HC Deb 28 March 2000 vol 347 cc225-90

Order for Second Reading read.

3.41 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

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

The Bill is an important step in our drive for a more effective and targeted criminal justice system that works better to reduce crime and so protect the public. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 and the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) No.2 Bill—recently before the House—have all been introduced to that end. The Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill is a further step to the achievement of our goals.

The Bill will restructure the probation service, so that it is more effective and focuses on its key tasks of enforcement and public protection, with a separate service for children and family courts. It will give the police, courts and others the additional tools that they need to tackle crime through drug testing, electronic monitoring and police access to driver information, as well as dealing more effectively with truancy. It will provide particular safeguards for the most vulnerable people through measures to prevent unsuitable people from working with children.

As I told the House on 13 March, amendments will be tabled to the Bill to bring the sentencing and release of those detained at Her Majesty's pleasure into line with the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Thompson and Venables.

The probation service does a vital job. Its officers work in a difficult environment, sometimes with dangerous offenders. I hope that the House will join me in paying tribute to their professionalism, yet there is a need for greater efficiency and focus in the service. Enforcement rates against offenders who break probation conditions are simply not good enough. A survey by the Association of Chief Officers of Probation in September last year found that only 44 per cent. of those who broke probation were actually breached—that is, sent back to court for re-sentencing—and then only for a third or subsequent failure. That has led to probation being seen by too many offenders as a soft option.

Moreover, the service is fragmented into 54 autonomous units, with only limited accountability to central Government. That fragmentation is well illustrated in turn by huge variations in performance on almost any measure one can choose. The rates of breach—bearing in mind that it is at the third or subsequent failure to observe an attendance requirement of a probation order—can range from 89 per cent. in respect of the best county, Cornwall, to 8 per cent. for Essex. Nine out of 10 offenders who breach national standards and who have failed to turn up on three or more occasions in Essex are not subject to any further action.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw

I will later.

We have watched some services give enhanced early retirement deals to senior staff who have failed to perform to the standard required. Until now, no Home Secretary has had the power to prevent them from spending taxpayers' money in that way.

We have to build on the best of past experience and on current practice to deliver a probation service that concentrates on its core aim: enforcement of sentences and public protection. The service is a law enforcement agency, and must act as such.

In our judgment, that efficiency and effectiveness can best be achieved by a unified service—renamed in the Bill as the National Probation Service for England and Wales—with stronger national leadership. As hon. Members will have noticed, clause 2(2) provides clear statutory aims for everyone working within the service—that the persons concerned must have regard to

  1. (a) the protection of the public,
  2. (b) the reduction of re-offending,
  3. (c) the proper punishment of offenders.
The Bill will establish a unified and centrally co-ordinated service, with 42 local areas matching police authority boundaries. The new service will work more closely with police and other agencies and with local crime and disorder partnerships. Local probation boards will work to deliver their services in a way which serves their locality better. Each board will be responsible for developing its own work plan within an overall national strategy, and the boards will be more representative of the local population.

Greater central direction of the type that the Bill envisages will promote more consistent use of an evidence-based approach that is based on what works. It will also promote a joined-up criminal justice system, so that there is co-ordination between all agencies involved in dealing with any given offender.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

On the subject of a joined-up justice system, I look again at clause 2(2)(c), on the "proper punishment of offenders." Currently, those who breach a probation sentence passed in the Crown court are returned to the magistrates court to be dealt with for the breach. Does the Home Secretary agree that it would be sensible if those who breached Crown court probation orders were brought back to the Crown court, to prevent any delay or lack of punishment powers?

Mr. Straw

The hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely correct to say that, and I should be very happy to have his support in ensuring the implementation of such a proposal. It is an obvious and important point.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

We share the Home Secretary's view that it would be right to make the probation service conterminous across the country with police authority boundaries. Such an arrangement seems both sensible and good. However, will the Home Secretary think again about the power that he is giving himself in the Bill to appoint those who will chair all the probation committees?

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that his predecessor started with a plan that the Home Secretary should appoint the chairs of all police authorities, but that the current Home Secretary and other Labour Members supported us in opposing the proposal and it was thrown out? The previous Lord Chancellor wanted to appoint all the chairs of the magistrates committees, but that proposal, too, was thrown out. Can the Home Secretary resist taking more power to himself, when an otherwise good idea is about to be spoiled by excessive interference by the Home Secretary?

Mr. Straw

I always resist opportunities to take more power to myself—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] My record of transferring power and responsibility to the level at which it should lie, as we have done in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, precedes me.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Buck passing.

Mr. Straw

I do not think that that accusation fairly lies against me. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) accuses me of coming to the House too often—not, touch wood, so often this year, but certainly for a time last year. She also said that I was responsible for something that had not gone perfectly and asked what I was going to do about it. One cannot have it both ways. The right hon. Lady's former boss used to think that it was possible to come to the House to say that not he, but someone else who was not an hon. Member, was responsible for something. I have taken the opposite view, although sometimes, in the short term, it makes the situation more uncomfortable than it might have been. But that is my job, and I am delighted to do it as long as the Prime Minister wishes me to do it and the House gives me its approbation.

I ought to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). He will know that schedule 1 makes provision for the appointment of the local boards. He is right to say that we propose that the chairpeople should be appointed by the Secretary of State. I understand his point, but I do not accept that there is a direct parallel with police authorities, which are representative of local authorities as well. He will know that the independent members of police authorities have to go through a shortlisting procedure, subject to the Secretary of State's approval. There is a similar arrangement for magistrates.

As with all the appointments that I have made, there will be a proper system, approved by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, to ensure that the arrangements and candidates are the most suited for the job. As I have said before, no Bill that I have taken through the House has been perfect in all its particulars.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

This one is not.

Mr. Straw

There is an important point to be made about the role of Parliament. The right hon. Lady did not follow that when she was a Minister and had to come to the House more frequently than I have to explain the most extraordinary examples of maladministration over which she had presided. That is the purpose of a Committee stage. I am not saying for a moment that we intend to shift from our current position, but of course we will listen to the arguments. No doubt the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will also advance them when he speaks later in the debate.

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

At length.

Mr. Straw

At length, as my right hon. Friend says.

A co-ordinated and targeted approach should mean that, from arrest to the end of their licence, each offender will be dealt with appropriately and effectively. In the criminal justice system envisaged in the Bill, if an offender has, for example, a drug problem that could lead them to reoffend, it should be recognised and dealt with throughout their contact with the police, the courts, prison and the probation service. We are determined to ensure not only that the service is effective, but that it offers value for money. If any of the 42 new boards show themselves unable to perform to the high standard required, the Secretary of State will have the power to contract out those services.

Miss Widdecombe

Why is the power to test for drugs and to tackle the problem to be used only against those who have committed acquisitive crime rather than including those who have committed more serious crimes, such as violence against the person?

Mr. Straw

The provision is confined at the moment to those who commit acquisitive or drug offences, because, as I shall say in more detail later, the evidence suggests that such offenders have the highest propensity to commit further offences as a result of their drug offending. However, of course we are open to argument about whether the list in the schedule should be extended.

The restructuring of the probation service provides a timely opportunity to create a new service that focuses on the needs of children and families going through the court system, principally in respect of civil proceedings. At present, those functions are carried out by the probation service family court welfare services, the guardian at litem and reporting officer service, and the children's section of the Official Solicitor's office. The Bill will create a single service to replace them—the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, which will no doubt be known by its acronym, CAFCASS. CAFCASS will be responsible for safeguarding the welfare of children before courts dealing with family court proceedings. Its aim will be to put children first and to offer a fast, flexible and consistent service. The probation service will then be able to concentrate on its main purpose of law enforcement.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Has the Home Secretary considered whether that is the appropriate acronym? Would it not be more sensible to bear it in mind that anything involved in family court services has to be careful to avoid ridicule? Has not the Home Secretary thought that, inevitably and sadly, the acronym will lead to the organisation being renamed "carcase"?

Mr. Straw

Those of us who know the phonetic alphabet know that there is a difference between an F and an R, and I do not think for a second that there will be any trouble. There are plenty of acronyms like this one, and I am sure that it will be perfectly satisfactory.

Mr. Bercow

Does the Home Secretary recall that when the Minister of State wisely abandoned plans for the renaming of the probation service, he pointed out that the concept of community punishment and of rehabilitation would remain central to the purpose and workings of the service, but would not be included in the title? On the same principle, why is it not possible simply to incorporate the words "advice", "advisory" and "support" in the working of the organisation, but not to include them in what is now an unnecessarily lengthy and cumbersome title?

Mr. Straw

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and I am sure that some complicated argument was made as to why the words should be included so as not to confuse people in terms of the children and family courts service. This is not one of the world's most important issues. We have ensured that the name is not open to parody. I think that it is satisfactory, but if better titles which will not lead to confusion with other services can be proposed in Committee, we are open to argument.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

With regard to magistrates family courts, can my right hon. Friend say whether they have a good future? Will they continue, because there is evidence that work on family matters is migrating from the magistrates courts up to the higher court, at county level—perhaps because there is more to be earned by advocates there? I have raised this matter with the Lord Chancellor, and I wish my right hon. Friend to consider that there should be a good future for these courts.

Mr. Straw

I believe that there is, and I have seen nothing contrary to that. I am assured that that is the case by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department. One understands the economics of legal advice—to which my right hon. Friend referred—but I know that the Lord Chancellor has taken vigorous steps to ensure better control of the bills for civil and criminal legal aid.

Community sentences, supervised by the probation service, need to be a credible sentencing option for tackling offending behaviour. At present, the system is not working as it should. I have mentioned the ACOP survey's disturbing findings on the enforcement of probation conditions. This failure to breach offenders defying their probation orders is happening, despite the 1995 national standards for probation, which require that offenders be subject to breach proceedings if they miss three attendance meetings without an acceptable excuse.

The Bill seeks to improve the enforcement of community sentences. These measures build upon work already undertaken to tighten national standards which come into force on 1 April this year. The Bill gives the new enforcement standards a statutory basis. Under the new regime, where an offender over 18 is not immediately returned to court after the first unacceptable failure to comply with an order, there will be a duty on the probation service to issue a warning, and to return him to court on the second unacceptable failure within any 12-month period, or within six months for a curfew order made by the court. If the offender is found to be in breach, save for exceptional circumstances, he or she will be sentenced to up to three months' imprisonment, or longer if the original offence allowed for a greater term of imprisonment.

Our message to offenders should be loud and clear—community service orders and sentences will no longer be a soft option. Breaches will be dealt with speedily and firmly.

As well as improving public protection, the Bill will make community sentences more credible, both to the courts and to the public. The courts need to know that they have a range of flexible sentencing options with which to target the particular needs of offenders so as to stop them reoffending and to protect the public. The sentences also need to be understood. We are therefore renaming them, so that their purposes are clear from their names.

One of the most important tools in our drive to make community sentences more effective, and therefore to protect the public better, is electronic monitoring. Trials of electronic monitoring, or tagging, as a sentence of the court took place in seven probation areas between 1995 and 1999. The trials proved very successful, with a success rate of over 80 per cent., which compares favourably with other community disposals. From 1 December 1999, courts throughout England and Wales have been able to sentence offenders to an electronically monitored curfew order for a wide range of offences, including theft and burglary.

In turn, this Bill will give the courts the power to order the electronic monitoring of any offender serving a community sentence. Courts will also be able to make that order in a variety of ways, such as by means of a curfew order, or by requiring proper electronic monitoring of an offender's attendance for community service, at a probation office or on offending behaviour programmes.

The Bill is structured in a way that will allow us to keep pace with changes in technology. It provides for this disposal to be made available area by area, as the technology and contracts are let on a rolling basis. We have learned from the previous Administration's successful experience in piloting curfew as a sentence of the court and then rolling it out area by area.

Mr. Bercow

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

I shall make a little progress and then, as ever, give way to the hon. Gentleman.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 provided that selected offenders on sentences of imprisonment of between three months and less than four years could be tagged. That allows prison governors to place on electronic curfew offenders in the last period of their custodial sentence for a period of between two weeks and two months, according to the original sentence length. The provision was, as the House will recall, endorsed by a unanimous recommendation of the Select Committee on Home Affairs in its third report for 1997–98.

Prison governors have shown great care in their risk assessments. About 31 per cent. of eligible offenders have been placed on home detention curfew, and the success rate has been over 90 per cent. Its value is to ensure a better transition between custody and the community. One requirement of HDC, for example, is that the offender have a suitable home address. That often forces offenders who want to benefit from HDC to make better post-custody arrangements.

Miss Widdecombe

The Home Secretary says that there has been a 95 per cent. success rate, but does he accept that the failures have included some extremely serious cases? For example, two people later charged with rape would have been in prison had they not been let out early on the tagging experiment. Will the right hon. Gentleman apologise to the victims of people who do not serve the full sentence that a judge says that they should serve because they have been let out into the community?

Mr. Straw

I shall treat that intervention in the manner that it deserves. The right hon. Lady was prisons Minister in the previous Administration, and knows very well that prisoners coming to the end of their determinate sentences are released on licence. The ludicrous arrangements entitled "Honesty in Sentencing" that she had inserted into the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 would have ensured early release for many prisoners before the court date that would otherwise have been set, and without electronic monitoring.

It is no good the right hon. Lady trying to rewrite history. Home detention curfew was backed unanimously by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. A member of that Committee was the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), who endorsed the proposal. He said that HDC

will provide adequate protection to the public because of the tagging element, and will give prisoners an opportunity to readjust to life outside prison. We accepted that endorsement. Moreover, the right hon. Lady was a member of the Opposition when home detention curfew issues were being debated in the proceedings of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. She and her right hon. and hon. Friends decided not to oppose those arrangements.

Of course there is an element of risk with any arrangement that involves the release of prisoners before they die. Prisoners may well be released and then reoffend. I regret any reoffending by those on HDC, or those on licence. When she was a Home Office Minister, the right hon. Lady let out many offenders, no doubt on licence, who then went on to reoffend, and I do not recall her apologising. We will get the figures, because there are bound to have been offenders whom she and the then Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), let out, such as mandatory lifers who reoffended and had to be recalled. The right hon. Lady knows that very well. Frankly, this kind of hollow mischief making impresses no one.

Mr. Hawkins

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way, but I think that on this occasion his spin doctors at Millbank may have let him down. If he looks carefully at that Home Affairs Committee report, he will realise that I was not even appointed to the Select Committee until midway through that inquiry. In any event, the evidence that was heard by that Committee, including much evidence that was heard before I was even a member, was not about the scheme that he has talked about introducing, and then introduced. So it does not support his contention, and I hope that next time he will ensure that his researchers read the whole report, including the information about when people were appointed to the Committee, before he makes such cheap points.

