50 per cent. and for some sentences as high as 74 per cent. That applies to probation orders with the requirement to attend a probation centre.

Thus, nothing that we are suggesting or considering provides the perfect answer. I simply ask that the Government look calmly and sensibly at this excellent report, and I urge all hon. Members not to bully judges into producing speedy answers to impossible questions.

6.50 pm
Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

I listened carefully to what the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said about magistrates and judges. I also listened with great interest to the speeches of the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who is a judge, and my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), who is a magistrate. I am a member of the Home Affairs Committee but have no experience whatever in the criminal justice system. Although that is often a disadvantage, it is sometimes an advantage, because it means that I see the issues with fresh eyes.

I wish to concentrate for a few minutes on a rather buried aspect of the report. The report seeks to answer two questions: first, are community sentences effective; and, secondly, do sentencers make enough use of community sentences? The Committee drew attention to the Home Office research on that subject. When dealing with such an issue, the probation service is usually under examination and must answer questions on the effectiveness of community sentences. However, the magistracy and the judiciary should also be under the spotlight.

One of the tables produced by the Home Office research study shows that magistrates were asked whether they were satisfied with the work of the probation service, and 89 per cent. said that they were very or quite satisfied. The same figure applied to stipendiaries, and 85 per cent. of judges were satisfied. It is therefore wrong to say that people within the criminal justice system are greatly dissatisfied with the probation service. However, if we put the question the other way round, and ask whether we should have complete confidence in, and satisfaction with, the magistracy and the judiciary, we may reach a different conclusion.

The Home Office also asked magistrates, stipendiaries and judges whether, in the previous two years, they had visited probation centres or community service placements. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough referred to that research. The survey showed that fewer than half the magistrates had visited a probation centre, and that 82 per cent. of stipendiaries had not visited a probation centre. More probation offices had been visited, but that is not surprising, as they are often in the court building.

Community sentences are the most common sentence. In the past two years, three quarters of the magistrates and judges, and 93 per cent. of stipendiaries, had not visited a community sentence placement or even seen one in operation.

Whatever the wisdom or otherwise of their sentences, it is asking for trouble to hand out a sentence when one has no recent experience of what it involves. We would find it extraordinary if the director of a food company had never tasted his products or if the director of a car company had never driven the car that the company produced, but very few of those who are essentially the directors of the criminal justice system bother to see for themselves the effect of the sentences that they hand out. I do not have the figures for the frequency of prison visits by magistrates, judges and stipendiaries, but one can have little confidence in them, given the frequency of their visits to probation centres.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough quoted with approval Lord Bingham's comment to the Committee that it was desirable that people should look at what was happening, and that he was slightly surprised that more had not done so. When he gave evidence to the Committee, he went no further than to encourage judges to make more frequent visits. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that, although he agreed with that, we should not push judges because they were busy people.

If sentences are to be effective, sentencers must know what they are sentencing people to. The magistrates themselves say that. The Home Office research study asked magistrates and stipendiaries whether they ever learned about the outcome of the community sentences that they handed out, and 87 per cent. of magistrates said that they either never heard, or only occasionally heard, the outcome. The figure for stipendiaries was slightly lower because they are, after all, full-time. Even so, two thirds of them had either never heard of the outcome, or heard only occasionally.

Magistrates were then asked whether they needed to know more about the outcome of their cases—the very point made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough. Two thirds of the magistrates accepted that they needed to know more, despite the fact that most of them had just admitted that they rarely knew anything about them. Thus, they see the fault in the system: they pass sentences without knowing what they are doing.

The Home Office has started community sentence demonstration projects in Shrewsbury and Teesside, one of which we visited, to try to make magistrates and judges more aware of the sentences that they hand out. The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders pointed out that, unlike doctors, sentencers always see their failures return to court but never see their successes. If we are to have confidence in community sentences, it is absolutely vital that magistrates and judges take the trouble to visit placements so that they know what they are sentencing people to.

6.57 pm
Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds)

This interesting debate and the report that gives rise to it are uppermost in our minds for one reason: the increase in the prison population and the estimates for that increase. Five years ago, some 43,000 people were in prison; in September this year, that figure rose to 66,000, and the projection for the next seven years is more than 82,000. That represents a serious problem for the Government by any standard, not least because of the resource implications for the Exchequer in funding such a potential expansion in prison capacity.

