HC Deb 12 June 2000 vol 351 cc658-72

'.In section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (power to release short-term prisoners on licence), after subsection (2)(a) there is inserted— (aa) the sentence is for an offence to which Part I of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 (notification requirements for sex offenders) applies;".'.—[Mr. Boateng.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Boateng

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 12—Exclusion of assault on police from power to release short-term prisoners on licence'In section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (power to release short-term prisoners on licence), after subsection (2)(b) there is inserted— (bb) the sentence is for any of the following offences—

  1. (i) an offence under section 89 of the Police Act 1996 (assaulting, obstructing or resisting a constable);
  2. (ii) an offence under section 38 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (assault with intent to resist arrest);
  3. (iii) an offence under section 18, section 20, or section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (wounding, causing grievous bodily harm and causing actual bodily harm) committed against a constable in the execution of his duty.".'.
New clause 13—Court to have power to direct that power to release short-term prisoner on licence shall not apply'In section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (power to release short-term prisoners on licence), after subsection (2)(a) there is inserted— (ad) the court, when passing sentence, has directed that subsection (3) shall not apply in the interests of justice, or because of the serious nature of the offence, or because the offender is a persistent offender;".'. New clause 14—Exclusion of offenders convicted of offences punishable by maximum term of ten years or more from power to release short-term prisoners on licence'In section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (power to release short-term prisoners on licence), after subsection (2)(a) there is inserted— (ac) the sentence is for an offence for which the maximum term of imprisonment is ten years or more;".'. New clause 15—Exclusion of offenders subject to minimum sentence for burglary from power to release short-term prisoners on licence'In section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (power to release short-term prisoners on licence), after subsection (2)(a) there is inserted— (ab) the sentence was imposed under section 111 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 (minimum of three years for third domestic burglary);".'. New clause 16—Exclusion of sex offenders from power to release short-term prisoners on licence'In section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (power to release short-term prisoners on licence), after subsection (2)(a) there is inserted— (aa) the prisoner is subject to the notification requirements of Part I of the Sex Offenders Act 1997;".'. New clause 17—Repeal of power to release short-term prisoners on licence'Sections 34A, 37A and 38A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 are repealed.'. Government amendments Nos. 40 to 44.

Mr. Boateng

The purpose of the Opposition new clauses is clear: to abolish the home detention curfew scheme in its entirety. That comes as no surprise, as on several occasions the Leader of the Opposition and, indeed, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) have made no secret of the fact that it is to be one of their manifesto pledges. I consider that to be profoundly misguided, and contrary both to the public interest and to the safety and security of our fellow citizens who benefit from the scheme.

We have no intention of abandoning the scheme, which has had a highly successful performance record in the 16 months since its implementation. It was heralded by an all-party Select Committee report, which endorsed it, and to which a number of Opposition Members—including an Opposition spokesman—were knowing and willing signatories.

The scheme is designed to assist in the successful resettlement of selected short-term prisoners, supporting the transition from custody to the community. In the overwhelming majority of cases, that is exactly what it has achieved. At its introduction, it received the unanimous support of the Committee to which I referred—the Select Committee on Home Affairs—to which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, among others, put his name. He has now reneged on that, and put his name to new clauses seeking to abolish or reduce the scheme. No doubt we shall be told why he has changed his mind.

The Committee's report said that the scheme would provide adequate protection to the public because of the tagging element, and will give prisoners an opportunity to readjust to life outside prison. That expectation has been borne out by experience.

Prison governors have shown great care in conducting risk assessments. Only about 30 per cent. of eligible offenders have been placed on home detention curfew to date, and the authorities have been notified of reoffending by fewer than 2 per cent. of those people while they have been on curfew. Overall, the scheme continues to have a high successful completion rate of about 94 per cent. I challenge Opposition Members to identify a scheme in the field of criminal justice, designed to protect the public in this way, that has a better record.

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Overall, the scheme continues to enjoy the high successful completion rate to which I have referred. It is an impressive record by any standards. Of course, we deeply regret any further offences committed on curfew, and all breaches, but the fact remains that, in the vast majority of cases, the careful risk assessment conducted before a prisoner is allowed to join the scheme is working properly and the right decisions are being made.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

My knowledge of the matter is a little rusty. Perhaps the Minister can help me. If someone who is sentenced by the courts to six months' imprisonment is released at the earliest opportunity under a home detention curfew, how long does that person actually spend in prison, when the public have been told that he has been sent to prison for six months? How long will it be?

