HC Deb 26 January 1999 vol 324 cc143-4 3.31 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether any prisoners currently serving sentences as a result of convictions to which part I of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 applies will be released under home detention curfew on 28 January, and if he will make a statement.

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

I do not expect any sex offender to be curfewed on home detention curfew on Thursday. Governors have been instructed that no sex offender should be considered for home detention curfew unless there are exceptional circumstances, and then only if there is the clearest evidence of no risk to the public. In any case, any proposal to curfew such an offender will have to be approved by the Director General of the Prison Service.

As members of the Home Affairs Select Committee unanimously recognised recently, home detention curfew will improve the transition of short-term offenders from custody back into the community, by providing order into often chaotic life styles. It will encourage offenders to take greater responsibility for finding a stable address. Prison governors have already reported a much greater willingness by prisoners to make suitable release arrangements. Prisoners discharged to a stable address, and curfewed to that address for at least nine hours a day, are much less likely to reoffend. The scheme is first and foremost about protecting the public.

I shall set out the conditions under which an offender may be placed on home detention curfew, which the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) will want to hear. First, only offenders serving between three months and four years will be eligible. Secondly, only prisoners who do not pose a risk to the public, do not pose a risk of reoffending, are likely to abide by the curfew conditions and who have a suitable home address will be allowed on home detention curfew. Prisoners who fail any of those tests will complete their sentence in prison. On Thursday, I expect no more than about 50 prisoners to be curfewed. None of those will be offenders under part I of the Sex Offenders Act 1997.

Mr. Clappison

Is the Minster aware of the depth of public concern about sex offenders and the publics desire for the strongest possible protection from the risk that such offenders pose? Is he aware that Opposition Members have all along expressed concern about sex offenders with regard to the Governments programme of early release from prison facilitated by electronic tagging? In view of the grave risk involved in such cases, should not the Government be in possession of relevant information and have a grasp of what is going on?

According to written answers provided last night, the Government were able to say only that, out of the 135 prisoners eligible to be considered for release, fewer than 10 were sex offenders. They could not give the exact figure. When it came to the number of prisoners actually to be released, we were told that the information would be available only after 28 January.

At the start of his statement, however, the Minister told us that he expects no sex offenders to be released, but, at the end of it, he told us that no such prisoners will be released. What is the case? Does the Minister know whether any of those prisoners will be released? If the answer is that no such prisoners will be released, why could not the Government give that information yesterday evening? Why are the Government suddenly able to produce that figure today, when they were unable to produce it yesterday, after months and months of preparation for the scheme, which was first announced by the Government as long ago as November 1997? Does not that show a Government who, at the very least, are slipshod when it comes to obtaining and imparting vital information on an important subject?

For the future, will the Minister tell us now approximately how many sex offenders will be eligible for release when the scheme is up and running, given that more than 7,000 prisoners in the prison population are eligible for release, and 4,000 will be on early release as a result of tagging at any one time? The Minister looks perplexed. I hope that those facts do not come as a surprise to him, because they are contained in answers that his Department has given. He should know that information. Will he tell us now how many of those offenders might be sex offenders? Will he give us an assurance now that, when Ministers actually find out how many sex offenders will be released and discover what is going on, they will give the House that information in good time? Will they ensure that they obtain that information?

Finally, will the Minister give us a definite assurance today that no sex offenders will be released on Thursday of this week? Is the answer to that yes?

Mr. Boateng

I am looking perplexed only at the hon. Gentleman's apparent lack of ability to listen to what I have said. No sex offenders under part I of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 will be released on Thursday—none, not any. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has heard me and understands me.

The hon. Gentleman must also understand the difference between eligibility for consideration under the 1997 Act and the circumstances in which someone would be adjudged to be of a degree of risk such that it would be safe to enable him to leave under the conditions of the home curfew. The point of the home detention curfew is to ensure that the public interest is protected. It will be protected, it has been protected, and we shall monitor the release of all prisoners under the home detention curfew in a way that will ensure that the purposes of the home detention curfew are met.

Before the hon. Gentleman starts playing party politics with the home detention curfew, he needs to understand that each and every member of the all-party Home Affairs Select Committee—including the hon. Members for Woking (Mr. Malins), for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth)—supports home detention curfews. The aim of those curfews is to protect the public, and we shall ensure that the public are protected.