I shall focus my remarks on two questions. First, how have we reached this position, and what policies have this Government and the previous Government pursued to get us to this position? Secondly, what radical solutions, which would amount to alternatives to custodial sentences, have been outlined in the report?

I shall begin by summarising the main thrust of criminal justice policy in the past 10 years. On the one hand was the view that prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse—a view largely held by the former right hon. Member for Witney, now the noble Lord Hurd; on the other is the view that prison works—a view expounded by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I think that prison does work.

I take issue with the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and other Labour Members because, in the three years until the general election, recorded crime fell by 10 per cent. The Government have been the happy beneficiary of that fall in recorded crime. They have not sought to reverse the policy that the previous Administration established to achieve that fall. The Minister is happy to endorse the sentencing regime that we put in place. If Labour Members are not happy with this tough sentencing regime and go for more soft disposals, the crime figures may not be pegged at present levels. That issue has not been addressed in the debate.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Is not the point about criminal policy not whether solutions are hard or soft, but whether they are effective?

Mr. Ruffley

The hon. Lady is right. No one doubts that, in the three years to 1997, recorded crime fell. That fall in crime coincided with the implementation of a tougher sentencing regime by Home Office Ministers in the Conservative Administration. That was manifestly a policy of containment. It may sound crude, but we all know intuitively that, if hardened criminals are locked up, they are not on the streets committing crime. As a rough rule of thumb, it is estimated that two thirds of recorded crime is committed by one fifth of hard-core serial offenders, so a policy of containment goes some way towards cutting the crime rate. The evidence shows that that has happened—certainly up until 1997. I believe that the trend is a decline in the rate of increase of recorded crime.

Mr. Mullin

If the hon. Gentleman refers to my speech, he will find that I dealt with that point. I said that prison was effective as a form of containment, although it did not prevent people from offending when they were released. A couple of other factors also account for the fall in crime. One is the 40 per cent. reduction in unemployment in the relevant period, and the other is the fact that policing in the past few years has been much more effective.

Mr. Ruffley

The hon. Gentleman is right. There have also been improvements in education and training. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), in his eloquent speech, spoke for everyone in the Chamber. Innovative youth projects—which in the jargon are referred to as diversionary disposals—better education and training, more economic activity and more job creation all contribute to a falling crime rate. It is not fair to characterise the view of Conservative Members as being that prison works, because there is much more to it than that. The argument has not been made that prison does not work. I do not want to labour the point, but tougher sentencing has resulted in a demonstrable fall in crime. That fall has coincided with a palpable change in sentencing policy.

There has been a change in culture, which is evident when politicians on both sides of the House talk about crime, responsibility and the causes of crime. I had a ringside seat in 1992–93 when I was a special adviser to the then Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). When we moved into the Home Office in 1992, we were warned by people whom I would broadly describe as on the right of the political spectrum that we would face a liberal conspiracy. It was said that a large part of the criminal justice establishment, some senior Home Office officials, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and the Howard League for Penal Reform were Guardian-reading, nut-cutlet-eating, open-toed sandalwearing—[Interruption.] This is a caricature. It was a widely held view that there was a liberal conspiracy to frustrate Conservative law and order policies. [Interruption.] The Minister of State may laugh, but I am describing the caricature: this is not necessarily my own view. It was a caricature, but it was not far off.

Many of the initiatives that the then Home Secretary wanted to take were frustrated. They were met with ill-concealed opposition from many civil servants and voluntary bodies. I could give hon. Members a long list of examples. For instance, little progress was made on the proposal for secure training centres, much to the annoyance of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe. The proposal in the Criminal Justice Act 1993 that gave courts the power to take into account previous convictions when setting sentences was fiercely contested, as were provisions to introduce mandatory sentences for bail banditry and to make it an aggravating factor in any offence.

Ms Abbott

I cannot let those remarks about Home Office professionals pass. There is not, and never has been, a liberal conspiracy in the Home Office—merely people who have to deal with the facts and with the nitty-gritty of containing vast numbers of people. They have to look further than the next conference speech.