Mr. Straw

I think that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is called Mr. Nick Hawkins. It says here that he was appointed to the Committee on 2 March 1998. It then says—I have checked this carefully, because I would not for a moment wish to traduce the hon. Gentleman—that there were proceedings of the Committee relating to the report. Right hon. and hon. Members who have been members of Select Committees will know that Select Committees receive evidence and then go through the draft report, usually prepared by a Clerk, line by line. What do I find? There were only four meetings of the Committee to deliberate on the report, and on 14 July, Mr. Nick Hawkins was present when the Committee deliberated. On 21 July, Mr. Nick Hawkins was present when the Committee deliberated. On 22 July, Mr. Nick Hawkins was present when the Committee deliberated. On 28 July, the Committee deliberated, Mr. Nick Hawkins was present, and it was agreed unanimously that the Chairman do make the report to the House. The hon. Gentleman has no case. He had four opportunities to move an amendment to the report. He failed to do so. I am afraid that he must stick by what he and other members of the Committee Select said, which was that HDC

will provide adequate protection to the public because of the tagging element, and will give prisoners an opportunity to readjust to life outside prison. The hon. Gentleman tries to wriggle, and suggests that what was being talked about was not the home detention curfew included in the Crime and Disorder Act. That is completely incorrect. It was exactly about that in every particular, spelled out in paragraph 163. I think that the hon. Gentleman has the report there—I suggest that he read it. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if he really wants more pain.

Mr. Hawkins

I am not suggesting for a moment that I was not at the meetings. If the Home Secretary had listened to my original intervention—which, plainly, he did not—he would know that I said that the inquiry and its evidence was already well under way before I was appointed to the Committee. The right hon. Gentleman and members of his party may well be told by Alastair Campbell and by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), to vote on matters when they have not heard all the evidence. However, if the Home Secretary is suggesting that it is appropriate to vote in favour of or against a report when one has not heard all the evidence, he should think again. He is suggesting that I should have voted against a report when I had not heard all the evidence. I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman is in a hole and should stop digging.

Mr. Boateng

You have caught him bang to rights.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman forgets the advice of Lord Healey, that "if you are in a hole, stop digging." My advice to him is not to wriggle but to sit there and take it. He had four months in which to consider the evidence.

Mr. Hawkins

I had not heard half the evidence.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman is being silly. If he felt that he had not heard the evidence, why on earth was he taking part in the Committee's proceedings? He should have absented himself altogether.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

As a member of the Home Affairs Committee at the time, I can confirm that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) was a member of the Committee and was present at the four meetings that my right hon. Friend mentioned. It does the hon. Gentleman no favours to say that, because he had not heard all the evidence, he could not vote against the report. He had not heard all the evidence, but he agreed the report with the rest of us. He cannot have it both ways.

Mr. Straw

In any event, just so that we are clear about this, Madam Speaker, the hon. Gentleman was appointed on 22 March and the main evidence was taken after he was appointed. On 21 April, evidence was taken from the inspector of probation and the National Association of Probation Officers. Home Office evidence from the now chief executive of the Prison Service and the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), was given on 5 May, well after the time when the hon. Member for Surrey Heath was appointed.

Mr. Bercow

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw

Yes, and then I will get on.

Mr. Bercow

How does the right hon. Gentleman reconcile his statement on 29 November last year, at column 27 of Hansard, that he had no plans to provide for electronic tagging to facilitate the early release of serious, including sexual, offenders, with the response of the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) to a written answer, at columns 559–60W on 22 March this year, in which he stated that just such an extension could take place, thereby facilitating the early release of at least an extra 230 prisoners a year?

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman anticipates me. I had the feeling that he might wish to be better informed about the matter, and I was about to come to it.

Electronic monitoring also has the potential to enhance the security of the public and the management of offenders who are released at due time on licence without HDC. What I am talking about now is different from the home detention curfew. The arrangements for release on licence currently apply to all adult offenders sentenced to 12 months or more, to young offenders aged 12 to 21 serving any period in custody, and to any prisoner released on temporary licence.

The Bill provides for electronic monitoring for such prisoners. It may be helpful if I explain to the House the arrangements for the release of both short-term and long-term offenders. Those who are sentenced to a year or less are released at the halfway point without licence. They are also eligible for HDC. Under the Criminal Justice Act 1991 offenders sentenced to between one and four years are released automatically at the halfway point of their sentence. Those sentenced to four years or more can be considered for parole at the halfway point, and must be released at the two-thirds point. In respect of both the shorter-term prisoners sentenced to between one and three years and the longer-term ones sentenced to four or more, the licence operates until the three-quarter point of the sentence.

Electronic monitoring, for which the Bill provides, will reinforce the licence conditions in a direct way and may provide significant improvements in the offender's resettlement, the better to protect the public.

I commend the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) on his ability to remember column numbers, as some people remember train numbers. It is an entirely innocent habit. I am sure that there are worse things that could be said about the hon. Gentleman, but I will not mention them. As he said, on 29 November 1999—I think in the debate on the Loyal Address—I told the House: We have no plans or intention whatever to provide for electronic tagging to facilitate the early release of serious or sexual offenders.—[Official Report, 29 November 1999; Vol. 340, c. 27.] I am happy to reiterate that undertaking.

The availability of electronic monitoring for sex and other high-risk offenders should not in itself influence the parole board when making decisions on their release, and I will be directing the board to that effect.

In answer to the parliamentary question to which the hon. Member for Buckingham referred, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South stated that, in finely balanced cases, the availability of electronic monitoring as a condition of licence could be considered. That may be the case for certain offenders, such as those serving more than four years, who may need the punishment of a longer sentence but who pose no wider risk to the public. The existence of electronic monitoring will not be a consideration in decisions on parole for sex offenders or other high-risk offenders.

The new electronic monitoring provisions will be a valuable added protection for the public. Under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, we gave the courts power to impose extended sentences—up to 10 years—in respect of serious sexual and violent offenders. The Bill will enhance that extended supervision by electronic monitoring.

The Bill also provides better protection for victims of domestic violence or stalking through the creation of a new exclusion order. It will use reverse tagging to deter an offender from approaching a certain place or places, such as the home of a spouse or partner against whom the offender has been convicted of violence. It will also be generally available as a licence condition.

There is the clearest evidence of a link between drug misuse and crime. In the drug testing of arrestees research programme, more than three out of five of those surveyed tested positive for an illegal drug. In some places, the total was nearly four out of five, with a third of them testing positive for heroin and more than a quarter positive for cocaine. We must do all we can to break the link between drug abuse and crime. To do that, we need a joined-up criminal justice system that deals with the problems posed by offenders at every stage. We believe that that can be done. Evidence from one study in the United States showed that prisoners who received treatment during sentence and on release were less likely to be arrested 12 months later than those who received treatment only in prison.

Conversely, recently published Home Office research on the effectiveness of care and resettlement work with drug-addicted offenders highlighted the need for enforcement agencies to work together. It concluded that unless there is an effective multi-agency approach to tackling offenders' drug misuse before, during and after custody, they are likely to relapse and reoffend. I am pleased to draw the House's attention to an announcement that I made yesterday in a written answer—that the new money announced a week ago by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer included, among other things, £5 million for post-release drug treatment hostels.

The Bill is intended both to deter drug abuse and to identify offenders who need treatment. From the successful introduction of mandatory drug testing in prison, which the previous Administration began, we know that the availability of testing can in itself help to reduce drug abuse. I accept that there are clear differences between the closed environment of a prison and the community, which, by definition, is open. However, there is no doubt that early identification of whether individuals are drug offenders, and appropriate use of that fact either in community punishments or in prison, can help to cut the link between drugs and crime.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

In detailing the Bill's drug-testing provisions, will my right hon. Friend confirm that excellent drug arrest referral schemes, such as a pioneering scheme in Lancaster which has attracted a Queen's nursing award and in which nurses have been placed in police stations to work with people at the point of arrest, are entirely complementary to the provisions of the Bill?

Mr. Straw

I shall indeed confirm that. Under the Bill, police will be able to test at charge offenders who commit high-volume acquisitive crimes, such as burglary, and those whose drug habits are bound up in a criminal life style. Those arrangements will be piloted, and detailed guidance will be provided under clause 42 after consultation with the police service.

The Bill's powers will be complemented by a new drug abstinence order and by existing programmes such as the drug treatment and testing order currently being piloted in three areas. In addition, and this relates to my hon. Friend's point, we are providing an extra £20 million over three years for a roll-out of drug arrest referral schemes across the country. The Bill seeks to build on proven measures such as the Prison Service's programme of counselling, assessment and throughcare—CARATS—which links work done in prison to effective drug counselling and support on release into the community.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the Home Secretary comment on two matters? The Standing Conference on Drug Abuse, which is a reputable body, has been critical of the Bill's proposals; in general, it regards them as likely to be ineffective. More topically, this morning, the Runciman report pointed out that, nationally, 62 per cent. of the budget is spent on law enforcement on drugs, but only 13 per cent. on treatment. Is the Home Secretary minded to work across the Government to ensure that there is a significant increase in the resources for treatment for drugs, inside and outside prison? All the evidence appears to show that treatment is more effective than many of these new and somewhat untested criminal justice proposals.

Mr. Straw

I have great respect for the standing conference, but I do not accept its analysis. We intend to pilot the arrangements. The history of criminal justice measures under all Governments is that some people always criticise new proposals; they say that they will not work or are inappropriate. Some proposals do not work, but that is not a reason for not trying them. However, many do work.

I point out to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald that, in the late 1980s, when curfew arrangements were proposed, there was great scepticism about whether they would work effectively. That criticism was partly related to the then availability of the technology. However, those arrangements did work and have produced considerable benefits.

I do not accept the view of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that treatment and enforcement are spending alternatives. I should prefer that those who become addicted to drugs stay out of crime and undergo treatment as quickly as possible. However, the reality is that a high proportion of addicts—especially those addicted to opiates and cocaine—get involved in crime to pay for their habit. We have to break that link. We are putting as much extra money as we can into treatment both inside and outside prisons. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that there is better co-ordination of drug treatment in the health service for offenders and for non-offenders.

I shall deal briefly with some of the items in the Bill. Building on the provisions of the Protection of Children Act 1999, the Bill will make improvements in the protection of the most vulnerable in society. Those proposals form a vital part of the measures needed following the terrible abuses uncovered in children's homes and described in the recent report by Sir Ronald Waterhouse.

The measures will provide a comprehensive, integrated system to help stop unsuitable people working with children, and will make it a criminal offence for anyone so identified to apply for or to accept such work, or to offer services that involve it. In particular, we want to ensure that where someone is identified as a risk to children in one sector of work, he or she cannot move with impunity to another.

The Bill will also protect children through tough new measures to tackle truancy—part of our wider strategy for dealing with truancy and social exclusion, and with related juvenile delinquency. On any one day, about 50,000 pupils are off school without permission. As well as being a major contributor to youth offending, truancy can have a devastating impact on a child's later life and prospects.

The Bill challenges the culture that tolerates truancy, and targets the parents responsible for allowing it. The Bill will increase the penalty on parents for failing to ensure that a registered child attends school regularly. By making that failure an offence punishable by imprisonment, it will allow the courts to issue warrants for the arrest of offending parents, to ensure that they attend court. Neither I nor my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment wants any parents to be jailed for their failure to ensure that their child attends school regularly, but under the current law, it is impossible to get four in five of the parents who are summonsed for their child's truancy even to appear in court. Four in five of those parents simply cock a snook at the system and fail to answer the summons. The main purpose of making the offence imprisonable is to ensure that it is possible to enforce the legal process.

Finally, to assist the police in tackling crime effectively, the Bill will enable them to gain bulk access to information about drivers from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency rather than approaching it on a case-by-case basis, as at present.

Since the general election, recorded crime has fallen by 7 per cent., and the number of offenders brought to justice rose by 7 per cent. in 1998 to its highest for 20 years. We know that, under the previous Administration, crime doubled while the number of criminals brought to justice fell by a third.

Mr. Boateng

Those are the facts.

Mr. Straw

Those are indeed the facts. [Interruption.] I am not surprised that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald laughs. It is a record that she seeks to forget, but which everyone else remembers.

The Bill's financial effects are set out at the end of its financial and explanatory memorandum. We are also ensuring that the police and other criminal justice agencies are better resourced, so as to make best use of the measures in the Bill. One important aspect of that are the resources available to the police. Between 1993 and March 1998, under budgets set by the previous Administration, the number of police officers in England and Wales fell by about 1,400. That was despite a pledge to the House by the right hon. Lady that numbers would be increased by 5,000. Numbers have fallen under the first period of this Government under the spending plans regarded as reckless by the Opposition. We are now, however, putting in place a co-ordinated programme to boost recruitment to ensure that more officers are used in front-line operational duties and to bring about in two years the recruitment of the additional 5,000 officers that was originally planned for in three years.

Yesterday, I gave details of the £157 million investment under the capital modernisation fund for a range of new information technology systems and other measures to speed up justice and to reduce the unnecessary bureaucratic burdens on the police and others who work in the criminal justice system.

The Bill is a coherent package of measures that builds upon proven successes and harnesses new technology in the fight against crime. The restructuring of the probation service, the new enforcement regime for community sentences, and the enhanced role for electronic monitoring and drug testing will all promote an evidence-based approach to fighting crime. The enforcement regime, drug testing and electronic monitoring measures will also enable the courts and others to adopt a more targeted approach to offenders.

Together, the measures will promote a tough, effective and focused approach to reducing both crime and the fear of crime. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.27 pm
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

I could hardly believe the utter complacency of the right hon. Gentleman's peroration. Until then, this debate had been almost sensible, but, listening to him, one would not have thought that, for example, the steepest falls in crime since the second world war actually happened in the last three years of the previous Government. One would never have thought, from listening to him, that we now have the first rise in crime for six years and that he has presided over a fall of 2,300 in the number of police officers. However much he may seek to blame us, the fact remains that that has happened under his stewardship in the past three years. Listening to him, one would have thought that thousands of drug dealers, sex offenders and killers were not being let out of prison early.

I found entirely spurious the right hon. Gentleman's argument that the previous Government let mandatory prisoners out of prison early, because we never let out a single mandatory prisoner who had not completed his tariff. My objection is not that he is letting people out at the earliest point at which release is possible, but that, under his tagging rules, they are let out before that point. Enough of them are reoffending to cause a sane person serious concern, but not apparently the Home Secretary. If he believes that soundbites and smoke-and-mirrors tricks, such as his famous fiddle on police numbers, will cut the crime rate, he is even more out of touch than I thought.

Unlike the right hon. Gentleman and his friends when they were in opposition, we shall not oppose measures that aim to cut crime. Therefore, we will not divide the House on Second Reading. Although we support some measures in the Bill, others will need refining and will certainly need a more open-minded approach than the right hon. Gentleman demonstrated in his response to some of the interventions that he took. Other measures will need substantial scrutiny and major amendment. That is a responsible attitude, which is in complete contrast to his behaviour when he was in opposition.

