HC Deb 23 June 1998 vol 314 cc923-8
Mr. Greenway

I beg to move amendment No. 72, in page 81, line 7, leave out from beginning of line to end of line 19 on page 82.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 73, in clause 98, page 82, line 20, leave out from beginning of line to end of line 46 on page 83.

Government amendments Nos. 161, 109 to 113, 117 to 120 and 143 to 146.

Mr. Greenway

The Criminal Justice Act 1991 introduced the concept of tagging offenders as an alternative sentence to imprisonment. As a Back-Bench member of the Standing Committee of that Bill, I recall during its progress and previously being a strong advocate of the tagging option. At that time, the Labour party took a wholly different view, and I make no point other than that we welcome its conversion now.

However, the House has to ask itself: why the change? We think that the clear and singular answer is concern about prison places, which in turn means concern about the need to save money. I will not labour the point about prison places, except to say that we have yet to be told what the effect of the comprehensive spending review will be on the Home Office budget, and in turn on prison budgets and the provision of new places. We hope that the expansion of prison places in line with the increase in the prison population will continue.

Mr. Beith

Does the hon. Gentleman envisage that to be an indefinite process—that prison numbers will continue to expand, and, year by year, spending reviews will continue to provide more money for them?

Mr. Greenway

That is an important point, but the right hon. Gentleman knows full well that the answer is that it is not the House or the Government, or the Opposition parties, who sentence prisoners to custody. The job of the Government and the House is to ensure adequate provision of prison places. I shall deal with an alternative to the Government's proposals in the Bill, which I hope will encourage the right hon. Gentleman to think that the Opposition are not pursuing a lock-everyone-up policy—far from it: the 1991 Act contained many important reforms of non-custodial sentencing, the bulk of which have now bedded down well into sentencing patterns, and I recall that much concern and suspicion was expressed in the Standing Committee on that Bill.

The proposals in clauses 97 and 98 together provide a detailed scheme for the early release of prisoners serving short-term sentences of more than three months. A prisoner sentenced to four to eight months will serve only a quarter of the term ordered by the court. That means—this has become a colloquial expression—that six months will mean six weeks in prison. For the remainder of the time, up to the point where the prisoner would normally have been released—at the halfway point of the sentence—he or she would be subject to a curfew condition, backed by a tagging requirement to ensure that he or she spent at least nine hours a day on home detention.

Clearly, that provision will affect large numbers of prisoners, who will as a consequence be released early. Notwithstanding the tagging condition or the risk assessment that we are promised, that is a retrograde step: it will give prisoners the opportunity to reoffend, which will consequently undermine the protection of the public. The Minister and the Home Office ministerial team need to brace themselves for significant public disapproval when such cases occur and are publicised.

In the exchange a few minutes ago, we were talking about rare cases and cases in extremis. Here we are talking about the run-of-the-mill Johnny Burglar being released early, spending some time at home because he is tagged, but also spending some time out on the street reoffending. We think that this does not achieve honesty or consistency in sentencing, because if the risk assessment is to mean anything, it will determine that some prisoners will not be released early. More to the point—this is why we chose to have this debate on the Floor of the House—we do not believe that this is the best use of tagging and curfew.

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Tagging should be a sentence of the court. I must say to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that it should be seen as an alternative to custody where some restriction of liberty is thought appropriate and a prison sentence is not. Tagging was never considered as a viable sentencing option that would provide an excuse to halve sentences imposed by the courts. On Second Reading, the Home Secretary said that prisoners would be released under the procedure towards the end of their sentences. However, the public will see that tagging occurs within weeks, if not days, of sentence. That will not inspire public confidence in sentencing.

Ministers say that tagging introduces self-discipline, and enables prisoners to be better prepared for life outside prison. Over time, curfew orders certainly can have beneficial effects, and both sides agree that they are a valuable option. Under the Bill, however, many short-term prisoners will have a curfew condition that lasts only a few weeks—it may be as little as two or three weeks. The reduced time served in prison will mean even less time for meaningful work or rehabilitation. We do not believe that the Government's arguments in favour of curfews supported by electronic tagging really make sense.