Mr. Ruffley

If a liberal conspiracy truly existed, it has now come to an end. The new Home Secretary has taken on board lock, stock and barrel the tough law and order rhetoric—[Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head, but he knows as well as I do that the Home Secretary, in a well-publicised visit to New York, looked at radical and—dare I say it—right-wing law and order initiatives.

The Minister of State, Home Department (Mr. Paul Boateng)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Ruffley

The Minister dissents, but I am sure that he will not dispute the fact that the Home Secretary talked about getting squeegee merchants off the streets and about zero tolerance. That is a measure of the progress that the Conservative Administration made. We turned the tide, and made it acceptable to talk tough on law and order. The best evidence for that proposition is the language that the Home Secretary now uses, even if the Minister of State does not. Those are the facts.

7.8 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

This has been a good debate. I congratulate the Committee and its Chairman on their choice of this important subject for an inquiry, which has led to the debate. I recognise that much hard work has been put into the report. We have heard some interesting contributions, not least from my hon. Friends the Members for Woking (Mr. Malins) for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). There have been interesting speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. The Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), did the House a service by opening the debate in a balanced way.

This is an important subject, because we need community sentences and alternatives to prison sentences that are effective and credible, and command the respect of sentencers and the public. To command respect, those sentences must be used in appropriate cases. They need to be tough, and must not be seen as a soft option. I apologise to the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) for using the word "tough", but, in this context, I do not think that it will grab the tabloid headlines. Those sentences should, as far as possible, be rehabilitative.

Contrary to what may be believed in some quarters, the previous Government were, in my view, responsible for some creditable achievements in regard to community sentences. As the Select Committee noted, the Criminal Justice Act 1991 supplies the general framework for sentencing. The Act was not the perfect article when it was introduced; it needed some refinement, which it received. We heard some interesting observations from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds about the background to that refinement. Today, however, the Act is generally accepted, and was accepted by the Committee, as an appropriate framework.

It must be right for the public to be protected from people who commit serious offences, and those who put the public at risk of grave harm as a result of violent or sexual offences must be given long prison sentences. I was interested by much of the speech of the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell), but I must gently demur from what he said about what determines prison numbers. I believe that they should be determined by what is needed to protect the public, rather than by any sort of international comparison or international league table. The protection of the public should be paramount.

When offences do not fall into the categories that I have described, the public, and sentencers, should feel confident about community sentences. It should be recognised, however, that even less serious offences—offences that do not fall into the categories outlined in the Criminal Justice Act—which sentencers do not consider call for immediate custodial sentences, are nevertheless serious in themselves. They are serious for members of the public in general and, in particular, for the victims. Members of the public, and specifically victims, need to be reassured that community sentences are effective and tough.

In recent years, we have seen a good deal of what I consider to be toughening of established community sentences. For instance, national standards for probation have been introduced. We have also seen the introduction—which I welcome—of new community sentences: new options for sentencers, and greater flexibility for them. Let me give two examples. Combination orders, to which the Committee referred, combine probation and community service. In paragraph 28, the Committee said of the orders:

First used in 1992, their use has increased each year since then. That is because they have been seen to be effective in practice.

The other example, which has been mentioned in the debate, is that of curfew orders with electronic monitoring. Those orders, which have been pioneered in recent years, amount to a real deprivation of liberty for offenders, falling short of imprisonment. They require offenders to be in a certain place—usually their homes—for a certain length of time, and to be subject to electronic monitoring to ensure that happens. The orders have been given trials in three areas, and are now being extended to more. There is evidence—which the Committee identified—that they are seen as tough and effective. Perhaps the best evidence came from the deputy justices' clerk who said—he is quoted in paragraph 161 of the Committee's report—that the toughness of the disposal was shown by the reluctance of solicitors to propose it as a sentencing option for their clients. That is indeed good evidence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot reminded us gently of the background to the introduction of electronic monitoring, and the advice that we received from certain quarters when it was introduced. I do not want to go too far down that road, but I recall that we received certain advice based on considerations of not just practicability but principle—as my hon. Friend rightly said.

We must enter one reservation about the proposed use of electronic monitoring today. We welcome the use of home curfew as a sentence in its own right, but not as a way of securing the release of those who have been sentenced to imprisonment. We feel—we made our view known during the passage of the Crime and Disorder Bill—that it cuts across the principle of honesty in sentencing: the principle that sentences should mean what they say. We fear that the use of home curfew in this way will affect public confidence in sentencing.