Mr. Boateng

Sentencers know very well about the scheme. Indeed, it is not a scheme that is hidden from the public. They know very well that such a person would have an opportunity, if he were eligible—and only if he were eligible—to qualify for the scheme and to be released before the halfway mark at which he would normally be released.

Mr. Clappison

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boateng

No, I will not give way again. If the hon. Gentleman would like to remain in his seat a bit, he may learn more about the scheme.

That is not a secret or hidden. It is the basis of the home detention curfew scheme and what it is designed to achieve. Someone who is sentenced to six months in those circumstances would become eligible for a HDC having served six weeks—one and a half months—of his sentence. That is not to say that, having become eligible, he would be granted release on HDC.

I hope that that assists the hon. Gentleman. It is not a secret. It is there. People will draw their own conclusions as to how best to reintegrate such people into the community. The all-party Select Committee unanimously found that the scheme was a good way of doing that. The hon. Gentleman may take a different view. Others will take the view that it is the right way. The conclusion that we have come to, having considered the all-party Select Committee's unanimous endorsement and the evidence of how the scheme is working, is that, on balance, it is the right way forward and that now is not the time to go along the route proposed by Opposition Members.

Many of the new clauses are about reducing the scope of the scheme by excluding various categories of offenders all together. I am glad to say that, in one instance—namely, new clause 10—the Opposition support our policy. Their new clause 16 recognises, as we do, that it makes eminent sense to strengthen the existing home detention curfew scheme by excluding from it sex offenders who are subject to the Sex Offenders Act 1997. That is, in any event, our practice; it has been from the outset. We now believe it right to put that in statute, but the other proposals tabled by the Opposition are far less helpful and are designed to undermine the scheme. We are simply not going to go along with that because, in our view, that is not the best way in which to protect the public.

Under new clause 12, the Opposition wish to exclude from the home detention curfew scheme those sentenced to a range of offences committed against the police, including assault; obstructing or resisting a constable; assault with intent to resist arrest; wounding; and causing grievous bodily harm or actual bodily harm to a police officer in the execution of his duty.

The aim of new clause 13 seems to be to exclude from the home detention curfew scheme any offender who the sentencing court has directed should not be eligible for the scheme, whether in the interests of justice, because of the serious nature of the offence, or because the offender is a persistent offender, while new clause 14 would exclude prisoners convicted of an offence for which the maximum term of imprisonment is 10 years or more. New clause 15 would exclude from the scheme prisoners sentenced to a minimum of three years for a third domestic burglary.

The issue of whether there should be a statutory exclusion for sex offenders was raised initially when the House first considered the home detention scheme, during passage of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. At the time, we argued for retaining a discretion to consider whether to place an offender subject to the 1997 Act on the scheme in cases in which the risk assessment suggested that there was minimal or no risk to the public and that there would be a clear potential benefit to the chances of successful resettlement, treatment or supervision.

The example on sex offenders that we gave the House at that time was one in which release to a treatment centre was judged to be central to a prisoner's release plan, and curfew was considered to be necessary to support the likely completion of the treatment. In practice, in the 16 months since the scheme went live, it has been apparent that establishments have not identified circumstances that justify releasing on HDC offenders subject to the 1997 Act. In fact, only one such offender has been placed on the scheme, and that placement was contrary to policy because the Director General's approval had not been sought, which was highly regrettable.

We have, therefore, taken the view that the time has come to include in statute an exception—that, if one is subject to the 1997 Act, one will not qualify for HDC. The exception reflects current practice and puts the position beyond doubt. The statutory exclusion will also ensure that, in future, there are no errors of the type that permitted the release of that particular individual without the director general's approval. I am glad that the Opposition join us in taking that step.

I should say—without labouring the point on the Opposition's new clauses on other exceptions—that, although I share the sense of outrage and even disgust at some of the categories of offence dealt with in their new clauses, I really do not believe that the way to deal with those offenders is to exclude them from the scheme. The scheme is designed to smooth the transition from custody into the community. We believe that if that transition is made in the context of order and supervision, it is less likely that the individuals concerned will offend again. For that reason, and because we are satisfied that, in each of the instances highlighted in the Opposition's new clauses, we have in place sufficiently robust risk assessment standards and tools to assess individual cases and ensure that the public are well protected, we do not feel that the Opposition's new clauses take the matter any further forward.