The Home Secretary might like to recall that Lord McIntosh of Haringey, then the Labour party's Front-Bench home affairs spokesman in another place, described the mandatory sentences for drug dealers and burglars proposed by the previous Government as "nonsense" and "gesture politics". That was as late as 1996. I doubt whether the Home Secretary would repeat those words now that he has taken credit for rolling them out, as he likes to phrase it.

I had hoped that, when the Minister of State announced the U-turn on the name "community punishment and rehabilitation service" in response to the timely question of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) two weeks ago, the Government's fervour for mind-blowing political correctness had at last been extinguished. Unfortunately, my hope was short-lived. Having dropped the outlandish new name for the probation service, the Home Secretary has decided to press ahead with changing the names of probation, community service and combination orders. It is extraordinary that the right hon. Gentleman, having finally realised that his zeal for political correctness was a step too far, even for the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) and for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), has decided to retain the probation service and to change the names of the orders instead. So we shall have a service with one name, but the measures that it enforces will have names that were not good enough, even in the Government's eyes, to be retained for the service as a whole. Perhaps the Bill's provisions show us all the true mess of the third way.

Under clause 10, the Home Secretary will have wide powers to take over the new local probation boards in almost any circumstances. Even at this stage, he has no faith in the way in which his new creations will work. All appointments to the boards will be made by the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor. There is no guidance in the Bill on who will be appointed. We know from last week's report by the Commissioner for Public Appointments that the Government have packed the national health service with their cronies. [Interruption.] It was an independent report.

We can only hope—[Interruption.] It was probably indignation at their iniquity. We can only hope this week that the Government will not end up packing the probation service. [HON. MEMBERS: "Do not be absurd."] But why is it so necessary to take control of every appointment? Why is it absurd to ask for assurance that there will be independent appointments?

If the Home Secretary had any concern for democracy and for the scrutiny that the House is supposed to give to Bills, he would want to answer my questions rather than sit on the Government Front Bench as if invalid questions are being asked. An independent report shows—the right hon. Gentleman did not heed it—that the Government packed the health service.

I welcomed the Minister of State's answer yesterday that the Government are working to ensure the highest standards of openness and transparency.—[Official Report, 27 March 2000; Vol. 3471, c. 13W.] I am sure that the Government will wish to be judged on their record, which has not stood up to much scrutiny so far.

It is strange that the nationalisation and centralisation of the probation service has been undertaken by a Government who, when they were in opposition, attacked national control and centralised appointments. Has the Home Secretary forgotten his own attack on the Crown Prosecution Service's "monolithic nationalised system" in 1996? Does he not recall the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael)—his deputy both in opposition and in government, before he went away to make a mess of Wales—attacking the concept of central appointments to police authorities as "highly damaging".

Does the Home Secretary not recall the early-day motion tabled by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth of 11 January 1993?

Mr. Straw

I have forgotten.

Miss Widdecombe

I understand that the Home Secretary's memory is short, so I shall refresh it. It was signed by the current Minister with responsibilities for the probation service, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) and by other current Home Office and Cabinet Ministers. It stated that any attempt to introduce "nominated boards" of the Home Secretary's own choosing would do terrible damage to "accountability and public confidence".

Does the right hon. Gentleman remember the words of the then shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who has since moved on? He said in a press release that the notion of central appointments was a disastrous proposal and stated:

We need more, not less, local accountability on appointments. Perhaps the Home Secretary will enlighten the House about his party's change of mind. The House will need to look in detail at how disqualification orders will work in practice. The Home Secretary did not devote much attention to those orders in his speech. I do not criticise him for that because he could not cover everything, but I want to raise one matter with him. I wish to make it clear that Conservative Members totally abhor those who abuse, or otherwise take advantage of, vulnerable children, whether physically or sexually. Those criminals are among the worst and should expect to face the full force of the law. However, the Bill contains several apparent loopholes that may need to be plugged. For example, the new disqualification order will apply only to those sentenced to 12 or more months' imprisonment.

I remind the Home Secretary of the case of Paul Gadd, who is perhaps better known as Gary Glitter. In November, he was rightly jailed for possessing indecent photographs of children that were described by the judge as filthy and revolting, but he got just four months in prison. The Bill would not automatically disqualify from working with children somebody committing a similar offence and receiving a similar sentence.

The list in schedule 4 of offences that will qualify offenders for disqualification orders does not include assault occasioning actual bodily harm. More alarmingly, it does not include the supply of controlled drugs. Is it the Government's view that drug dealers who sell to children should expect to face the severest punishment, including tough mandatory sentences, which is what we have proposed? It is strange that those who peddle drugs to children should not be subject to the new disqualification orders proposed by the Home Secretary.

As I said to the House in November, we welcome the introduction of drug testing for criminal suspects, but we have a number of concerns about the detail of the Bill. The Home Secretary has said that drug tests will be used to identify those who commit crimes to feed their habit, but is it not the case, as I asked him earlier, that those who use drugs commit sexual and violent crimes as well as acquisitive ones, and that there is often a direct link between their drug use and those crimes?

Last week, for example, Christopher Tilling, a heroin addict, was jailed for 12 years for manslaughter after he set fire to a house, killing a seven-year-old child, in return for £200 to feed his drug habit. If the Home Secretary is to break the link, as he puts it, between drug habits and crime—we do not dispute that aim—the provision should be extended to all serious crime, and not apply only to acquisitive crime. Tilling did not commit a property crime, so there would have been no mandatory testing under the Bill and no establishment of the link that the Home Secretary seeks to substantiate.

Mr. Bercow

Will my right hon. Friend confirm for my benefit and that of the House that a disqualification order could not have applied, for example, to the Bay City Rollers' drummer, who last week received a sentence of only 300 hours' community service for child pornography offences?

Miss Widdecombe

Yes, that is true. As in the Gary Glitter case, the sentence is substantially less than 12 months, so the disqualification order would not have applied, and indeed it would not have done so even if the sentence had been only fractionally less than 12 months.

Mr. Straw

I accept that this matter is complicated and that it needs to be examined carefully in Committee, but I may be able to reassure the right hon. Lady. Clause 48 says that testing can be done where the person concerned has been charged with a trigger offence and those offences are as she has described them. Testing can be done also where the person concerned has been charged with an offence— that is any offence— and a police officer of at least the rank of inspector, who has reasonable grounds for suspecting that the misuse by that person of any specified Class A drug caused or contributed to the offence, has authorised the sample to be taken. In most of the examples cited by the right hon. Lady, testing would have occurred under the second of those conditions.

Miss Widdecombe

I was dealing with disqualification orders. I think that the right hon. Gentleman has taken me a point back, but I shall now come on to discuss the clause from which he quoted.

The tests will be limited to class A drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. Does that not, whether intentionally or unintentionally, send out yet another message that the Government have given up the war against class B drugs, in particular cannabis? What will happen to those who test positive for heroin or cocaine, but against whom the main charges are subsequently dropped? What action, if any, will be taken against them to address their habit or to charge them in relation to their drugs offences? Is that not another potential loophole?

Jackie Ballard

Will the right hon. Lady explain to the House what offence would have been committed in those circumstances? As I understand the current law, it is not an offence to use heroin or cocaine.

Miss Widdecombe

That is quite true, but the presumption must be that if people are found to have consumed heroin or cocaine, investigations could be carried out to test for possession.

My point should be clear to the Secretary of State. If the charges relating to the actions in connection with which the person was arrested are dropped, what happens if he is then found to have heroin or cocaine in his system? The question arises with regard to the penalty, if possession is established—

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. Part of the purpose of the measure is to ensure that drug abusers are identified at an early stage and put into drug arrest referral schemes. It happens that quite a number of people who are arrested are not subsequently charged. We are concerned that intervention should take place at an early stage. As we know, not least from experiments such as those that have been taking place in Lancaster and elsewhere, drug arrest referral schemes are working well and ensuring that people reduce their drug abuse, and they often get off drugs entirely, over time.

What would happen is that those people would go into treatment. They could not be forced into treatment, as they have not committed a criminal offence. On the right hon. Lady's other point, the consumption of any kind of drug is not an offence, and her Government never proposed to make it an offence. We do not have time to go into that, but there are substantial objections to making it an offence. The criminal law impacts on possession or dealing.

Miss Widdecombe

My point was that if a person was found to have consumed such material, it is possible that he would be in possession of it, and that a search of his lodgings or home would reveal that. I am trying to ascertain how far the matter will be taken seriously, particularly in cases—

Mr. Boateng

Very seriously.

Miss Widdecombe

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is right. I am trying to point out that there are loopholes in the current provisions. We shall try to tighten them up in Committee. As the right hon. Gentleman says that the matter will be taken very seriously, I hope that he will consider equally seriously any amendments tabled in Committee.

Does the Minister agree that yet another clear and undesirable message would be sent out if the fact that a suspect tested positive for heroin or cocaine was not addressed, even by way of a caution or a fine to acknowledge the criminal offence of possessing those class A drugs? That is subject to the qualifications that I mentioned earlier.

How does that fit with the comments of the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), two days ago in a BBC interview, when he said that the Government had no plans to decriminalise drugs or to de-penalise drug possession?

Mr. Boateng

We have no such plans.

Miss Widdecombe

I am pleased to hear that there are no such plans, but why then limit the measure to class A drugs?

The Bill enables the Home Secretary to tag prisoners released on licence. The Opposition would not oppose such a move, which could provide an additional safeguard for the public, were it not for the fact that the Home Secretary intends to add it to the provisions of what can only be described as a revolving door prisons policy. That policy has already resulted in 18,000 convicted criminals being let out of jail early on tags, before the minimum point of their sentence. Indeed, under the Home Secretary's arrangements those sent down for six months could be out in as little as six weeks.

In November last year, in response to concerns raised by Opposition Front Benchers—in this case, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)—the Home Secretary told the House:

We have no plans or intention whatever to provide for electronic tagging to facilitate the early release of serious or sexual offenders. Let me make that clear, with a full stop—none whatever.—[Official Report, 29 November 1999; Vol. 340, c.27.] However, when I asked in a written question whether any prisoners would be let out earlier because of the electronic-tagging provisions in the Bill, the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South replied: the wider availability of electronic monitoring may influence release decisions in a small number of cases involving prisoners serving determinate sentences of four years or more who are eligible for parole, and where the risk assessment is finely balanced. We currently estimate that the parole rate may rise by up to 4 per cent., which would represent approximately 230 prisoners granted parole per annum.—[Official Report, 22 March 2000; Vol. 346, c. 559–60W.] The words the wider availability of electronic monitoring may influence release decisions are crucial.

Earlier today, in response to interventions, the Home Secretary said that he would direct the parole board not to take into account the availability of electronic tagging when reaching decisions. That contradicts the answer given by the Minister of State. I am not making a political point; I am trying to introduce some order to the Bill. There is a contradiction between what was said by the Home Secretary and what was said by his right hon. Friend. I am therefore not willing to assume that the Home Secretary's good intentions will be honoured in a direction to the parole board, and I will seek to make it explicit in the Bill that these provisions will not apply to sexual or serious offenders. We shall pursue that aim, so that there is no reliance on a direction from this or any other Home Secretary.

Mr. Corbett

I, too, do not want to make party political points. However, the right hon. Lady may recall that, in its third report—on alternatives to prison sentences—the Home Affairs Committee noted, on the basis of the evidence, that there was little or no difference in the reoffending rate between those serving custodial sentences and those serving sentences in the community. The exceptions were cases in which special effort was put into rehabilitation before prisoners were released—as happens at Blantyre House in Kent—and targeted community sentences, in which offenders addressed offences such as aggression or arson. In those cases, the rates were lower.

Miss Widdecombe

What I conclude from that is that rehabilitation is imperative in our prisons. As the hon. Gentleman will know, that has been a consistent theme of the policy that I have recommended since taking my current role. I agree that that factor is crucial and needs to be expanded vastly. I am fully committed to expanding it when the happy day comes for me to swap places with the Home Secretary.

In his written answer, the right hon. Member for Brent, South referred to sentences of more than four years. To serve more than four years in jail, a person must have committed pretty serious offences, such as repeat burglary, rape, grievous bodily harm with intent, armed robbery or drug trafficking. Perhaps the Home Secretary can tell us what kind of offences that were not serious would attract four-year sentences, and what non-serious crimes will have been committed by the criminals who will be let out of jail earlier as a result of the Bill.

I shall not use a word like "misleading", Mr. Deputy Speaker, because you would not let me; but it seems to me that either the Home Secretary was not being entirely accurate when he told the House last November in categorical terms that he had no plans or intentions to facilitate the early release of serious or sexual offenders, or he has changed his policy between November and last week. I would like to know which is the case.

I also note with surprise the words of a Home Office spokesman, who, on Saturday night, was quoted as saying: There is absolutely no question of electronic monitoring for sex offenders and high-risk offenders. Yet the Bill clearly provides for that. Perhaps the spin doctors do not realise that sex offenders, child abusers, convicted killers and more than 2,000 drug dealers have already been released early under the home detention curfew scheme. I have the written answers from the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South here. It will therefore do the Home Secretary no good to protest his ignorance.

Perhaps the same Home Office spokesman reassured the Sunday Telegraph in October, in the face of incontrovertible evidence from the Treasury letter, that there would be a net increase of 5,000 police numbers as a result of the Home Secretary's massaged conference pledge.

I want to consider the current scheme for early release on tagging. The right hon. Gentleman claimed that we were making mischief; I would say that we were expressing genuine anxiety. There is potential for mischief: six people who have been released early on tags were in prison for escaping lawful custody. The reward for escaping lawful custody is apparently to be let out early on tags. As I pointed out earlier, two people charged with a crime as serious as rape have been let out early. Among those who were let out early are five who have attempted murder. It must be reassuring for the public to know that such people are selected for early release.

Although the Home Secretary makes much of rolling out mandatory sentences for burglary, many burglars and several thousand drug dealers have also been let out under the scheme. Fifty people have disappeared—we do not know where they are or what they are doing; 852 people have been recalled for breaches of their licence; and 185 have been charged with offences, which, even if we leave rape aside, include serious matters, such as threats to kill, assault, wounding and burglary. In 20 cases, people originally imprisoned for burglary have been charged with committing burglary while out on tags.

The Home Secretary should take those figures seriously because every crime means the creation of a victim. Some are victims of serious crimes. They will undergo life sentences as a result of those crimes long after even the ordinary release date of those criminals. That level of reoffending is wrong. However successful the scheme is in other ways, the Home Secretary does it a disservice by belittling the serious nature of some of the crimes that have been committed. He must take responsibility, because if those prisoners had been in prison for the minimum length of time to which the judges had sentenced them, the victims would not have been created.