Let me now deal briefly with alternative community sentences for three particularly important groups of offenders. First, let me discuss female offenders, who have already been mentioned today. The Committee noted that the female proportion of the prison population has been growing, and that growth has accelerated recently. In paragraph 225, it noted the importance of providing alternatives to prison, and probation programmes in particular, which tackle the problems presented by women offenders specifically. We welcome the Committee's attitude. The increase in the number of women in prison must be a matter of public concern. We note what the Government have said in their response, and we encourage their pathfinder programmes, but we hope that they will take the problem of women offenders seriously, and will consider what more can be done about it.

Another important category of offenders is drug misusers, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Woking rightly described as the biggest problem in the criminal justice system. Anyone who comes into much contact with the system will be driven to the same conclusion. Drug misuse is a serious matter. The Committee referred to the alarming extent of crime related to drug abuse. Its members visited Dumbarton, where they saw the despair that is caused by drug misuse and drug-related crime. Unhappily, they could have observed similar scenes in many other places throughout the United Kingdom.

In their response, the Government referred to a drug treatment and testing order, but that will not be fully available until 2000–01, and then only in the case of relatively serious offences. We think that there is good sense in the Committee's recommendation that the Government make it an objective that all drug misusing offenders given community sentences have access to appropriate treatment. It must be sensible to make treatment as widely available as possible where it is needed.

Another important subject is that of young offenders. We feel that there should be appropriate alternatives to custody, some of them tailor made for young offenders. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot made some good points about that. We all want good schemes that give youngsters self-confidence. I note that the Committee reached similar conclusions on a subject that is something of an interest of mine. In paragraph 191, it says that it

must note the continuing concerns raised by sentencers that there is inadequate provision of secure places for young offenders … Although a programme to expand the number of places was put in hand by the previous Government, the Home Office has estimated that the new places will not be sufficient to meet the demand. I do not wish to introduce too discordant a note at this late stage, but I know that the Minister of State had some responsibility in this regard in his last ministerial job. I believe it was the Minister of State who told me, in a written answer, that the Government had provided six additional places for young offenders so far. Let me alert him to the fact that we shall be taking an interest in the subject. The Committee was right to note that sentencers are concerned about it.

The general issue of community sentences is important. We want constructive and effective alternatives to custodial sentences, which are substantive and sound in practice. The Committee did a great deal of work, and we recognise that. We note that the background is the "what works" debate. At this late stage, I shall not embark on a detailed evaluation of reconviction rates and what has been done in that regard, but I think I am entitled to make one observation: the background is a falling crime rate. We want the rate to continue to fall, and we think that community sentences can make a contribution. We want sentences that command the confidence of sentencers and the public, and do not represent a soft option.

This is a worthwhile process of building on what has been achieved in the past, and we look forward to the toughening of community sentences in the future.

7.19 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

This has been an excellent debate. It has been good-humoured and utterly lacking in party political rancour, except for a little deviation at the end from the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), who started yapping a bit. Apart from that, it has been good-humoured and well-informed, as well it might because we have been considering important work from a Select Committee that has done the House a great service through the careful and considered way in which it has approached the subject.

The Select Committee has endorsed much of what the Government have already done and taken forward with the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 but—this is important—it has also highlighted some areas to which we and, indeed, the nation need to give greater attention. That is particularly welcome. Those issues are not a matter simply for Government. They need to engage the whole community as we move in partnership to contain and to reduce crime and criminality.

We should be under no illusions about the subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who chairs the Select Committee with such distinction, made it clear that the Committee as a whole—each member of the Committee who has spoken has given weight to the proposition—recognises that what is needed is rigour: intellectual rigour and a rigorous approach to disposals, whether prison or alternatives to prison. What we cannot have is a situation in which we do not recognise that intervention needs to be targeted, tough—we make no apology for using that word—and effective.

Mr. Ruffley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boateng

No, I will not give way.

We are about reflecting society's determination that we should have a criminal justice system that recognises a place for punishment and retribution, and that punishment and retribution go alongside rehabilitation and reform. Unless we have a balance between the two, we are unlikely to succeed.