Ministers have suggested that a risk assessment for each qualifying prisoner will determine suitability. Who will carry that out? What assurance can we have that the assessment process will not be undermined by the need to reduce overcrowding in prison, or to avoid investment in additional places? The clause also provides power for the Secretary of State to amend the various time periods in the proposals. That gives rise to general concern that the proposals will be used as a means to release large numbers of prisoners into the community long before their sentences have been concluded.

We oppose the early release of prisoners under the scheme. That is why we tabled our amendment proposing to remove clause 97. We want an extensive scheme for tagging to reinforce curfew orders, but it should be a proper sentence of the court. Courts could then decide to impose curfew sentences as opposed to short-term custodial sentences where circumstances dictated that that would be beneficial. That is a better and more honest way to relieve pressure on the Prison Service, and to ease overcrowding. It is certainly a more appropriate use of tagging-based curfew sentences.

The Government's approach runs the risk—I say this in all sincerity—of bringing both custodial sentences and the use of tagging into disrepute with the public. The Government would then reap the worst of both worlds. They should think again.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

Amendment Nos. 72 and 73 affect clauses that were not opposed in Committee, and would kill off the home detention curfew. The Government therefore oppose them. Clause 97 establishes the new power under which prisoners near the end of short sentences may, subject to passing a risk assessment carried out by the Prison Service, be considered for an electronically monitored curfew. Clause 98 provides the framework under which a prisoner will serve the period of his home detention curfew.

When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced this initiative, he said that tagging had an important role to play in preparing prisoners for their reintegration into society, and that it could help prisoners by establishing some structure and order to their lives and imposing discipline that may assist in taking proper responsibility for working or looking for work, for keeping their families together and for maintaining self-control."—[Official Report, 20 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 454.]

The case for introducing an element of tagging into the last part of a short-term prison sentence is strong. Rather than imposing an outside discipline in the prison, its impact would be to get people to impose self-discipline so that they begin to take responsibility for their behaviour and understand that they can change it and cease their offending behaviour. The effect of teaching prisoners self-discipline will be safer streets, because there will be less likelihood of crime. The Home Secretary also said that it would be the height of irresponsibility not to take advantage of the opportunities offered by technology, thereby contributing to the safety of society at large by improving the prospect of the prisoner's resettlement.

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) appeared rather unconcerned about prison places. In Committee, the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) graphically described the consequences of prison overcrowding—the lack of supervision, the opportunities for misbehaviour, and the fact that it produces more, and worse, criminals. The previous Government created legislation that ensured that more people went to prison, but they failed to finance the prison places. As a result, the new Government had to find £112 million to provide further prison accommodation.

The extra resources announced by the Home Secretary will be used to increase the operational capacity of prisons by 3,820 places. That includes 1,540 new places to be opened in the form of new house blocks, cell reclaims and the continued operation of HMP Weare. Additional resources would also provide staffing and funding for regime activities to support the placing of an additional 2,280 prisoners in existing prisons. In total, the prison building programme will provide 9,700 additional places by the end of 2000, by a combination of expanding existing prisons and building new ones. To date, 4,700 places have been delivered. The new Government accept their responsibility to deal with those issues.

I stress that not all offenders will qualify for home detention curfew. Certain categories of very serious offenders, particularly sex offenders, will be dealt with very carefully indeed. Even if they do not qualify, they will not be released without restriction. There will be a cut-off point below which curfews will generally be impractical and of little value.

The home detention curfew is not an easy option. Offenders will be required to spend nine hours a day or more under curfew. The curfew is an on-going part of the sentence and should be seen as such. The sentence does not end with the custodial element, and failure to comply with the demanding curfew will result in the offender being returned to prison.

The Opposition amendments would stop an important new scheme dead in its tracks. They would mean turning our back on the clear and valuable benefits that can be drawn from this emerging technology. They would perpetuate unnecessary overcrowding and the associated problems that that creates for the Prison Service. They would deliberately prevent us from developing new and constructive ways to manage the transition from custody to reintegration into the community. As a result, there would be more offending, not less. They should therefore be resisted.

Government amendment No. 161 is consequential on clause 99. It is needed because the clause creates an unintended anomaly in respect of an activated suspended sentence. The amendment is uncontroversial, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary fully explained the need for such an amendment when he wrote to the right hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) to describe the purpose of Government amendments. However, I shall set out that explanation for the record.