I do not wonder at the Home Secretary's spending £1 million of public money on 20 extra press officers and internal communications advisers. His spin doctors will soon have their own spin doctors. It pains me to say it because I have a soft spot for the Home Office, but from the evidently ignorant comments emanating from it, its communications need some improvement.

If the Bill receives a Second Reading—we assume that it will—we will table an amendment tonight to make it clear that, to use the Home Secretary's words, the Bill's electronic monitoring provisions are not used to facilitate early release. I hope that the Home Secretary will accept the amendment and that the Bill will finally match his vigorous rhetoric. It has failed to do that hitherto.

Mr. Dawson

Perhaps the right hon. Lady can clarify her remarks. She seems to be denying that well-prepared planned releases involving all the technological surveillance that can be brought in and all the support that is necessary can help to protect the public and rehabilitate a person more effectively than simply remaining in prison until the end of the sentence.

Miss Widdecombe

No, quite the contrary. Planned release has an essential role to play. Provisions for post-release supervision are extremely poor and have been for a long time. The link between the work done by the prison and that which the ex-offender will receive in the community thereafter is often extremely weak. That is why I pay tribute to the drugs rehabilitation scheme at Lancaster prison, whose main strength is that it carries on that work after the prisoners have walked out of the gates.

Not only have I nothing whatever against proper plans for release, but I strongly support them as an integral part of preventing reoffending. However, there is a difference between planned release with proper arrangements for supervision and early release on a scheme that is producing reoffending. That is my problem. Whatever else my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) might or might not have supported when he was a member of the Select Committee, he would not have supported a scheme that released those categories of person to reoffend while still on tagging.

Mr. Straw

I am afraid that I do not follow the right hon. Lady. There is no difference in principle between release on HDC and release on licence before a determinate sentence is due to end, except that under HDC, as the figure shows, there is a much lower risk of the person reoffending. Is she seriously telling the House that she would remove any idea of an offender being released on licence before the automatic release date?

Miss Widdecombe

The automatic release dates and entitlement to parole occur at set and statutory points of a sentence. Judges know that when they pass sentence. Indeed, when we introduced "Honesty in Sentencing", we took into account the fact that, when judges pass sentence, they in turn take into account how much is likely to be served. My point is that, going against that judicial decision, releasing before that point people who have committed such a range of offences and who then reoffend, and brushing that aside as inconsequential is not how any of us who might have supported the scheme—I did not—would have envisaged its operating. Most people would have expected a very different application. If the Home Secretary is honest, and I am sure that he is, his answer to a rising prison population is 18,000 early releases.

Mr. Straw

May I press the right hon. Lady because, uncharacteristically, she has not answered the question? As an experienced prisons Minister, she well knows that under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which was passed by a Conservative Administration, prisoners are routinely released early on licence—before their automatic release date—on the basis of a risk assessment. Some will reoffend. Such prisoners are not released automatically. Is she saying that, in government, she would abandon any early release of prisoners on licence?

Miss Widdecombe

I am obviously not making myself clear to the right hon. Gentleman. There is an earliest point at which somebody becomes eligible for parole. If parole is refused, there comes a point at which he is allowed automatic release, subject only to the requirement for good behaviour. As an experienced prisons Minister, I well know that I was always being told when that earliest point was. A judge passing sentence knows how long a person would serve as a minimum because that earliest point is worked out, but my point is that the Home Secretary has introduced another set of considerations that are not taken into account by the judge. That means that people can be released early and let out into the community on tagging.

I have explained the matter as simply as I can. If the Home Secretary still does not understand, I will ask some of my hon. Friends to try to reduce the language even more, so that he will perhaps be able to understand in Committee.

The Government have squandered the legacy of falling crime that they inherited. [Interruption.] They inherited three years of continual falls and they now have a rise in crime. They cannot deny that. They have failed the police, of whom there are 2,300 fewer than at the general election. The Government cannot deny that. They have created victims of crime by letting people out before the minimum point of the sentence that the judge expected them to serve is reached. They are not, apparently, apologetic towards those victims, even when the crimes are as serious as rape and assault.

The Government's record shows that there are serious flaws in the Home Secretary's approach, whatever soundbites or fiddled figures he tries to use to hoodwink the voters, who remain resolutely unhoodwinked because they can see what is going on around them. The Bill will not make up for any of that. It will not change the fact that the Government have squandered the legacy of crime reduction.

Mr. Dawson

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe

No. I am going to finish my speech.

The Bill will not change the fact that thousands of drug dealers, burglars and convicted killers are being let out early. It will not change the fact that our response to a rising prison population was to supply more places, not to let 18,000 out early. We will not oppose the Bill, but the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister should be under no illusion that the effects of their policies—which see crime rising, after the repeated and substantial falls that the Government inherited—will be felt throughout the country in the coming months and years.

I hope that, when we examine the Bill at further stages, it will not suffer the fate of previous Bills. We have stood here and said that we would not oppose the Bills in principle and would give them a fair wind, only to find that all the things that we considered merited at least some amendment and fair consideration had been brushed aside as inconsequential because the Government had such an enormous majority. I hope that there will be a responsible attitude towards this Bill—disqualification orders, getting the amendment about serious sex offenders into the Bill, extending the measure from class A to class B drugs and the other issues that I have raised—and that a serious approach will be taken. The Government's seriousness in tackling crime will be judged by the seriousness of their approach to this and similar Bills.

5.2 pm

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) will forgive me if I do not respond in detail to her main point, but the public outside must be bemused when they look into these debates and listen to our accusations about whether crime has gone up or down. Like all hon. Members, they have a great interest in seeing crime reductions—no Member wants more crime.

It is true that Bills brought before the House, whether under the right hon. Lady's regime or by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, do not always work out as intended, but, as my right hon. Friend said, that is not a reason for not introducing it, trying it and working harder to restore the peace and security that too many of our local communities have had stolen from them.

It does the right hon. Lady's case no service to get into a stupid Dutch auction about which party will promise to put more feet on the beat in terms of police officers. It was her Government—it is no good rewriting history—who gave responsibility—properly, in my view—for spending resources to chief constables. [Interruption.] It is no good her moaning about it—soundbite Sue, I have news for you! Her Government did that. In my judgment, they were right to give chief constables responsibility for allocating resources. Those chief constables can have a row with the Home Secretary of the day about the size of those resources, but, when they have them, they must, in proper partnership with police authorities—whose role, I say in passing, is grossly undervalued—work out how to spend those resources.

Let us see if the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and I can agree on this point. Although police numbers—the number of officers—are of course important, chief constables will have told her, as they have told my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and other Labour Members, that success in combating crime hinges increasingly on much better and deeper responses to and co-operation with the public and on the increasing use of modern technology. This is not the day of Dick Barton; we have to use modern technology, just as criminals do.

Miss Widdecombe

In imposing one particular set of new technology on police—the public safety radio communications system, which may have great merit in its own right—but in not funding it, the Home Secretary has made it more, not less, likely that police will have to cut recruiting.

Mr. Corbett

The right hon. Lady does not even help her own case. An assiduous reader of Hansard will see, both in the statements that my right hon. Friend has made in the House and in his answers to parliamentary questions, his references to the great sums—he referred to them again today—that have been allocated to police for the long changeover period for the new communications system. I hope that the right hon. Lady will not say that that is not something that she would have done.

Miss Widdecombe

It is not being funded.

Mr. Corbett

It is being funded. If the right hon. Lady had been listening, she would know that more than £50 million is being made available. Quite clearly, there must be more to come.

On spending priorities, chief constables and assistant chief constables across the country have said to me, "We can always make the case for more officers, but we probably have enough if we use them more intelligently and effectively. What we need is to spend more money on modern technology." I hope that that is not a contentious issue.

If we need reminding of the price that our police services pay to ensure public protection, I invite the Home Secretary and every other hon. Member to send a get-well message to PC McCrocker—a 33-year-old west midlands police officer who, when trying to apprehend a suspected burglar, fell 30 ft from a wall and impaled himself through his stomach and his thigh. That is what we expect officers to do on our behalf to give protection to the public and to bring criminals to justice. I am glad to say that PC McCrocker is in a stable condition. Nevertheless, it reminds us of the price that police officers pay every day of the week for doing the job that we ask them to do. It also perhaps underlines the fact that they, too, must be baffled about some of the squabbles that go on in this place about how we should try better to get to grips with restoring safety and security to our communities.

I tell my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that I am very pleased with the Government's actions and with the various measures—including this Bill—that they have introduced better to enable local communities to reclaim, with expert help from outside, the safety and security that too many of them have had stolen from them. I have said in the House before, but it bears repetition, that the biggest single issue raised by my constituents at the previous general election and since has been the very issue of anti-social behaviour shading into petty crime, and then growing into acts of violence.

All hon. Members have a duty, both in the House and in our constituencies, to help our constituents to get the courage and the confidence to stand up and win back safety and security for themselves, with the help that is available from the crime prevention strategy that my right hon. Friend has sensibly introduced. Birmingham has published its strategy for the first three years, and the first review of that is due this month.

We can all of us—because it is all around us—isolate some of the factors that lead to a loss of safety and security in many parts of our constituencies. It has much to do with deprivation and poverty. It has much to do with the fact that a part of the so-called golden legacy left by the previous Government was that, in one in five households in which there were people of working age, no one had a job. However, when the current Government put their hands into the deep pockets of the former public utilities to extract billions for the new deal, they were opposed by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and her colleagues—yet the new deal has made a huge impact in getting despairing, hopeless and jobless young people into jobs. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) must not provoke me. I do not care whether the number is this or that—every single person put in training or in a job would have been left on the scrapheap had his Government been returned to power. It is very important that people in our communities are encouraged to have connections and to believe that life can be better. There is no better way of demonstrating that than having a job or training.

Miss Widdecombe

They are not getting that from the new deal.

Mr. Corbett

The right hon. Lady scoffs. If she does not like the new deal, let her get up and tell the House how she would have got youth unemployment rates down without it.

Miss Widdecombe

If the hon. Gentleman consults the figures, he will find that youth unemployment was falling faster in this country when we were in power than in most other countries. I do not remember the hon. Gentleman supporting schemes that I proposed to get young people back into work—even when they were shown later to have been successful. All he did was pour scorn. He has one rule when his party is in government, and another rule when another party is in government. He would be more convincing had he supported our schemes, particularly those which were very successful.

Mr. Corbett

I am not interested in a trip down memory lane; I am talking about now. In my constituency, under the right hon. Lady's Government, unemployment among people of working age topped 30 per cent. That is no longer true. Many of those people who have found new jobs and training to divert them from the temptations of crime got those chances and opportunities under the new deal programme. The right hon. Lady can scoff as much she likes. I hope that the thousands in my constituency who now have the opportunities that her Government denied them will read how she has reacted to what I am saying in this Chamber.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Gentleman is right to be angry about unemployment, but he is wrong to scoff at the significance of figures which contradict his own claims. How does he argue his case in the light of the factual, empirical evidence which shows that unemployment between April 1993 and May 1997 in this country fell at a faster rate than it is falling now? That is the evidence—what is his contradiction of it?

Mr. Corbett

I do not want to be rude about Buckingham, and the comparisons between Buckingham and Birmingham, but—

Miss Widdecombe

Answer the question.

Mr. Corbett

Hold on, I am getting there. For the last 30 years or so, unemployment levels in Birmingham have run at about twice the national average. I know from my own constituency, leaving aside the rest of the city, that the biggest reductions in youth unemployment have been since 1997 when the new deal came in.

Mr. Dawson

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was a valued and welcome visitor to my constituency on Saturday. When she stood at Lancaster prison, she was within half a mile of an area in my constituency where, during the years of Conservative Government, unemployment was at 24 per cent. and drug dealing and crime were rife and destroying a whole community. That community is being rehabilitated. Unemployment is falling dramatically, and single regeneration budget money is going into community development. I know young people who are benefiting from the new deal, and there is the prospect of further work to deal with crime fuelled by drug dealing. That is the evidence—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. That intervention was far too long. Perhaps I should say to the House that the debate is starting to spin away. No one denies that there is a connection between crime and unemployment that is to be argued, but perhaps we should concentrate on the main substance of the Bill.

Mr. Corbett

Than you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and some other Conservative Members—although not all of them—are in denial about what happened under the previous Government.

I turn now to the part of the Bill that threatens, at least, to get heavy with parents whose children truant, absent themselves from school or are expelled from school. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that about 50,000 children are known to be truanting. If that is the official figure, my experience suggests that it is a gross underestimate. For a variety of reasons, schools are loth to declare suspensions or expulsions for fear of the financial consequences. Exam results can also be affected. I make no big deal about that, except to say that one of the priority aims in the Birmingham crime and disorder strategy is to achieve a sustained reduction in offending among young people. I do not doubt that other parts of the country have set the same goal, but Birmingham has made it clear that part of its strategy is to improve school attendance.

The improvement of school attendance is a worthy and vital objective in its own right. It is a tragedy when young people going through the education system these days discover only at the age of 16 or 17 the dreadful price that they will pay for not making the most of the opportunities available at school. I do not want to get into preaching mode about that because I know that some families have problems. I deliberately put the matter that way around, as I consider that usage to be more helpful than the phrase "problem families". The value of the orders will lie in the fact that they will enable schools, local education authorities and others to offer assistance to children and their families at an earlier stage than is currently possible.

It is unacceptable—although in part understandable—that four out of five parents involved do not turn up in court, as my right hon. Friend noted. I was going to say that they do not bother to turn up, but the problem may not be as simple as that—perhaps they do not see the importance of attendance. I do not want to make a party political point, but that is one of the arguments or battles that we must wage with the generation of low achievers for whom the giro coming through the door once a week or once a fortnight was all that mattered. Their society contained no effective role models, so it is perhaps not surprising that the children of that generation see the world in a different way. For them, school is a choice: they either go to school, or they do not, and they have too little understanding of the price that has to be paid for non-attendance.

I therefore welcome clause 55. As my right hon. Friend said, no one wants parents to go to jail. I agree with the organisation Liberty that sending one parent, or both, to jail carries little in the way of bonus for families. The clause's value is that it offers an extra tool of intervention that can be offered to families with problems.

The lower the educational achievements of today's children, the worse will be their chances of leading happy and fulfilling lives based around useful and interesting jobs. The days have gone when there was always an errand to be run or a floor to be swept. The jobs on offer now—the ones that will be available for children now at school—require brains more than brawn.

Some parents—sometimes they are single parents, but not always—find it difficult to exercise proper control. Mine cannot be the only constituency where children as young as five, six, seven or eight years of age roam the streets at midnight and at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. When I am in a good mood, I say that I did not know there were so many orphans knocking about. When I am not in a good mood, I get extremely upset at what I consider to be the gross irresponsibility of parents who enable or allow that to happen. Regardless of the effect that that has on their attendance at school, the huge risk that those children are subjected to either by older children or by adults—which is worse—cries out for attention. I hope that this clause is one measure by which we can start to address that problem and encourage parents with those difficulties to get the help that they need.