I make two important points in response to the debate. First, in talking about alternatives to imprisonment, we need to recognise that sentencing is, properly, dealt with by the courts. Many offenders can be dealt with in the community, which should be encouraged where appropriate, but there will always be some for whom prison is the most appropriate punishment. They must find that punishment at the hands of our courts.

The point has been made, not least by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), who have first-hand experience of the sentencing process, that the courts do not take that duty lightly. They wish to consider a range of alternatives in sentencing. It is important that we should assist them by ensuring that they have that range. The Government have with alacrity set about the task of giving them scope for making the most appropriate disposal.

We recognise that there is a job to be done, as the Select Committee has said, to ensure that the people who are responsible for sentencing are properly informed about the range of sentences open to them. It does not necessarily require—although, as the Lord Chief Justice suggested, it can be of assistance to the sentencer, whether a stipendiary, a lay magistrate or a judge in the Crown court—a visit to the centre of alternative disposal. It is possible for sentencers to be informed in other ways. We plan to issue guidance in the new year about the role of probation staff who work in courts to enable them to include advice to sentencers, providing them with the necessary information and statistics about the probation programmes that are available locally. We look to them to use that information.

Secondly, we have to ensure that we give courts the powers that they need. That is why we have introduced new measures in the Crime and Disorder Act to enable courts to deal more effectively with young offenders. We have also introduced measures such as the drug treatment and testing order.

We believe that it is important to ensure that, in prisons, there is a regime that does all that it possibly can not only to keep drugs out—that is why we emphasise creating in some prisons completely drug-free wings, where it is possible to provide the necessary alternative treatments to counteract offending—but to educate prisoners to enable them to come to terms with the drug misuse that led to their being there in the first place.

That must not be a soft option. It is a testing option for those who submit themselves to those programmes. It is important that entry into the programmes is voluntary, because otherwise people do not have the motivation to come to grips with their drug problem.

The Government are determined to ensure that those who offend against society, whether they are in prison or have been given an alternative sentence, face up to their offending behaviour in the first place, and recognise that they need to equip themselves with the means to play a full, constructive and honest part in society.

It is great pity that the debate is constrained by time, because I should like to comment more on the important points that have been raised, but let me briefly go through some of them. The Select Committee rightly emphasised the importance of effective, evidence-based practice. That is why, when, for example, we look at the role of restorative justice as an alternative to custody, we build on the research evidence that is being gathered, for example, in the Thames Valley police area. Real progress is being made in developing restorative justice to make it clear that it is not a soft option.

Anyone who talks to the chief constable of Thames Valley police gets the clearest impression that he is absolutely committed, as are the justices in his area, to ensuring that young people, in particular, face up to the offending behaviour that got them there and do not, as they all too often do in youth courts, shelter behind lawyers, with those young people and their parents not confronting the offending behaviour.

It is important to develop a joint system within the Prison Service. That is part of an action programme that includes several other aspects. It is about the accreditation of programmes that are available in prison to combat offending. It is also important to ensure that we work with the probation service to guarantee that those who are sentenced to community service recognise that, where they breach that service, they will certainly return to court, so that they can be disposed of in a more appropriate way. A community service order must not be seen as getting away with it. I accept that a strong case has been made for renaming the order, and we are actively considering that.

I hope that, from my brief response, members of the Select Committee, who have worked so hard on the report, will have a sense of our determination to take the issues forward.

I had the pleasure of going with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) to a young offenders secure installation that is run by the Department of Health in his constituency. That installation is addressing the very issue of ensuring that courts have available to them places in which intensive intervention in the lives of those young people is possible. Very many of the young people in such installations are damaged, and come from homes in which they simply have not had a chance. Moreover, they have been failed repeatedly not only by the criminal justice system but by social services and an array of agencies that should have been working to ensure that they did not offend initially.

Across Departments, the Government's commitment is to ensure that we learn the lesson of early intervention that is taught by the Home Affairs Committee's report. We shall learn that and other lessons. Together, in the spirit that the Committee has demonstrated, we can and shall make a difference.

Question deferred, pursuant to paragraph (4) of Standing Order No. 54 (Consideration of estimates).