We urge the House to reject the Opposition's new clauses and to accept our new clause 10, which we believe gets the balance right. Our new clause will ensure that the public are protected by providing for a smoother and more ordered transition for offenders from custody into the community, and it will uphold the HDC scheme—which would be undermined if the Opposition's new clauses were accepted. The scheme is working and it is founded on sound policy. I urge the House to reject the new clauses whose effect would be, in effect, to wreck it.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

As the Minister said, the amendments deal with what the Government term their "home detention curfew scheme", which might be more accurately labelled as the special early release scheme for prisoners convicted of serious offences.

As the Minister rightly pointed out, the Opposition have disliked the scheme from the very beginning. Our reservations were made clear during the early proceedings on what became the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), and my hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison)—whom I am glad to see in his place—and for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway).

New clause 17 would seek to scrap the home detention curfew scheme altogether. Our other new clauses would seek to ameliorate some of the worst aspects of the Government's early release scheme by excluding from it certain categories of offender or offence. The Opposition would wish, if possible, to press for divisions on new clause 12 and on new clause 17, although I understand that there might be procedural difficulties.

As I said, new clause 17 would scrap the special early release scheme altogether. New clause 12 would exclude from the scheme people convicted of assaults or other serious offences against police officers. The police, who are—particularly, but not exclusively—responsible for law and order in our inner-urban areas need the support and protection of the law. That includes being certain that when someone has been sentenced to prison for an assault on a police officer, they will serve the full term that the law prescribes and will not be let out of jail early because that suits the Government's release scheme.

New clause 13 would give the courts power to direct that the home detention curfew should not apply in particular cases. New clause 14 would exclude from the scheme offenders who were imprisoned for any offence that carried a maximum sentence of 10 years or more. That clause has been drafted with an eye to the Government's own proposals on immigration rules.

The Government are saying in their consultation document following the Tyson case that they propose, as a matter of rule, to exclude from entry to the United Kingdom anybody who has been convicted of an offence which, were it committed on British soil, would carry a maximum sentence of 10 years or more.

Through the new clause, we accept that the Government are right to identify such offences as serious, and worthy of condemnation and severe penalty. We are saying that, as a matter of justice, people who have been convicted of such serious offences and sent to prison for them should be excluded from the privilege of the early release scheme.

New clause 15 would exclude from the early release scheme burglars who had been persistent offenders and had been sentenced to a mandatory minimum prison term under the terms of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, which has been consolidated into the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000.

I wish to refer to the Government's new clause 10 and how it relates to our new clause 16. New clause 10 would remove from the early release scheme people who were serving a sentence following conviction for which they had been included in the sex offenders register. I welcome that concession especially because it is an aspect of the law that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere has been pressing ever since the Government introduced their original proposals for the early release scheme. Time and again, my hon. Friend and other Opposition Members have argued that the scheme should, as a matter of policy and of justice, exclude people who have been convicted of serious sexual offences and who are on the sex offenders register.

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Hitherto, the Government have said that there is no need for such statutory exclusion. They have written into the rules for prison governors to follow in carrying out their risk assessment a detailed series of steps that each must follow when considering the case for the early release of a particular sex offender. Against that background, I am glad that the Government have come forward with a concession, at least as far as it goes.

In a genuinely non-adversarial spirit, I put it to the Minister that the Government's new clause still leaves a loophole. As I read it, it would not exclude from eligibility for early release a criminal who was on the register of sex offenders because of a previous conviction but who, at the time when his case was being considered, was serving another custodial sentence for a crime that was not a sexual offence. It is not an academic prospect. I recall within the past few weeks reading of a case where a convicted paedophile who had served time in prison for such offences was subsequently released, and thereafter charged with other offences. In the end, he was convicted of an offence which, although related to his sex crimes, was not a sexual offence.

I can envisage a situation, for example, where someone is convicted of the abduction of a child, of kidnapping or of assault. He might, because of his previous convictions and his known record of sexual offending, be sent to prison on account of that non-sexual offence. However, under Government new clause 10, he would be eligible for early release under the home detention curfew scheme. Our new clause 16 seeks to relate exclusion from the scheme to the offender rather than to the particular offence for which he is serving a sentence at the time when he comes up for consideration for early release.