Miss Widdecombe

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for interrupting his flow—I tried to wait until what I thought was a natural break. However, I am anxious to raise this point of order while the Home Secretary is still in his place. There have been reports today about the absconding of six individuals from Oakington last night. Have you or Madam Speaker received any request for the Home Secretary to take advantage of his presence in the House to make a statement?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is not a point of order for the Chair. The fact is that no such request has been received. I have no doubt that the Home Secretary has heard what the right hon. Lady has said, but I must say to her that there have to be other ways in which to pursue those matters.

Mr. Corbett

I hope that the powers in clause 55 will be used more as a way of offering advice and support than punishment. The power should be seen to divert rather than to punish.

Reference was made earlier to the third report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which I now have the privilege to Chair, on alternatives to prison, published in July 1998. The Committee called for a national probation service, and for it to be more rigorous in enforcing the community sentences. May I say in passing that we accused the sentencers and the media of not understanding enough about community sentences? When people receive a well-targeted community sentence, to say that they "walked free from court today" does nothing to help that understanding.

One Select Committee recommendation stated: 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. So I welcome the provision for a national service. I am pleased that the Association of Chief Officers of Probation welcomes it as well. However, the association fears—I think mistakenly—that the Government's power to intervene under clause 45, which provides for the functions of the local boards that will be appointed to oversee the delivery of the service in the 42 areas, may be used prematurely or inconsistently in the event of perceived failure. I think that the association has got this wrong. The local boards have the authority and the influence—the Home Secretary is there only as a longstop. If the public investment in a modern probation service is not getting the desired results, the Home Secretary will act on behalf of the taxpayer and the offender to see that the matter is put right. I see nothing wrong with that principle. My right hon. Friend has made extra resources available to the service.

The Association of Chief Officers of Probation is also concerned at the provisions on electronic monitoring. Our report rightly called for this to be extended. The House has already heard that the results of the first years of operation in the pilot areas has shown compliance with the tagging conditions to be an astonishing 95 per cent.

I want to tell the House about a visit that we made to a centre in Manchester, or Salford, that monitored people wearing tags. It had experience of offenders ringing up and saying, "We are so glad that we are tagged because it imposes a discipline on us that is not normally there." It had others applying to be tagged when they had not committed any offences. It is a generalisation, I know, but young people with offending behaviour often have a chaotic life style, and one of the benefits of tagging is to impose some order on that.

The centre feared—I think it was a misreading—that there would be a swipe-card approach to the monitoring of tagging—what I believe is called in the trade "drive by and wave." That would reduce the personal contact which is part of the order that surrounds the tagging device. I am sure that that is not the intention because the point of community orders is to establish regular contact with the probation service and others if need be, the better to ensure success and public protection, and to reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

I am not clear about the attitude of the Opposition to tagging. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made that point to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. She and the whole House know that people are due to come out of prison at various stages and if someone is released slightly earlier than under the normal tariff with the assistance of a tag, it is because an assessment has been made of the safety of the public and the likelihood of the prisoner obeying the terms of early release. We know that offenders can be recalled to prison if they reoffend.

Our report shows that there is little or no difference between reoffending rates of people sentenced to custodial sentences and people sentenced to non-custodial community sentences. That point is worth underlining. One of the advantages of community sentences is that they are cheaper than sending people to prison. I do not advocate non-custodial sentences only for that reason, but there is a benefit to the public in that less of our tax goes to keeping people locked up.

The exceptions are worth noting again. The Select Committee recently made an interesting visit to Her Majesty's Prison Blantyre in Kent. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will know about it because I wrote him a letter. The prison takes about 20 life sentence prisoners about a year before the end of their sentence. They are simply told that they are going there, and that is what happens. The other prisoners are on shorter sentences. The prison is a model in what it achieves. Every prisoner is either in full-time education or working: most of those who work do so well outside the prison, including those who commute to and from London regularly. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald will like this—the regime is simple. The rules are "One breach and back to Maidstone you go. No ifs, no buts; that's it."

The thing that most impressed us during that visit was that four former prisoners, all with heavy sentences, who had completed their sentences and been released and were all working—one of them with the help of a very good voluntary body—gave up their time to come back and tell us what the regime at Blantyre House had meant for them and literally how it had changed their lives. The other thing that came out of our exchanges—I think that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and I are at one on this—was the appalling picture that they painted of what goes on in the rest of the Prison Service. There is almost total absence of a coherent, positive approach to preparing prisoners in any true sense for release or rehabilitation. All of them to a man said, "Is it any wonder, with what goes on in our mainstream prisons, that too many prisoners come out with a warrant in their hand and are back inside in comparatively few months?" We will never break that cycle unless we have more regimes like that at Blantyre. Those who have proposed to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that we should re-role—hateful phrase—Blantyre house should have their words stuffed down their throats, and should be told to think again. We must not risk destroying a regime that has demonstrated its success and that deserves to continue to do so. If anything, we want more places like it.

Miss Widdecombe

The hon. Gentleman made my point in his final words. There are too few resettlement prisons—Kirklevington and Blantyre, and pretty well no more. Instead of reducing the precious few facilities available, we should seek to expand them.

Mr. Corbett

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. I am told that some in the Prison Service see what happens at Blantyre house as risky. I cannot believe that any governor in the Prison Service is not exposed to some risk. There are no guarantees for those who do that job. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will not entertain for more than 10 seconds the idea of change at Blantyre House.

During the inquiry, we found that some tailor-made educational schemes for community orders were immensely successful in addressing the causes of offences. For example, we met a young man in Manchester who had burned down a school, causing around £750,000 damage. The fire service, to which I pay tribute, was working with him one to one to address his need for arson. Similar schemes were run on drugs and other offences, and such schemes were immensely successful in diverting people from reoffending, which cut reoffending rates dramatically. That is the direction in which we should go.

I welcome the Bill's aim better to protect the public. It will allow us to intervene earlier in various ways and to try to divert people from the approach road to youth offending. Local communities want the Bill, and it deserves to succeed.

5.33 pm
Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

I shall be brief. Fundamentally, we support the Bill, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, we have some reservations and some detailed criticisms.

Any criminal justice Bill must be seen against the overall crime background, which immediately leads to arguments categorised as party political. I shall not dodge that point, but my remarks will be made in the context of Bedfordshire, which I represent. Use of that context will show the realities, and hon. Members may argue over whether my points are party political once they have heard what I have to say.

After nearly three years of the Labour Government, Bedfordshire is short of police. Our police number has dropped by 4.1 per cent., which represents about 61 officers—a serious change for a small force of around 1,100. That has practical effects, particularly on the rural community. Riseley police station was set up by the chief constable and was much appreciated by the parishes north of Bedford, but it is now manned for only a few hours because of pressure on police resources.

To the probation service, I pay a genuine compliment: I note with pleasure the sea change in the service during my 20 years as a Member of Parliament. Today, it is a service of which the country can be proud. That applies to the majority of probation officers. They do an extremely difficult job in a firm, effective and practical way, and deserve our thanks.

It is not always realised how tough the job of probation officer can be, nor what an important part probation officers play in the maintenance of law and order—especially in the monitoring and control in the community of often dangerous offenders. The job can range from dealing with tricky paedophiles, who can be a real danger if not properly monitored, to those on licence from a life sentence who need careful support and control. There is the problem of repeat burglars, multiple housebreakers and car crime offenders, all of whom need to be monitored back in the community. There is witness protection and even the monitoring of those with terrorist records or those who pose a potential terrorist danger. All that is part of the life of the modern probation officer.

We support the fact that the service is to become a National Probation Service. It makes good sense that probation services, which operate countywide—as in my constituency—should be tied in with the police force and the Crown Prosecution Service. We welcome and encourage that move. It already happens to a significant degree in Bedfordshire; as it is a small county, many of the services were largely coterminous. We can see the wisdom of that for the rest of the country.

On the basis that the Government are the sinner who repenteth, they are right to have backed down on their inappropriate name for the probation service. To call it the National Probation Service is sensible. That was, at least, the result of consultation with the service, whose deep concerns were heard. The name is an improvement. However, unfortunately, according to the feedback I have received, the consultation on the naming of the penalties—probation orders, rehabilitation orders, community punishment and so on—has been less complete. Indeed, highly respected people in the service feel that the service was not consulted as much as it should have been.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald pointed out, the names are not yet right. I hope that the Government will not think it a point of honour not to change their mind. There is much to be said for referring to the sentences as community sentences—the heading for part III. The court will impose a community sentence; it will then add the appropriate number of tough conditions. The offender will be told: "You will receive a community sentence. It will include 200 hours of community service, mandatory drug testing and, for that reason, a period of electronic tagging and, for that reason, you will be subject to an exclusion order—excluded from certain parts of your town during certain times. That will be monitored. Go away and don't do it again." The message will get across.

However, there are dangers in naming sentences by acronyms that can be all too easily misunderstood. I do not wish to lower the tone of the debate, but the acronym of a community punishment and rehabilitation order is CPARO, and that can easily become CRAPO. If it does, that will not enhance the order's status. I do not want to spell out that point in too much of a soundbite, but I draw it to the Government's attention.

Mr. Hawkins

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I shall not give way, because I do not want to over-emphasise this point. I know and respect my hon. Friend's point of view, but I wish to persuade the Government on this matter.

I come now to the issue of enforcement in cases of breach. I have read clause 46 carefully, but I have obviously not read it enough. It is quite difficult to tell exactly what it will mean in practice. I shall outline my concerns so that Ministers and those who handle the Bill's detail can think about them.

If the conditions placed on a community sentence are broken, it is entirely right that the offender should be breached, as it is known in the trade, and brought back to court, which should be able to give appropriate punishment. However, we must be careful to leave the court adequate flexibility because offenders vary greatly.

Too high a proportion of offenders commit deliberate offences—they know what they are doing and the risks that they are taking. Such offenders are out to make a living from crime and they deserve any punishment they get. Other offenders doubtless deserve punishment, but, for one reason or another, they are incapable of being responsible for themselves. Although that fact should not let them off, there should be no unexpected or unintentional results that would make them more of a burden on the community or the Prison Service.

I refer to the type of offender who, as the result of drug taking or drinking too much alcohol, or because he is feckless and of low intellect, finds it difficult to comply regularly with the precise terms of the community sentence that has rightly been imposed on him. The court must have a degree of flexibility or discretion. Otherwise, probation officers may be reluctant to return to court someone who has breached the terms of a probation order because they fear that that person will be put in prison automatically and that that will be counter-productive.

I am in favour of a firm and tough approach, but I have always been in favour of leaving a significant degree of flexibility to the courts. Although it is not the subject of the Bill, if I were asked why I supported mandatory sentences for three-time burglars, I would reply that I was satisfied that multiple burglars—they usually commit more than three offences—caused a huge amount of trouble to the community and that the average length of sentence that they received was simply too short. That legislation, which is a precursor to the Bill and the modern tough approach to crime that the Government purport to follow—I encourage them when they do—was right to tackle that issue. My plea is for a proper degree of flexibility for the courts so that the punishment for breach can be appropriate rather than suffering from a certain automaticity, which would cause it to be counter-productive.

The Bill provides for the advent of new technology, which can be beneficial. Now that electronic tagging has been proved to work, it is rightly being used much more widely. However, when we seek to enforce probation by methods such as the new swipe cards, let us be careful to ensure that they work properly and that they are capable of being properly monitored. For example, it has been suggested to me that to tell someone to report electronically by use of a swipe card may sound very nice, but the card could easily be given to someone else. That other person could swipe the relevant monitoring point for the offender. That system may not be effective. When handprints can be used—they cannot really be concealed—technology may meet the purpose for which it is applied. I am much in favour of new technology, but let it be used with common sense.

A portion of the Bill deals with court welfare officers and guardians ad litem, and the transfer of responsibility from the Home Office to the Lord Chancellor's Department. It has not taken up a great deal of time during the debate. However, it is an extraordinarily difficult matter for any Government. It is not party political.

There is quite a difference in culture at present between court welfare officers and guardians ad litem. Court welfare officers deal with day-to-day work for particular courts and undertake valuable work. They are full-time employees. Guardians ad litem are somewhat differently trained. They are estimable people who largely work free lance. It is important that the Lord Chancellor's Department should be sensitive in moulding the two services together.

It should be realised that the Home Office was probably not wholly altruistic in passing responsibility to the Lord Chancellor's Department in these often extremely contentious matters. The whole issue of child care when dealt with in the courts, and of marriage breakdown, which is so often the background, is hugely contentious and is known to lead to many complaints. I see the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), looking characteristically and charmingly happy at the thought that the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock), who is blissfully ignorant because he is not sitting in on the debate, will carry the burden in the future.

The Home Office is a rather large Department compared with the Lord Chancellor's Department. The Lord Chancellor may be pleased to be enlarging his empire, but let him ensure that the formidable reputation on which he relies is effective in the courts a the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Otherwise, he will not have the budget to do the job properly. I wish him well, not only for his sake but for that of those in the service, who will depend on his success if they are to be able to do a very difficult job effectively.

I wish the Bill well. I hope that the Government will listen to our constructive comments and make certain changes to the Bill, in which event we shall have acted together to produce improvements to the law.

5.49 pm
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, but it is sad that the House is comparatively empty for a debate on an important Bill. It was sad also to hear the earlier claims of golden legacies which are not borne out by my experience or that of many constituents. We can all hark back to the past but it is essential that we try to face the problems confronting people at the moment and deal with them sensibly.

Mr. Hawkins

If the hon. Gentleman thinks back a few minutes, he will realise that it was his colleague the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) who talked about golden legacies.

Mr. Dawson

We can argue about such particulars, but anyone who has sat in the Chamber for the past hour or so will recall the extraordinary claims being made by Conservative Members.

I welcome the Bill, which is immensely significant. Apart from the final remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), the debate has largely concentrated on the probation measures. However, the Bill is crucial for the 13 million children in this country whose protection it will greatly enhance and improve. It is enormously significant for the thousands of children who are caught up in public legal proceedings, care proceedings and the private law relating to divorce and issues of residence and contact, which are dealt with under section 8 of the Children Act 1989.

The Bill is enormously significant also for the comparatively small group of children who are dealt with by the Official Solicitor, who has the often grave responsibility of resolving difficult moral, ethical and legal issues. Those children are sometimes caught up in the most extraordinary and damaging circumstances.

The Bill is also excellent for the public, who need a coherent system that will protect them from serious offenders. In many cases, their best protection will be dedicated probation officers. I am glad, as I think everyone is, that they will still be called probation officers, rather than being known by the bizarre acronyms that might have been foisted on them.