At present, the law allows an activated suspended sentence to be regarded as having begun on the date on which it is activated, or ordered to take effect under section 23 of the Powers of Criminal Courts Act 1973. Under clause 99, the key date for the purposes of deciding whether sentences are to be aggregated is that on which the sentence was passed.

Where there is a suspended sentence, there is scope for doubt about whether the key date is the point at which the original court imposed the suspended sentence or the date on which it takes effect. To maintain the current position on how such sentences relate to any others being served by the offender, it is necessary to make it clear that an activated suspended sentence is passed for the purposes of clause 99 at the time it takes effect. Amendment No. 161 achieves that.

Government amendments Nos. 109 to 113, 117 to 120 and 143 to 146 are minor. They are consequential on the changes in sentence calculation arising from clause 109, or address anomalies in the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993.

Amendment No. 145 repeals provisions that require a prisoner released from one sentence and subsequently ordered back to prison under section 16 of the 1993 Act to be released on licence in certain circumstances in respect of the order and any new sentence. The intention is that, under the revised arrangement, the original sentence will continue to exist, and consequently any subsequent requirement to be released on licence from that sentence, regardless of whether a section 16 order of fresh sentence is imposed. That is consistent with the amendments to the 1993 Act made by clause 109.

The original sentence will not form a single term with a section 16 order and any new sentence. It is therefore no longer considered necessary to require a prisoner to be released on licence in respect of his section 16 order and new sentence.

I hope that, on the basis of those comments, the hon. Member for Ryedale will be prepared to withdraw his amendments, and that the House will accept the Government amendments.

Mr. Greenway

I warned the Minister not to argue about the provision of prison places, but he could not resist the temptation. It is clearly on record that, in the years leading up to the 1997 general election, prison capacity increased by over 20 per cent.–11,000 additional places—as a result of the previous Government's prison building programme.

The anticipation of an increase in numbers arising from criminal justice and public order legislation passed by the previous Government, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, also led to the planning of nine new prisons. It is to the Government's credit that they have continued that programme, but the Minister is wrong to suggest that the previous Government failed to address the need to create improved and additional capacity in the prison service—the facts reveal a wholly different scenario.

Mr. O'Brien

The hon. Gentleman will no doubt accept that the new Government have applied a certain amount of expenditure restraint. If the previous Government were so free with their largesse on prisons, why does he think that the new Government have had to find £112 million of new money to try to correct the defects that they inherited from the previous Government?

Mr. Greenway

The hon. Gentleman's very silly argument is that, regardless of circumstances and developments, not another penny will need to be spent on any area of public policy, in addition to whatever public expenditure provisions were in place and planned when a Government of any party took office. It is preposterous nonsense.

The £112 million that the Minister refers to is very small in relation to the hundreds of millions—I guess it runs to billions—of pounds that was spent on the prison estate under the previous Government. As a Home Office Minister, who travels throughout the country visiting custodial institutions, he can see for himself the huge investment that was made following the riot at Strangeways prison—I think it was in 1990.

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If I remember rightly, the Minister was not then a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs; I do not think that he was in the House. Those of us who were, and who had the opportunity to visit Strangeways, made several recommendations. The entire contents of the Woolf report were warmly embraced by the previous Administration. Therefore, we should not, and cannot, take any strictures from the Government about lack of investment in the prison estate. They must respond to the circumstances as they find them: that is the job of Government.

We are not, as the Minister alleges, seeking to stop any tagging experiment dead in its tracks. On the contrary, we are the party which has advocated the use of tagging. We are suggesting to the Minister an alternative, which would command better public confidence than the alternative in the Bill.

The Minister prayed in aid the beneficial features of tagging to reinforce curfew orders. We agree, but we believe that if the Government go ahead with the scheme, it will undermine public confidence in custodial sentences that are served up to only a quarter point of the original sentence, and in the use of tagging, which the public regard as a soft option to prison. Obviously, our arguments have fallen on deaf ears, but, as in the previous debate, in which I took part, the Opposition believed it right to draw the attention of the House and the country to the fact that what the Government are doing is wrong. Now that we have done so, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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