I would welcome the Minister taking advice on this point of detail. It may be something on which the Government wish to reflect and to which they may wish to return to at a later stage in the Bill's consideration, if they share my concern about a potential loophole in the law.

The Opposition's objections to the early release scheme remain fundamental. More than 20,000 criminals have so far been released early from prison as a result of the scheme. They are being released at an earlier point in their sentence than the normal statutory remission of 50 per cent. There are just under 2,000 offenders who are now out of prison under the scheme, when the Opposition would argue that they should still be behind bars.

Part of our objection stems from the fact that a significant number of offences have been committed by people on early release. The Minister is right to say that the number is small as a proportion of the total number of people who have been released early, but we know of 395 offenders who have been released early and have gone on to commit other crimes. Those crimes have often not been trivial. They have included five cases of threats to kill, 51 violent crimes, three rapes and 135 burglaries, robberies, thefts and similar property crimes. That represents a large number of victims. It may seem small as a percentage on the Home Office statistical returns, but it means real anguish, grief and loss for those individuals and families who have been the victims of those criminals who the Government have chosen to let out early.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I understand the logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument, but do he and his party think that if a significant number of people commit offences when they are on licence, no one should have the right to release on licence? Does he take the view that, if the reduction of a sentence leads to any risk of an offence being committed, that category of release should not be permitted by law?

Mr. Lidington

I do not want to stray too far from the new clauses, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the Opposition's view is that there should be much greater honesty in sentencing, so that the sentence passed by the judge is the sentence served in prison.

My party and I believe that there is certainly a place for supervision under licence at the end of a determinate sentence or after someone has served the appropriate portion of a life sentence. We see a place for tagging being used to enforce supervision and for its use in support of non-custodial penalties, but we object to its use as an excuse for the early release—release earlier than under the normal statutory arrangements—of people on whom the courts passed a particular sentence knowing what the statutory rules were. We believe that that is an affront to justice and that is why we tabled the new clauses.

The Government's early release scheme adds to the dishonesty of our sentencing system.

Mr. Boateng

Who introduced that sentencing system? Who was responsible for 18 years for the sentencing policy that we inherited? Who is now reviewing that policy? The answer is that Conservative Members were responsible for the system and the Government are reviewing it.

Mr. Lidington

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), when he was Home Secretary, introduced proposals for honesty in sentencing, If the Labour party wants to pick a fight with us over our call for greater honesty in sentencing, no one will be more delighted than the Conservative party.

Let us consider the facts. A written answer from the Home Office at column 402W of Hansard on 23 May 2000 listed the average custodial sentences passed on people who had been released early and compared them with the actual term served. For burglars, for example, the average sentence passed by the judge was 19.3 months, whereas the average term served was 7.4 months. For arsonists, the average sentence passed was 22.8 months and the average served only 9.8 months. For wounding, an average sentence of 15.6 months was passed, but the average sentence served was 6.2 months.

Most of our constituents would be outraged at the gulf between the sentences passed by judges in court and the sentences actually served. They would want Parliament to take whatever steps it could today to redress the imbalance in the law and to provide for greater honesty in sentencing.

Mr. Simon Hughes

This is an important matter, and I have heard the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members talk about it on the radio. I have one simple question for the hon. Gentleman: is it the Conservative party's view that what the hon. Gentleman calls honesty in sentencing would mean that significantly more people would go to prison and serve significantly longer sentences? I had understood that the Conservative approach was that roughly similar sentences would be passed, and that there would be similar numbers of people in prison, but that judges would hand out shorter sentences, which would be served in full.

Mr. Lidington

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has made our approach very clear. We believe that honesty in sentencing and length of sentence are distinct. We assume that honesty in sentencing is desirable as a good in its own right. In calling for the abolition of the statutory 50 per cent. remission, we assume that judges would take that into account in determining the length of sentence to be passed.