As other hon. Members have said, probation officers work in the most difficult, and occasionally dangerous, circumstances. They will have the opportunity to work under the new structures that the Bill will develop within the community safety framework established by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The Bill will present them with new opportunities to tackle the profoundly important issues at the heart of so much offending in this country. Those issues damage people, wreck lives, take the heart out of whole communities and sap the confidence of many of the people whom we represent.

Above all, this is a serious Bill. The Government are certainly taking a firm approach to the protection of children and the public. They are also creating a tremendous opportunity to enhance children's rights, and I shall return to that point later.

I give an unequivocal welcome to part H, which deals with the protection of children. It is a measure of the seriousness with which the Government address these issues that the Bill goes further than previous reports have recommended by creating two new criminal offences of working with children while disqualified from doing so and of offering such work to someone who is disqualified.

It is exceptionally important that the Government have defined work with children so that the Bill encompasses not only paid work but voluntary work and the full range of activities and circumstances in which paedophiles and people intent on harm can gain access to children. Experience has surely shown us that those who want to exploit and abuse children are cunning, ruthless and devious, and the Government are demonstrating that in protecting children they are prepared to be vigilant, thorough and severe.

I welcome the establishment of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. I could not think up an unlikely name for it, and I do not entirely take on board some of the quibbles about names that we have had this afternoon. Bringing together the family court welfare service, the guardian ad litem and reporting officer service and the official solicitor is necessary and possibly overdue. It is a good first step.

I accept the point about the difficulties of trying to assimilate different services, and there are many anxieties, particularly among guardians ad litem, who have rightly operated as independent contractors and who have had an informal employment relationship when carrying out their crucial role. They are concerned about how that role will marry up with the welfare service when it is included in CAFCASS, and we will have to wait and see.

Obviously it makes good sense to unite all those who report to courts in private proceedings, care proceedings and adoptions, where crucial issues relative to the care of children need to be resolved. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire thought that the Home Office had played a bit of a blinder by passing the service over to the Lord Chancellor's Department, and I am concerned about that transfer. I am concerned about any social workers being in the company of lawyers. I wonder how well a social work service will fit into the framework of the Lord Chancellor's Department.

CAFCASS, or whatever it will be called, needs to be a children's rights service. It needs to have an independent and powerful influence so that it can ensure that children's voices are clearly heard when courts are making crucial decisions about care, supervision, adoption, residence and contact. I am not sure that it is entirely appropriate to place that service within the Lord Chancellor's Department, where it will be subject to inspection by no doubt worthy officers of the magistrates court service.

A great deal of work will be needed to preserve the independence of that service and to ensure that it abides by fundamental social work principles and the basic principles of the Children Act. It must also be firmly grounded in the principles of the UN convention on the rights of the child.

The service must be able to carry out an important task that is in some ways delicate and in many other ways robust. That involves getting alongside children, sometimes in extraordinary situations, and understanding their wishes and feelings when they are caught up in a legal process. The service must be able to hear the very small voices of children in the often bewildering circumstances of divorce, parental antagonism, abuse and neglect.

For me, and for many other hon. Members, I imagine, the debate on the huge change to be introduced by the Bill properly raises questions about the necessity for a children's rights commissioner in this country, to attend to the basic rights of children and to ensure that systems always work in the interests of children. We must ensure that the voices of children are heard, and that Government agencies and Departments always work together in the interests of children who, by definition in this country, are powerless. They have no vote.

The message from all the child abuse inquiries and all the appalling cases about which we have heard is that as well as having no vote, children often have no voice. That is probably a debate for another day, but the service would sit more comfortably if such a commissioner were in place, and if the Government followed the logic of their tremendous commitment to children, to the United Nations convention on children's rights and to joined-up government.

The measure is a good step, but it raises further issues that remain unresolved because the Family Law Act 1996 has not been fully implemented. A significant section of the 1996 Act relates to the breakdown of marriage, mediation, and the services required in those circumstances. The new service will not be fully developed until we have a coherent framework for mediation and the resolution of problems before they get to court. Many hon. Members are lawyers, but I hope that we all recognise that courtrooms are often not the best place to resolve crucial issues pertaining to the upbringing of children and their future.

The principle of independent advocacy needs to be extended further. The guardian ad litem service in relation to children facing care proceedings, coupled with the independent representation of children in those proceedings, works. It ensures that the needs and circumstance of children are taken into account. Another unimplemented part of the Family Law Act 1996 deals with the independent representation of children in private law proceedings. I hope that that will be taken further, stimulated by the development of CAFCASS.

I have been in Parliament only a short while, but judging by my own experience I would be amazed if other hon. Members had not had parents, grandparents, and even children and young people coming to their surgeries to talk about the bad time they had had during the parents divorce. The children speak of their impression that they were not listened to by the judge, or by anyone who was part of those proceedings, about crucial issues such as where they would live for the rest of their childhood, and what contact they would have with their parents.

Until we address that fundamental issue, there will be continuing problems. For many children, childhood will be undermined, and they will not receive the attention and support that they palpably deserve. I hope that the new system will help us to put that right.

A tremendous training programme will be needed for the new advisory and support service, and its independence will have to be vigorously protected. People will be needed who can stand up for children and express children's needs in a courtroom setting that would daunt many adults.

A good management structure will be required for the new service, to ensure that the people carrying out the difficult task of listening to children and advocating their interests in a challenging setting are given the proper support, training and back-up. The social work service will operate in a legalistic milieu, and it is important that social workers have contact with other professionals working with children and families.

It is good that we will have a national probation service. I understand why some people are shy of the word "punishment", but I think they are wrong. The national probation service should take on board the fact that some orders contain an element of reparation, of making good and of service. That will be perceived as punishment by some people, but it is necessary, in addition to the advice, assistance and befriending which are the more traditional parts of the probation role.

It is essential that the programmes enjoy credibility with the public, the people carrying them out, and the people who are sentenced to them. The programmes must be seen as an effective way of making good with the community and moving on.

We have heard a lot of talk today about early releases, and what I considered inappropriate comments about reoffending. I hardly think that any of the victims of the crimes in question—some extremely serious—could feel happy about the fact that their horrendous experiences have been bandied around the Chamber. I do not believe that that had anything to do with concern for the needs of victims; I believe that it had a great deal to do with party political point-scoring, and I consider it deplorable.

If we are to move on, we must find a safe way of allowing serious offenders to return to the community, or to remain in the community. It must enable them to be monitored and to make good what they have done to society; above all, the public must be protected. But at the same time, it must enable offenders to be rehabilitated and helped back into a more productive life. We cannot simply consign people to prison, let them rot there for years and then allow them back on the streets: that would be appalling and irresponsible. We must establish a policy which, while having community safety and public protection at its heart, will enable such people to become involved in programmes—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) described some of them—that the Government are introducing to help people to emerge from social exclusion and gain a proper place in society through training, work and other opportunities.

It is commendable that the national probation service will be based on police boundaries: no sensible person could disagree with that. The introduction of exclusion orders, drug abstinence orders and curfew requirements in the case of community sentences is intrusive and demanding, but it is absolutely necessary if we are to establish an effective link between the Prison Service, the probation service and the police, and then enable them to use an intelligence-led approach to target serious criminals and reduce offending.

The Government's approach gives rise to great optimism. I shall be chided by my colleagues for mentioning the fine city of Lancaster yet again, but I must point out that it has experienced serious levels of crime. Unemployment, poverty and deprivation are by no means the sole causes of crime, but they are unquestionably at the heart of the decision of many young people to become criminals—or, perhaps, the lack of a decision: some people just fall into crime.

Lancaster has been given real opportunities by the new deal and the regeneration programmes—the single regeneration budget, objective 2 status and assisted area status. Those programmes are bringing new investment to communities containing vulnerable people, particularly vulnerable young men. However, the city will also be helped by the programmes that the probation service is being encouraged to adopt—programmes that clamp down on people's behaviour, while offering help at the same time.

I am thinking of, for instance, drug referral programmes for people who have been arrested, which attend to the most serious underlying problems experienced by those people at a crucial stage. They may be in a police cell, wondering where they go from there. It is important that nurses—referred to earlier—have been present in police stations. That must be a challenging experience for nurses who are used to working in hospital wards, but the results are extremely positive. People have responded tremendously well.

Serious drug abuse is clearly at the heart of much offending. Hon. Members have asked why the Government are concentrating on class A drugs; I think it obvious from my experience of my constituency—and I suspect the same is true of many others—that it is class A drugs that dominate people's lives, so that they must find money to fuel their serious drug habit.

I think that there is cause for considerable optimism. The extra powers and duties conferred on the probation service will help tremendously. There is a serious debate to be had, and we shall probably engage in it for the remainder of the Session, but it is a shame that serious, honest intentions have been subjected today to carping, moaning and belittling. This is a fine Bill, which has the potential to transform areas of policy that have been neglected for far too long. I look forward to its making real progress—and, most important, making a real difference.

6.18 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I am glad to have an opportunity, two and a half hours after the beginning of the debate, to present the Liberal Democrat view. I shall do so in respect of both the generality and the specifics.

According to a much misunderstood verse of the Bible, Jesus said that the poor were always with us. It is a much quoted fact that crime is always with us. That could well be true, but the challenge to politicians is how we can reduce the amount of crime and bring about a society in which all people can lead lives that are as law-abiding as possible.

As far as I can remember, we have dealt with a criminal justice Bill or a crime Bill, or both, every year since I became a Member of Parliament; but we clearly have not found all the answers yet. There are no easy answers, which is one reason why we keep returning to the subject. This is the first debate on these issues that I have led for my party, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) and for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett). It is already a little tiring that some of the proposals that we are discussing appear not to have benefited from full and careful consideration, and also that we go around the same circuit every year without trying to ensure that we learn the lessons of the past while securing maximum agreement in the House. However, the Government have the right to introduce a Bill. They have done that and we must start from here.

Let us consider the big picture. There is a huge amount of crime and figures are rising. They had decreased, but they are rising again. It is paradoxical that, in one way, the increase in the figures may be good because it shows that we live in a society where more crime is reported and that people now speak out about crimes that they would not have reported some years ago. The large increase in violent crime is especially worrying. Reducing the amount of violent crime, much of which is alcohol or drug related or induced, is a challenge to us and our society.

On Sunday, I spent some time at a benefit event for a family whose husband and father of six children has disappeared and is believed to have been murdered. Some people have been arrested in relation to that. Wherever our constituencies are, we all live with recurrent, serious and searing crime. Much of it is ghastly and horrible, and undermines the core values of our society. We must try above all to deal with that. That sort of crime worries most the people whom we are sent here to represent.

The second current big issue is that people are exercised about whether there are enough people to undertake crime prevention and reduction. The debates about police numbers are therefore important. People notice when there are more or fewer police. We were glad about yesterday's announcement, in response to a parliamentary written question, that the money allocated to police authorities will be topped up yet again.

Until last summer, the Home Secretary claimed that police numbers were not up to him, yet since then he has twice announced more money for more police officers. Police numbers are therefore up to him to some extent—it is up to him to add to them, but never up to him to reduce them. However, we welcome the increased resources for the police in the approaching financial year. Many of us have argued for that. The number of police at the end of the Parliament will still not match the number at the beginning. Those figures will not be achieved until well beyond the next election, if at all, but at least the Government have heard the public's message.

The third element in the big picture is that the number of people in prison has sadly and worryingly increased. The numbers will probably continue to rise, and the Government appear content about that; they accept it and are willing regularly to introduce measures that increase the numbers of people who are likely to go inside. It has been estimated that up to another 15,000 people who breach non-custodial orders might go to prison as a result of the Bill.

More people going to prison for longer does not constitute a solution to our problems. We cannot produce a better society by that method. There will always be people in prison and we must take away the liberty of those who cannot manage it properly; we have to punish. However, there is too great a temptation, in borderline cases, to put people inside rather than leaving them outside. More and more offences lead to mandatory prison sentences. We believe that the sentence should be left to the court; Parliament should not determine it.

On the other hand, the Government want to increase electronic tagging. Unlike the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), we welcome that. When the technology works, it is better that people who pass the risk assessment tests, and can be released safely, are outside at the end of their sentences rather than locked up.

Drugs constitute the fourth big issue. Viscountess Runciman and her eminent colleagues today produced a report, which has been published by the Police Foundation. We cannot have a royal commission, because the Government are apparently unwilling to establish a body that provides independent, objective advice on drugs, their misuse and reform of the relevant legislation. The Police Foundation has therefore acted as a substitute. We welcome the thorough report, which I have had the opportunity to glance through, as other hon. Members will have done. The public hope that the Government will respond positively to it. Early signs, as expected, are weak. The deputy head of the federal Bureau of Justice said, when he visited this country a year or two ago, that only a stubborn Government do not accept that the law on drugs may need to be reformed.

I hope that the Government are neither stubborn nor deaf on the issue of drugs, or on the recommendations of the Runciman report. I hope that they hear the clear message that, unless we distinguish between the severity and implications of different drugs, we cannot hope to reduce the number of people who are addicted or use drugs. An intelligent, considered response, drug by drug, to dealing with the user and the dealer is appropriate.

Lastly, the outgoing president of the Prison Governors Association told us today about the severe overcrowding in prisons and the difficulty that he and his colleagues now experience in doing their jobs. The criminal justice system is therefore in difficulties, and we must tackle that.

Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the Prison Service and its staff. I pay tribute, in particular, to the staff at Lancaster prison. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) knows that I recently visited the prison. My visit was interesting, informative and helpful. I was extremely impressed by the drugs rehabilitation work that I asked to see. I was impressed not only by the staff, but by the prisoners, who were motivated and clear about the benefits of the work. The more such work is undertaken in all our penal institutions, the better. Simply preventing drugs from coming into prisons is no good if sufficient work is not done with prisoners to ensure that they do not reoffend through drugs when they leave.

I add my tribute to those of other hon. Members to the probation service. It is delighted that it will keep its name. It does a good job and we all owe it a debt of gratitude.

The Government must balance trying to meet the public demand, which is misplaced in some ways, to be tougher and to be seen to be constantly devising new initiatives, with getting the policy right. As with other matters, the Government introduce plenty of initiatives, but many appear to be kneejerk reactions and the result of ill-thought-out ideas. Two current ideas appear to have sprung from unprompted and unheralded suggestions by the Prime Minister. It sometimes seems that policies are not rationally considered and are led, if not developed, by spin doctors. That is especially unhelpful in penal and criminal justice policy.

It is all very well legislating through providing for a power here and another there, but sometimes those powers are inappropriate. We need fewer one-off initiatives and more considered policy. We need joined-up government. Yesterday, the Government announced that they wanted more joined-up thinking on the youth service and young people. That is welcome. It should apply across the board, including to the Prison Service and the criminal justice system.

We should allow time for changes to bed down. For example, a set of orders is already available to the courts. They relate to drugs and include drug testing and treatment orders, and they appear to work well. Many people argue that the Bill provides for further and unnecessary orders when existing orders work adequately.

