HC Deb 26 October 1998 vol 318 cc5-7
4. Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

How many offenders were given prison sentences of four months or more but less than eight months in the most recent year for which figures are available. [53510]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

There were 16,132 during 1997.

Mr. Loughton

I am grateful for that short answer. Will the Minister confirm that, under the home detention curfew scheme, a criminal who received a sentence of six months would spend only six weeks in prison? Is that correct?

Mr. Howarth

Home detention curfews will be introduced on 28 January 1999. All prisoners will have to satisfy a risk assessment that will be carried out by the Prison Service, and we expect that about 50 per cent. of those who are eligible will qualify for the scheme.

The length of the curfew—which is the point of the hon. Gentleman's question—will be determined by the length of the sentence. In order to avoid unfair anomalies, section 99 of the relevant Act sets out a sliding scale. [Interruption.] I am answering the question that the hon. Gentleman asked. If Opposition Members do not like my answer, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman asks a different question. The sliding scale ensures two things: first, that as much time is spent in custody as under curfew; and, secondly, that at least 14 days are spent under curfew. If the hon. Gentleman examines the statistics and the facts of the matter, he will discover that he is actually arguing about two weeks.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Specific to the length of prison sentences, will the Minister tell the House what penalties were imposed by the courts in the five cases of serious social security fraud cited in the Government publication of July 1998 entitled "Beating Fraud is Everyone's Business—Securing the Future"? Will the Minister remind the House of the sums involved and will he reassure the public that, in the context of crime prevention, the punishment meted out by the courts must be worthy of the crime?

Mr. Howarth

Obviously, the courts will determine what sentences to impose in any set of circumstances. As I did not receive notice of his question, it would be invidious for me to comment on the cases to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, I am sure that all hon. Members agree that prison sentences and other punishments must be available to the courts in the case of social security fraud. In some circumstances, they are quite appropriate punishments.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although short sentences of fewer than eight months might have a deterrent effect, they have very little rehabilitative or training content and leave many people with no alternative means of earning a living on their release from prison? Does my hon. Friend agree that, in most cases, it would be better to concentrate on electronic tagging or community sentences or on what the Home Affairs Select Committee prefers to call "criminal work orders" when dealing with such offenders? That would release resources wherever possible and ensure that those who are imprisoned for short periods receive the rehabilitation and training that will enable them to take up other careers when they leave prison.

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend makes a good point in that part of the purpose of a prison sentence is to equip people with skills so that they can lead an honest life when they complete their sentences. That is very important. As to home detention curfews, which have much exercised the minds of Opposition Members, perhaps they should ask the hon. Members for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and for Woking (Mr. Malins) for their views on the matter. They supported the Home Affairs Select Committee, which backed precisely this scheme, so I am sure that there is unanimity in all corners of the House.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I believe that the answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) is that, in many cases, six months will indeed mean six weeks. Of the 16,000 prisoners that the Minister mentioned, how many were burglars? How can anyone have confidence in the Prime Minister's promise of a blitz on burglars when, under the home curfew detention scheme, burglars may be let out on the streets? Or perhaps the Minister will tell us that burglars will not be included. We would love that; we would prefer that the Government implemented section 3 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997.

Mr. Howarth

It would be tempting to assume that, instead of being on the brink of being out of office for the next 20 years, Conservative Members had been out of office for the past 20 years. I believe that it has escaped the hon. Gentleman's attention that the arrangements that the previous Conservative Government had in place led to a doubling of crime and to fewer than one in 50 crimes resulting in a conviction. We shall listen to what the hon. Gentleman and his friends say when they can point to a more convincing record of their own; I do not believe that they can.

We are proposing something that we believe will work. It has the support of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, of which at least three of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends are members. It is about time that the hon. Gentleman started thinking about these things instead of sounding off about them.