We assume that the average length of sentence would come down at first. We argue that sentences for particular crimes should be longer, especially mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders. We have said consistently that we would regard it as a Conservative Government's prime duty to ensure that sufficient prison places were provided to house the criminals whom judges decided to send to prison.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I agree with the principle underlying my hon. Friend's contribution, but my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) and I are the only two people in the Chamber who have sent people to prison. Does my hon. Friend accept that when a judge sentences a person to a term of imprisonment, he goes on to say that the person will serve half the sentence and that the remainder will be served on licence? I accept the use of the word "dishonesty" in this argument, but the sentencing judge is not guilty of any dishonesty.

Mr. Lidington

Absolutely. The judge knows what he is doing. Our criticism of what I have termed dishonesty in sentencing is that although the arrangement is familiar to those who operate the courts and the criminal justice system, the general public do not understand it. The sentencing process must be made more transparent.

I turn now to the Government's claims for the home detention curfew scheme. The Government argue that the scheme is a rehabilitative measure that works. I want to repeat that the Opposition support effective rehabilitation measures. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald in particular has made clear her passionate determination to establish a more effective rehabilitative regime in our prisons.

However, the Home Secretary has said that he measures the success of the home detention curfew by the occurrence, or absence, of convictions for reoffending only during the curfew period. In a written answer of 7 April, he made it explicit that any offending that took place after the curfew period had ended was not a factor in defining the success rate of the home detention curfew scheme.

That seems a crazy way of carrying out an assessment. If the scheme works in terms of rehabilitating criminals, surely we ought to see some results, in that criminals subject to home detention curfew will be less likely to reoffend after the end of their sentence and the curfew period, than other prisoners who have not had the benefit of early release under the Government's scheme. I think that the Government's measurement of their scheme's success is deeply flawed.

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Our case boils down to this: it is a matter of justice that the early release scheme should be ended. Among the 20,000 criminals who have been released early so far there are 210 people who have either committed or attempted homicide. There are people responsible for 3,342 violent crimes. There are 1,187 burglars, 811 robbers, 4,433 thieves, 3,236 drug offenders and 125 arsonists. I believe that the Government's scheme is an insult to justice and an insult to the law-abiding constituents whom we are sent here to represent and to defend.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

I think that we all agree that imprisonment has a number of roles. One is the proper punishment of offenders; another is the protection of the public. By definition, while people are in prison they cannot commit further crimes, although there is some argument about the effectiveness of deterrence when it comes to committing further crimes after they leave prison.

Prison must also have a rehabilitative role. If it is to carry out that role effectively, we need to keep the provision for early release on licence with, in these cases, the added safeguard of tagging. In cases in which people have benefited from the experience of imprisonment, and the risk of early release has been properly assessed, we believe that the scheme enables the proper transition for a number of prisoners from prison to freedom. We must not underestimate the fact that some people find that difficult to cope with, because for them, prison is an easy option, as they cannot offend while they are in, and coping with freedom is a challenge for them. It is in the interests of public safety that ex-prisoners are successfully reintegrated into the community.

As the Minister said in his opening remarks, eligibility for early release does not imply that a person will automatically be released. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said that Conservatives Members would press for a vote on new clause 12, if not on one of the other new clauses in the group. In that case, the Liberal Democrats will oppose it.

Mr. Clappison

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) for his comments, particularly on the sex offences provisions in new clause 10, and I am grateful to the Minister for his reply to my question. I also admired his bravura performance of ministerial confidence. The scheme that he is defending—early release through home detention—is so alien to the common sense and sense of fairness of the majority of members of the public that it takes a performance such as his to try and sweep it under the carpet and get away with it.

It would be churlish of me not to welcome new clause 10 on sex offences and the fact that the Government have, after all, accepted the point that we pressed on them from the start—namely, that serious sex offenders who are liable to registration under the Sex Offenders Act 1997 should be statutorily prevented from being part of the scheme. That is right.

I listened to the Minister's rationale for the Government's original view that, under certain circumstances, it would be possible for sex offenders to be eligible for early release. According to a written answer of 6 April 2000, there has been only one case in which such an offender was released. As the Minister accepted in his remarks, that one case illustrates just what can go wrong and how seriously it can go wrong under the arrangements that the Government have allowed to be in place for home detention curfew. The person in question had committed a serious offence of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl. He was given a sentence of six months. I think that in fact he did not even serve six weeks. Because of some administrative oversight, he was released after only 35 days, and his case was not considered by the Director General, which was one of the safeguards originally recommended by the Government. The system clearly did not work then; it will be much better if, by statute, sex offenders are not eligible for early release. Most members of the public would agree with that.