The precondition to all this is that we need as much crime reduction and prevention as possible. People around the country are all agreed that practical measures such as crime partnerships work well to deliver local ideas—some are societal, some are practical, some are to do with the design of houses, some relate to where to put play areas and some deal with how to bring up children and what their education they should be—but I repeat that having enough police out there on the streets is a key part of that exercise. We need police in the community and we need the neighbourhood wardens, which the Government have now introduced. We have long argued that more community-based policing is needed and the neighbourhood warden idea has now arrived, and not before time. In due course, we shall put forward further ideas on developing the police service to ensure that there is more coherent neighbourhood policing. We think that that is what the public want.

I want to say a word about young people, some of whom all too easily become young offenders. The more we can do to prevent young people from becoming young offenders, the better our society will become, although concentrating on prospective criminals of the future is not an excuse for not being equally attentive to the large number of people already in prison. There have been good initiatives and the Youth Justice Board is a good thing, but the reduction in the youth service around the country is a bad thing. The more constructive the activity young people undertake in and out of school, and the more they are educated for life through energetic pursuits that enable them to use their lives to the full, the less likely they are to be criminals.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), the Chairman of the Select Committee, was right: the more training and work that young people receive, the more likely they are to be full members of society, not criminals. It is more likely that there will be crime where there is less work and more unemployment and we have to reflect on the fact that many people at the bottom end of society, where there is still a large measure of social exclusion, are not doing well. Some people at the other end of society are doing very well indeed. The more unequal our society, the more likely it is that there will be crime among the have nots.

Dealing with truants is one of the crucial issues covered by the Bill. The proposal to move from a power to bring people before the authorities to a power to more than double fines on parents of truant children—and, prospectively, to send them to prison—does not seem to us to be a sensible answer. Although the Home Secretary says that the power is intended more as a threat than a reality, locking up the parents of truants is hardly likely to produce families that are more able to play a full and coherent part in society. Many things need to be done, and truancy is a big issue in constituencies such as mine, but locking up parents who have not fulfilled their parental responsibility to make sure that their children go to school is hardly likely to achieve improvements. Parents in prison often means children in local authority care. If children are in local authority or foster care, there is often a greater chance of them going into detention or prison in teenage and adult life. We must therefore be careful not to propose appealing but simplistic solutions to difficult problems.

Should people go to prison or should they not? The Bill's implication—by and large and in spite of the tagging option, which allows early release—is that prison numbers will go up.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

Although the hon. Gentleman's case may be welcomed by organisations such as the Howard League for Penal Reform, does he accept that the public—whether his view is right or wrong—feel safer when offenders are in prison? Rapists cannot rape and muggers cannot mug when they are off the streets. I understand many of his intellectual points, but he surely must accept that making people feel safe is a key element in providing law and order. To some extent, keeping people in prison provides that.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman is half right. The facts, as well as people's feelings, are important. Some are interesting. In surveys, the public say that the courts do not give heavy enough sentences. If they are asked what sentences the courts give, they underestimate by about 50 per cent. They think that sentences ought to be tougher, but do not realise how tough they already are. If people are told that keeping 10 people in prison involves spending what it costs to employ eight police officers, they begin to realise that it may be better to reduce prison numbers so that we can have more police officers. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but the answers are not that simple.

The public want offenders to be punished, but in general nobody argues that we should keep the punished people—apart from those who have committed the most severe offences—in prison for the rest of their natural lives. The sooner we rehabilitate prisoners so that they can play a full part in society outside, the better. That would also be far cheaper for society, which pays for people to be locked up, where they make almost no contribution to society, pay no taxes and put nothing back in the kitty, never mind the cost to their families, who may depend on the state for as long as they are locked up.

After my visit to Lancaster prison, I went across the Pennines to Full Sutton prison outside York. Like my hon. Friends, I am making more regular prison visits. The big issue in the Prison Service is what to do when people are in prison. How can they all undertake productive activity? If we could massively increase education and training, provide apprenticeships and offer drugs rehabilitation—making sure that those measures did not stop or quickly fade away as people walked through the prison gates, but continued—we would have a chance to make an inroad. The figures are terrifying: about 75 per cent. of crimes are committed by those who have been inside—reoffenders stuck in what is known in shorthand as the revolving door.

I do not want to speak for too long and shall deal with the specifics. Part I creates the National Probation Service for England and Wales. We welcome that and the retention of the service's name, but we have a couple of questions. I put the first to the Home Secretary earlier: will he please give less power over appointments to himself and more to others? The point was rightly made from the Conservative Benches that a recent report criticised the current and the former Secretaries of State for Health for their patronage in health authority appointments. Many Labour people have been appointed. However wonderful the system may be in theory, we do not want the boys and girls known by Ministers to be appointed to chair the new probation committees. That ought to be done much more independently and I hope that there will be a move on that. The Home Secretary did not appear to be against it.

I raise a further small question. Given that the Bill deals with England and Wales, might not it be appropriate in this era of devolution to consider establishing separate services for them? Welsh colleagues may take that up elsewhere.

The probation service is happy to do its job, but it points out that its budget has been cut by about 25 per cent. in five years. If we are to ask people to be more effective in working in the community and preventing people from going to prison, they have to be given the resources—people and other things—to achieve that.

The Bill also deals with the important matter of children and family welfare, and the new structure is welcome. In a previous life, I did some work in that environment in the courts. We need a more integrated system and that is proposed, which is welcome. The Bill will move the system in England and Wales nearer to the Scottish system. The proposals to make sure that children are better protected from people who might be a risk to them are particularly welcome. The public are right to say that we need the most secure safeguards against the abuse and exploitation of children, whether physical or sexual. I have a couple of specific questions about that.

First, it appears that the Bill is flawed, as not only may some people be banned from working with children, but people who have been banned may never be able to have those bans lifted. In straightforward civil liberty terms, when it is clear that the risk has gone it must be right to lift a ban.

Secondly, in Committee, we need to look at the definition of "working with children". The Bill is fairly broad, but there are some practical questions. I am not saying that I have an answer, but, clearly, some people regularly employ young people: for example, to do a newspaper or milk round. There is no obvious reason why they should not be excluded from the protection provisions—the obligation provisions—any more than people in the youth club, the Church, the scout troop or anywhere else. We must have a common arrangement across the board.

Thirdly, clauses 26 and 30 contain the all-too-recurrent reverse burden of proof provision. We should put that in legislation only when we are all persuaded that there is no other way.

Fourthly, I have made the point about truanting. I simply observe that another piece of legislation that is going through the House says that, if people offend, they may lose benefits. I am not sure that social exclusion is reduced and that families at risk are helped greatly by a combination of legislation that might take parents away from a family where the children are not going to school, and might take benefits away where the adults are misbehaving. In both cases, that renders the children more vulnerable and more exposed, rather than less.

I have made clear our position on tagging; in principle, we support tagging, but the technology must exist. I gather that some of it is not yet up and running. The Home Secretary indicated that it will only be available in a couple of years. Clearly, we must ensure that tagging happens only at the end of the sentence, but I am satisfied that it is a good system.

What is a particularly good system, if we can get the technology to work, is tagging that prevents people from going somewhere, as well as tagging that watches them when they go away. Giving protection through tagging, particularly to women who have been victims of violence may be more effective than almost anything else in the system. Anyone who has been involved with those issues knows that guaranteeing security in any way is often very difficult.

The fifth big issue is drugs. I put it to the Home Secretary, and I repeat expressly: there is considerable scepticism about all the Bill's provisions on drugs and drug orders. One of the groups that put the scepticism most effectively is the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse—it happens to be based in my constituency but it is nationally recognised as competent, authoritative and well informed—which says that the Bill appears to introduce by the back door use of drugs as a criminal offence.

I hear what Ministers say, but the provision seems clearly different. In Britain, we have never before legislated for the use of drugs to be a criminal offence; it is possession, supply and making money out of them that is the offence. We will need to examine the matter very carefully to ensure that clause 48 does not change the law. Some of the advice that we have received says that it does. If it does, it should not. We must ensure that the Bill is made clearer.

Mr. Boateng

What advice?

Mr. Hughes

The advice came not least from the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse and others, including Liberty. It is a perfectly reasonable question and a perfectly reasonable answer. The National Association of Probation Officers has, I believe, expressed the same view. I may be wrong, but it is not a view that comes without those people having looked at the legislation.

There is scepticism about pre-sentence drug testing for adults receiving community sentences. There is the view that drug-testing adult arrestees is very expensive; it costs about £0.5 billion in a full year. It could undermine constructive arrest referral schemes and lead to the misuse of police discretion as to who not to test. It could, therefore, lead to inconsistency in the application of the law.

Mr. Boateng

Liberty again?

Mr. Hughes

Not Liberty again.

The right to bail and the ability to attach drug-related orders to that is fine in theory, but, without the treatment, all those powers are relatively worthless. In many ways, it is far better to use well-resourced, targeted, highly supervised and structured bail support packages—for example, drug-testing orders, which we already have—rather than something that does not have back-up to ensure that people are given the rehabilitation that they want.

It is right that we have mandatory drug testing in prison. It is right that people, on release, should be able to be tested before they go out and that it should be a condition of release, in some cases, that testing continues. However, unless we have the infrastructure to stop people getting back on to hard drugs, we will not deal with what is, for them, the drugs menace.

The real question—it is why I put the case; it came in the Runciman report today—is whether we spend more money on prevention and rehabilitation and less than we currently spend on drugs law enforcement, and whether we begin to reverse the figures. If about £6 out of every £10 is spent on law enforcement, and if just over £1 in £10 is spent on rehabilitation, some people believe that we should change that significantly.

The best time to test people for drugs is after conviction and before sentencing, so that they have the appropriate sentence. There should be drug testing where someone is charged with possession of drugs, where they are arrested on a drug-related offence, or where there is reasonable suspicion of that, just as we should be able to test someone who is driving allegedly under the influence of drugs, but there should not be the general power to test anyone and everyone if drugs are unrelated to the reason for arresting and holding the person. Equally, we must not forget alcohol and alcohol abuse.

We are all determined to reduce crime and reoffending. We are all, I hope, committed to the view that there should be serious and agreed solutions, rather than ideas that have not been thought through and worked out. I hope that we can have the flexibility to enable us to have a criminal justice system that responds to the many and different needs, but that there will be no stubbornness or refusal to examine certain solutions or proposals that are crying out for a Government response.

There is an opportunity to get the Bill right. It will need much work in Committee, but we will support it as the beginning of good legislation, provided that there is a willingness throughout this place to ensure that it is amended, potentially significantly, in the weeks ahead, before it goes on to the statute book.

6.47 pm
Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham)

I agree with the point that was made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) about drugs and drug testing.

First, let me declare an interest as the parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation.

This is an important Bill. Its importance is perhaps obscured somewhat by the thin attendance in the Chamber, but the Bill covers much ground. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, it will need detailed examination in Committee, which I hope it will get.

What I want to do now is make some brief points on just one theme which goes right through the Bill: the need for effective programmes to deal with offenders during their sentences in prison and in the community. The provision on drugs, for example, which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey raised with the Home Secretary in an intervention, is absolutely right. It would introduce a new drug abstinence order. I am not completely clear what such an order does over and above the powers that are currently available, but what is plain is that it is no good expanding the practice of testing for drugs—which I welcome—or making orders about abstinence, especially where addiction is the causal factor in the offence, unless there are good programmes of treatment and support for the drug-taking offender. Far too few such programmes are available and there are waiting lists for them. If the Government will the testing, they must be willing to deal effectively and swiftly with the individuals who fail the tests.

Unfortunately, drug treatment is not cheap, although in the long run, it is even more expensive to identify addicted criminals and then keep them untreated in prisons, or under some "order to abstain" in the community—which, without the prompt treatment that they need, will be generally ineffectual.

The same type of issue is raised by the restructuring of the probation service. It makes sense, when practical, to organise the different agencies in the criminal justice system so that the administrative units of police, probation and Crown Prosecution Service cover conterminous areas. That obviously facilitates co-operation. However, the probation and prison services have the most need for a structure providing for regular contact and joint action. I realise that such a structure is not easily achieved, partly because the Prison Service has a regional administration, and not least because prisoners are frequently held far from the areas to which they will go when they are released. It is consequently very difficult to organise direct contact with the local probation service while prisoners are held in prison.

I think that the Government's intention was to tackle that problem with their initial idea of merging the Prison Service with the probation service. I believe that, at this stage, that would have been a step too far. However, it is all the more reason to ask the Minister, in his reply, to explain how the reorganisation of probation will be used to fill the yawning gaps between prison and probation.

Currently, prisoners who start drug treatment in prison seldom find it possible to continue it outside. The same is true of other education or offending behaviour programmes. Surely it is just at that point—when they are re-entering society—that many prisoners most need the discipline, support and opportunity of such programmes if they are to remain outside prison and lead a law-abiding life. Such programmes are badly needed.

As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, the number of prisoners who are released but back in prison within two years is very high—for adults, the figure is more than 50 per cent; for young offenders, the figure is near to 80 per cent—showing that prisons are not working. However, the Bill provides a great opportunity, if money is put behind it, to make a large difference in the rate of reoffending. I hope that Ministers will seize the opportunity.

I am not saying that joint working does not happen; it happens very often, sometimes in very difficult conditions. Great effort is made by probation officers and by prison staff to ensure that it happens. Joint working has long been the objective of successive Governments. It was known as "through care" under the mild and gentle regime of the previous Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). Perhaps the current Home Secretary prefers to be a little more robust and call it "through punishment", or perhaps "joined-up punishment", but what we are taking about is seamless rehabilitation—which is a much clumsier title. Although I do not think that that title will catch on, I hope that the idea does, so that the positive work in prison may continue outside, where experience suggests that it can often be more effective.

I am glad that the Home Secretary finally decided not to rename the probation service in his efforts to bring it more firmly into the front line of the criminal justice system. Far from helping to achieve desirable change, that would have undermined morale and self-esteem within the service and made its ability and readiness to accept change less positive and less successful. Perhaps the Home Secretary could share that psychological insight with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who has not yet grasped that changing the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is seen by its members as a vote of no confidence which will reduce morale and make constructive change on the essentials of policing in Northern Ireland harder to achieve.

I am glad to see that the Bill extends the use of tagging. I am sure that it is right to proceed by careful stages in the extension of tagging, to ensure that we do not move ahead of the reliability of the evolving technology, and to learn how it can best be used and with what result. However, although it looks as if tagging will have a very important role in dealing with offenders, it must not be used as a punishment on its own. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), in his speech, made the point extremely well as he warned that tagging's contribution will be to provide, when it is needed, a framework of discipline to community penalties, reinforcing sentences designed to keep the offender away from trouble and engaged in the programmes of work or education that have been designed specifically to counter the offender's criminal behaviour.