The public would also be concerned at the number of violent offenders who appear to have been released under the scheme. If the statistics read out by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury are correct, the number is significant. Members of the public would be concerned about the overall honesty of the system—a point that my hon. Friend was right to make. I agree with the gist of the intervention made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) about how the courts operate and that judges are honest in passing sentences. The dishonesty occurs when the length of time an offender spends in prison bears little relationship to the sentence passed—when offenders serve only a fraction of the time that the public are told they will serve.

In his response to my intervention, the Minister pointed out that, under the provisions, someone sentenced to six months could be, and in many cases is, released after only six weeks Six months must not mean six weeks. Such a bulging gap strains the credibility of the public and their confidence in the criminal justice system.

I cannot accept the Minister's defence—not among his best-considered remarks—to part of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, as, in essence, the right hon. Gentleman was self-contradictory. He said that the previous Conservative Government had allowed prisoners to be released after serving only part of their sentence. That is correct, although towards the end of their period in office, they were moving towards a closer relationship between the sentence imposed and the length of time served.

However, the Minister is now adopting the position that the sentence should be less. In every case, the average sentences to which my hon. Friend referred are less than they would have been before the home detention curfew provisions were introduced. Prisoners are allowed on home detention curfew after they have served only a small fraction of their sentence in prison. We are not being honest in what we tell the public.

The public do not like such dishonesty. I am not convinced that they would be so severe in passing sentence. Research shows that, in the majority of cases—especially those involving non-sexual or non-violent offences—members of the public would not pass especially severe sentences. They do not constantly demand ever more severe sentences. What they want is honesty. That is the inconsistency in the Government's system.

The points made by my hon. Friend are correct. The new clauses will give a little assistance in improving a bad system—especially in cases involving police officers. It is unfair that the public should be told that a man who has assaulted a police officer will be given a sentence of six months, when that person will be out on the streets in six weeks. That cannot be honest.

I emphasise those points about honesty in sentencing because I am not against tagging as such. Tagging has an interesting history. It was pioneered by the previous, Conservative Government—[Interruption.] An hon. Member says it was abandoned. It was certainly not greeted by bouquets and assistance from the Labour Opposition. Whenever possible, they opportunistically extracted the maximum political advantage—whether or not their statements were consistent. They certainly did not hand out bouquets.

The previous Government were right to persist with tagging, even though there were some technical problems initially. Tagging is right as a sentence. It is also an acceptable way to deal with someone whose liberty needs to be constrained while awaiting a court appearance. It is better for such people to be tagged than to be locked up in prison. However, it should not apply to people sentenced for serious offences. The Minister will confirm that people are eligible to be tagged for offences when the courts have sentenced them to up to four years imprisonment. The offences committed can encompass serious offending.

It would be far better if we explored the use of tagging as a sentence in its own right and as an alternative in appropriate cases to people going to prison. For example, it is particularly appropriate for tagging to be considered for women prisoners. In the past few years, under the previous Government and under this Government, there has been an extraordinary growth in the number of women prisoners. Under this Government alone, the number of women in prison has risen by 30 per cent., which is faster than the rate at which men are being imprisoned. However, women do not tend to commit the serious violent offences that cause most concern to the public. The Government are creating more prison places to lock up more women while they are releasing under the home detention curfew scheme men who have been convicted of serious offences, including offences of violence.

The Government are getting criminal justice sentencing into a crazy mess. The system needs to be put right and our new clauses would go some way to doing that. However, the system is so dishonest that we need to take a much more root-and-branch approach. I hope that such an approach will come in due course so that we can give the public a system of sentencing that is honest with them and in which they can have confidence.

Mr. Malins

I do not think that it is so much honesty in sentencing—of course, we need that—but clarity in sentencing that we want. One of the problems that I face as a sentencer is that I must scratch my head before I pass a sentence. If I pass a sentence of six months, I tell the defendant that he will be released on licence after three months. Provided that he keeps his nose clean while he is on licence, that is the last he will hear about it. However, if he does not, he will return to prison to serve the balance of his sentence. The same principle applies if I pass a sentence of four years in the Crown court for a serious case of burglary. Before someone passes sentence, the question that he or she must ask is, "Wait a minute. Do I really want this person to serve four years, or shall I say four years on the basis that he or she will serve two?" It is a head-scratching exercise.

The home detention curfew scheme will cause a little more head scratching. As I understand it, when we pass a sentence, we do not mention the home detention curfew scheme at all. It is purely an administrative rather than a judicial matter. In sentencing a person, one passes what one considers to be the right sentence and warns about offending on licence. However, whether someone comes out under the home detention curfew scheme is an administrative decision and, unfortunately, the judge knows nothing about that—someone else makes the decision.

I hope that the Minister will confirm that the decision as to who, under the home detention curfew scheme, comes out and is tagged for the balance of the sentence is made not by the judiciary, but by either the Home Office or a prison governor. I might not have a problem if either of them takes the decision, but it makes it a bit difficult for the sentencer to understand whether the sentence that he has imposed will mean what he intends it to mean.

That takes us back to the thorny old question of whether release on a home detention curfew is meant to rehabilitate. Clearly, the scheme is Treasury-driven because it will save money. I remember that, in the 1980s, the Conservative party released many prisoners because it was cheaper to do that. I am sure that we did that.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

Is there not a qualitative and profound difference between releasing people early to save money and home detention curfews that attend to the rehabilitative needs of the prisoner and to the protection of society?

Mr. Malins

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I do not think that the home detention curfew scheme is rehabilitative. We need to see some pretty firm statistics to show that people do not reoffend, not just in the period while they are under the curfew, but in the period after the curfew. Rehabilitation is meant to be a long-term process.

The Minister will accept that we must be careful about sentencing in general. We must not take a mismatch approach by which we add to, and subtract from, the legislation each year. If the result of such an approach is that sentencers do not understand the sentences that they pass, that defendants need to employ a senior Queen's counsel to explain to them and that the public do not understand what is happening, we have a problem.

The Minister teased my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) about his work on the Home Affairs Committee, and I speak for my right hon. and hon. Friends when I say that my hon. Friend contributed massively to the Committee during the all-too-brief period for which he was a member of it. The Minister knows as well as I do that sometimes on Select Committees one has to cede point A to gain point B and that the fact that the report was unanimous does not mean that everyone agreed with all its conclusions. Otherwise, I would have been thought to have changed my mind at least six times on various issues in the past few months.

5.30 pm
Mr. Boateng

I am afraid that I am less charitable than the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) towards the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), but perhaps that is not a surprise, bearing in mind our respective positions. We have had a good debate, although I did not think we would.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

It has been brief.

Mr. Boateng

I hear the silent one mutter that it has been brief, but it has also been important in teasing out the issues and where we agree and where we do not. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) made a serious and considered contribution to the debate, and I shall reflect on several of the remarks he made. I am bound to say that I come to a different conclusion on the home detention curfew scheme, but I welcome his support for electronic tagging and the new technology as an aid to sentences. We need to ensure, however, that we have greater clarity and transparency in sentencing, and I agree with the hon. Member for Woking in that respect.

I prefer the phrase "clarity and transparency" to the language adopted by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), which rather marred his contribution. He seeks to be all things to all people in this matter and seeks to give the impression that he would, given half the chance, be tougher on crime than me or the Government. That simply is not the case. He must understand that he is being disingenuous in his call for greater honesty in sentencing, thereby suggesting that the existing system is dishonest, bearing in mind the fact that it was successive Conservative Governments who were responsible for the sentencing system that we inherited.

The hon. Member for Woking argued that one has to cede some points in order to gain others, but the difficulty for his party is that it signed up to the sentencing system for 18 years. You cannot now wriggle out of the consequences of your actions in relation to existing sentencing policy and the framework that you established when you were in government. [Interruption.] I mean the Conservatives, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because you, of course, had no part in it whatever.

We recognise that the sentencing framework is flawed and we are going to change it. I look forward to a considered and constructive contribution from, among others, the hon. Members for Hertsmere and for Woking, as well as the shadow Attorney-General, to that process. It has to be done, because we need greater clarity and transparency. I would argue that we also need, in some cases, greater toughness in terms of the length of sentences. It is however disingenuous of the Opposition, in their call for greater honesty in sentencing, to attempt to give the impression that longer sentences will necessarily be served as a result of such a policy being implemented. We believe some categories—certainly in the case of burglary and arguably in cases of violent crime, in which there has been an unacceptable increase—ought to lead to longer terms of imprisonment being served by offenders, hence the action taken by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in introducing the "three strikes and you're out" policy.

We have to understand that, although the home detention curfew scheme is designed to ensure a smoother and better-ordered transition between custody and freedom, it is part of the sentence. A home detention curfew and the paraphernalia of a tagged person are signs that society requires limitations on liberty and a certain form of order and conduct as part of a sentence served, not in a custodial setting, but in a home setting, as a precursor to ultimate liberty.

Mr. Garnier

So that our debate is better informed, will the Minister state the relative cost, on a daily, monthly or annual basis, of a home detention order, a tagging order and a prison place; and, in the event of there being no tags or home detention orders, how many additional prison places the Government would need at their disposal?

Mr. Boateng

I shall certainly write to the hon. and learned Gentleman with that detailed information. His intervention enables me to draw the House's attention to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Woking that the measure is Treasury-driven. That is a simplistic approach. As the figures that I will make available to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) will illustrate, a degree of saving to the public purse is entailed, but that should not cause the House to underestimate or ignore the added benefit and value of creating, after a rigorous process of risk assessment, a framework of law and technology around the offender by which that individual's transition front custody to the community is better managed.

That issue was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) in his intervention. The HDC scheme continues to have a high successful completion rate of about 90 per cent., and only 2 per cent. have been notified as having reoffended while on curfew. That demonstrates that, in the vast majority of cases, the careful risk assessment undertaken is working as it should, and that the care and attention given to the matter by governors is ensuring that public protection is enhanced by these arrangements for the return to the community of offenders who have been carefully selected as eligible and properly placed on the scheme. It also demonstrates that the risk assessment carried out manages and minimises the risk of individuals reoffending during that period.

Mr. Simon Hughes


Mr. Boateng

I am not giving way now. The hon. Gentleman has just returned to the Chamber, and we must make progress.

The effectiveness of the risk assessment management and the minimisation of risk during the period that would otherwise have been served in custody are the proper measure of the success or otherwise of the scheme. That does not mean that one should overlook the ultimate goal of rehabilitation in the medium and longer term. That applies across the board, but we judge the success or otherwise of the scheme by what occurs during that period.

This group of amendments includes Government amendments Nos. 40 to 44, which are technical changes relating to the power to attach conditions to release licensees. The amendments will ensure that all young offenders who are released following a period of detention may have electronic monitoring or, in the case of over-18s, drug-testing requirements imposed as release conditions.

Amendments Nos. 40 to 44 correct a technical flaw in the current draft of the Bill which would prevent young offenders—including those up to 21 years of age—from having electronic monitoring or drug-testing conditions imposed. That, clearly, is undesirable, for the reasons outlined by the hon. Member for Hertsmere. Technology has something to offer sentencers in terms of public protection, and should be used.

The need for amendment arises from the fact that clauses 56 and 58 refer specifically to those released from sentences of imprisonment. However, sentences imposed on young offenders are not legally defined as sentences of imprisonment. Young offenders are sentenced to periods of detention and may serve their detention in accommodation other than a prison. The exclusion of young offenders from the provisions in the Bill was not intended, and the amendments remedy the situation, while retaining the proviso that drug testing conditions will not be available in respect of under-18s.

With that explanation, and following a good debate, I hope that the House will give the Government new clause and amendments the fair wind that they deserve.

Mr. Garnier

I had not intended to contribute to the debate, but some of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks have provoked me, in a gentle way, to do so.

Any savings that will be achieved through the home detention curfew or by the tagging of early-release prisoners will fall to the benefit of the Treasury as a whole. I invite the Government to allow the Prison Service, which is already under huge financial strain—I speak as a Member of Parliament for a constituency that has within it Gartree prison and also part of the estate of the Glen Parva young offenders institution—to keep the savings made, so that it can reinvest that money in additional facilities at prisons and in additional services for prisoners, especially for the rehabilitation of prisoners.

I note that in my constituency prison, Gartree, the probation service is less well represented in terms of numbers—the quality, I am sure, is excellent—and the education services have had to be cut as a consequence of Government restrictions on Prison Service finances. I trust that the Government, who, I have no doubt, believe in honesty in all things, will allow honesty in financing, as well as honesty in sentencing.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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