I believe that tagging will not work very effectively if it is not part of such programmes. It is not a cheap disciplinary alternative to such programmes, but a means by which they can be more effectively and safely delivered.

Eventually, tagging opens the way to the possibility of more flexible sentences, of which part may be spent in prison and part in the community, depending on the progress that the prisoner makes. That raises large questions on sentencing, however. Administrative action should not determine the proportion of a sentence spent in prison; the courts must do that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald is quite right in her concern. The courts should impose appropriate penalties that deliberately include the flexibility that is needed, and the management of sentences should be generally overseen by a judicial process. As that is not part of the Bill, I shall not deal with it more deeply now. However, the Bill is leading in that direction, and it would be helpful if—during the Bill's progress, if not in the Minister's reply—the Government could say in outline what they have in mind for the further evolution of their policy in that sphere.

Tagging should eventually have an impact on the way in which prison sentences are served in prison. There is a shortage of suitable courses and programmes in prison—courses that prepare prisoners for release and jobs outside. Prisoners have a variety of different needs, and they cannot all be effectively catered for inside. I doubt whether it will ever be possible to provide suitable courses for all prisoners, however liberal and generous the Treasury might become. Tagging should be used to enable suitable prisoners, at suitable times, to join appropriate educational and training schemes outside.

If there is no possibility under current law of using tagging in that way, I believe that the Bill should provide such a possibility. I hope that, in his reply, the Minister will tell us whether there is, or whether there will be, such a possibility. At any rate, I hope that he will tell us that that is a suggestion to which he is already giving positive thought—or that, if he is not, he will start doing so very soon after this debate.

6.59 pm
Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West)

I do not propose to detain the House for long, but simply wish to make a few general points.

I welcome the Bill. It is not surprising that it has received cross-party support, and that there will be no Division on Second Reading. It introduces various reforms which—I am sure many hon. Members will agree—are necessary to allow the Government to continue waging an effective war against crime, and particularly to deal with the very well established link between drug abuse and crime.

The Bill is a compendium of measures with no apparent overriding theme other than pragmatism. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary clearly takes penological research to heart and has learned from it, but it is important that we listen to the communities that we represent as well as to the experts.

The Government's record on crime is good: recorded crime has fallen by 7 per cent. since the election, convictions have gone up and extra cash has been awarded to police forces to recruit extra officers. I welcome the emphasis on crime prevention, particularly the proposed new drug-testing powers. I endorse the comments of the right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) that such powers are essential to break the link between drug abuse and crime, but that we must have well-resourced and accessible programmes for the rehabilitation of offenders to get them off the drug habit. I shall be particularly interested in any assurances that my hon. Friend the Minister can give us on that pertinent issue.

The provision to allow criminal courts to make drug abstinence orders as a condition of community sentences is eminently sensible, as are the provisions on electronic monitoring or tagging, which should not be a punishment in its own right. I know that the Home Office does not always listen too attentively to lawyers at the moment, but I stress that I am speaking not in a trade union capacity, but simply as a barrister with some experience in defence and prosecution in criminal law. The Government must acknowledge the pace of technological progress and expand the electronic monitoring programme. Those who are released on licence must be monitored in appropriate circumstances.

My view is not specific to Wales, but, in view of the recent conclusion of the Waterhouse inquiry in north Wales, I was particularly heartened by the robust measures designed to increase the powers available to protect children. My constituents will be pleased that the Government have responded to the widespread concern—I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) also made this point—about the infiltration of the system by those who want to prey on children. The Waterhouse inquiry is testament to that. We must have an integrated system for protecting children. I congratulate the Government on creating a new criminal offence of accepting or applying for work with children for those who have been disqualified by reasons of previous sexual offences.

I welcome the restructuring of the probation service. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey invited me, as the only Welsh Member present, to comment on the fact that the Bill will create only one National Probation Service for England and Wales, rather than two separate services. I have no strong views on the matter. Given that Home Office functions have not been devolved to the National Assembly for Wales, there is coherence in the Government's approach.

I pay tribute to the hard, demanding and valuable work that those in the probation service do. It has always struck me as odd that the probation service was linked with the family service. It is eminently reasonable to divide them and create a separate Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. That enables the two services to concentrate on their areas of expertise. It was an historical accident that their functions were originally combined.

My experience as a lawyer tells me that, unfortunately, the breaching of community sentences is widespread. The Government are right to take robust steps on enforcement to deter people from breaching community sentences. That is long overdue.

Mr. Hawkins

From his experience at the Bar, does the hon. Gentleman think that changing the name of the orders will do any good? Is that not simply costly tinkering to no good purpose?

Mr. Thomas

That leads to the need to consolidate the plethora of powers and orders available to the court. I should like to hear the Minister's comments on that. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government's reforms are right.

I am a member of the all-party penal affairs group. Some Members present may recall that the eminent penologist and criminologist Dr. David Thomas QC addressed us not so long ago. As an expert, he had to acknowledge that the courts were having severe difficulty understanding the relationship between the various disposals available to them. I note that one of the House of Commons research papers describes the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Bill—which this Bill refers to as an Act, assuming that it will get Royal Assent—as a consolidating Bill. I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to cast further light on the direction of Government policy on the codification or consolidation of the law, which is complex and unwieldy. In the view of many people it is high time that it was reformed and made more rational.

I welcome the Bill, which provides useful weapons to the Government in their fight against crime.

7.9 pm

Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

Very little has been said so far in the debate about resources, but the Bill will have resource implications for the Home Office if, as it predicts, more people end up in prison and the treatment provided for those who test positive is not to result in those outside the criminal justice system having to wait even longer than they currently do for treatment, which in many parts of the country is far too long. The rehabilitation of offenders and community sentences are not cheap options. The probation service was originally set up for the welfare of offenders—to advise, assist and befriend. Punishment and the protection of society are important, but in the Bill those original aims seem to have disappeared from the aims of the new National Probation Service.

Concern for the welfare of offenders is not about being a soft, woolly liberal. It is the best way to prevent the creation of more victims. I have never considered properly resourced and supervised non-custodial sentences to be a soft option, and I do not think that many offenders do. In many cases, it is the best option, especially if it enables offenders to keep their homes, jobs and family contacts.

It does not need an Einstein to work out that if people retain a level of contact with their families, their jobs and their homes, they have more security and are less likely to reoffend than people who are discharged from prison with no home to go to—certainly no job and possibly with fractured family relationships.

I am concerned that the restructuring of the probation service and the reduction from 54 committees to 42 local areas, coterminous with police authority boundaries, may damage existing effective local structures. I concede that there are difficulties in shire counties such as mine, in finding an appropriate basis for coterminosity; if an area is coterminous with the police authority, it will not be coterminous with the social services authority or with different housing authorities. I recognise that there is not the same problem in metropolitan areas.

One worrying aspect is the Home Secretary's power to appoint board members. The Government have been accused, rightly, of stuffing NHS trust boards with political appointees—although it is rather rich for the Conservatives to comment on that, as they started the quangoisation of Britain and the habit of stuffing boards with their friends and cronies. This Government are continuing the trend started by their predecessors.

Miss Widdecombe


Jackie Ballard

It palpably is not nonsense. The new Government have replaced Tory appointees with Labour appointees—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. Life has been quiet in the Chamber since I took the Chair. Let us not disturb the peace.

Jackie Ballard

I am pleased to note that we may have woken up the audience, who have been so quiet for the last couple of hours.

Miss Widdecombe

At the risk of adding to the noise in the Chamber, what the hon. Lady has said is at complete variance with what the independent review says.

Jackie Ballard

I was particularly addressing recent times, but I do not think that the right hon. Lady can deny that her Government started the process of putting political appointees in place on many of these boards.

I wonder what the point is of having local boards if there is no system of local selection to them. There are close working relationships between the probation service and, for example, housing authorities, which I hope will not be weakened by these structural changes. I hope that the Home Secretary will have in mind the need to appoint people from such bodies.

Mr. Boateng

indicated assent.

Jackie Ballard

The Minister is nodding, which I hope means that people from housing authorities, for example, will be on those boards so that the close work can continue.

The establishment of CAFCASS is to be welcomed. In a previous life, I worked as a social worker and attended courts with children and their families. Most people have recognised that the mixture of services available to children and their families, and the confusion that that has caused, has been a problem for many years. It seems a logical step for CAFCASS to assume the responsibility for the family court welfare system.

I chair the cross-party group campaigning for the registration of workers involved with young people and children, and I have taken a particular interest in methods of increasing the protection of children. The aim to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in court proceedings—including representing them, protecting their legal rights and providing support for them and their families—is laudable.

A comprehensive system properly to protect children is long overdue. I welcome many of the Government's initiatives in extending the protection of children. I welcome the statutory ban for those who come to notice as posing a threat to children. Clearly, there is a need to ensure that the appropriate authorities and employers are informed about individuals with criminal convictions for abusing children so that they are not able to get employment with access to children in future. I welcome the fact that employment is to be extended to include unpaid and voluntary work, as well as paid work. However, I am concerned that the Home Secretary is to have the power to extend the categories of those included on the list.

I served on the Committee scrutinising the Protection of Children Act 1999. We had a genuine debate—it was not a party political issue—about the level of proof needed to disqualify someone from working with children if that was his chosen career. However horrendous the idea of someone abusing children might be to us, that does not mean that we should take away all civil rights from people who have not been found guilty of an offence.

The appeals process needs to be addressed carefully, and politicians should not have a role in deciding the ability of someone to work in a certain field; that should be a matter for the judicial process. It is important that individuals who are banned are identified by a fair process and have the chance to appeal to clear their names if they have been wrongly accused. My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said earlier that the burden of proof test should protect children from real danger, but should not remove the basic human rights of an accused individual.

Community sentences are very important for rehabilitating offenders. I have long believed that far too little has been done in terms of rehabilitation, and that successive Governments have relied on tough talk, punishment and prison as some sort of panacea for crime—believing that if it keeps the Daily Mail happy, it must be good, regardless of how many people end up being imprisoned. The numbers going into prison increase every year, but the crime rates do not go down over a period—

Miss Widdecombe

Yes they do.

Jackie Ballard

Rates go up and down. The trend is generally up. If an offender continues to offend after release from prison, all we get are more victims.

Miss Widdecombe

Will the hon. Lady not admit that the steepest decline in crime since the war was exactly coincidental with the steepest rise in the prison population?

Jackie Ballard

I intend to refer later to links between drug use and crime.

Miss Widdecombe

What does that have to do with what I have just asked?

Jackie Ballard

If the right hon. Lady waits, I will answer her. One of the basic things I learned as an undergraduate, when statistics was part of my course, was that correlation does not imply causation. The fact that there may have been a glut of strawberries in a given year and the crime rate went down does not imply that one was the cause of the other, any more than an increase in the prison population and crime going down implies that one is the cause of the other.

Miss Widdecombe

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Jackie Ballard

No, I will not give way again. The right hon. Lady had plenty of time to speak earlier.

A recent Home Office press release said that victims' safety should be put first. I agree with that. That should apply also to potential victims of an unreformed offender, not just to past victims of a convicted person. We have a moral and practical duty not to treat prisoners so harshly in universities of crime that they come out as more hardened criminals—

Mr. Day

What about the victims?

Jackie Ballard

I am talking specifically about victims. Without offenders, there are no victims. If offenders are not treated in such a way that they are rehabilitated, there will be more victims. We must ensure that proper rehabilitation, including basic skills training, is provided so that we can break the cycle of harm. Community sentences and post-sentence supervision are keys to this process.

Electronic monitoring has a part to play in fighting crime and can make community sentences more effective. I understand that there are concerns over the technical feasibility of using electronic tagging as a means of exclusion—[Interruption.]

The Minister of State says not. If that is the case, I am pleased to hear it, but some people outside the House will need to be convinced that the technical problems have been resolved. However, if it is technically possible, I would especially welcome the use of electronic tagging to stop perpetrators approaching victims of domestic violence in their homes. That would be welcomed very widely, as restricting and monitoring the movements of offenders, especially in those circumstances, should provide greater protection for the public.

I come now to the subject of drug testing, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey spoke in some detail. We fully support attempts to make the criminal justice system more effective at tackling the causes of offending behaviour and at challenging the behaviour of offenders. It has been established that much criminality is related to drug misuse, and an effective response needs to be developed. As I said earlier, however, in statistical terms correlation does not prove—or even imply—causation. Many repeat offenders lead chaotic lives, as do many drug users. The chaotic life style may cause the crime, rather than the drug use per se.

It is essential that treatment plays a central role in our approach to testing. I would extend that to cover alcohol abuse, which is also linked to many crimes. Crudely speaking, illegal drug use is linked to acquisitive crimes, while alcohol is linked to driving offences and violent crimes. Crimes of violence constitute that element of the crime figures that has been rising most, and it continues to rise. People fear being burgled and having their homes invaded. I know that they are very unpleasant experiences, but most people fear crimes of violence much more than acquisitive crimes. We should not be so obsessed with illegal drugs that we overlook the impact of alcohol on society.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, our primary concern with the Bill is that clause 48 is so broad that it could be construed as criminalising, for the first time, the use of drugs. I know that the Home Secretary disagrees with that interpretation, but his view is not shared by many other experts. The clause, as drafted, would create a new offence. I hope that it is not the Government's intention to do so, as existing provisions seem perfectly adequate to ensure that the possession, manufacture and trafficking of illicit substances are criminalised.

In principle, the proposal to create abstinence orders could be supported, but the orders will be counterproductive unless they are linked to drug treatment programmes. If they are not so linked, they will simply be a method of forcing drug users back into custody. If a person charged with an offence is found in possession of drugs, or if there is reasonable suspicion that that person was under the influence of drugs at the time of the offence, it would be acceptable to test for the use of drugs. Generally speaking, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey noted, the critical point at which testing should take place is after conviction for an offence and before sentencing, not on arrest. Once guilt has been established, drug testing can help to identify the most appropriate sentence, not only in terms of punishment and deterrence, but in addressing the causes of criminal behaviour and reducing reoffending.

We oppose the Bill's provisions allowing the Home Secretary to extend, by order, drug testing to anyone who is arrested. I hope that the Minister will explain, when he responds to the debate, why the Prime Minister originally suggested—apparently off the cuff—that the Government's intention was to drug-test anyone taken into police custody. That has changed in the Bill, but it retains an order-making power allowing the Home Secretary to extend testing if he feels so inclined.

The law should distinguish between those who use drugs, and those who abuse them. Use of drugs in itself should not be criminalised, as that is not harmful to others.

Miss Widdecombe

Dear me.

Jackie Ballard

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, from a sedentary position, says, "Dear me", but she did not criminalise the use of drugs when she was in government.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Lady should not be saying "Dear me" from a sedentary position.

Jackie Ballard

Perhaps my ears are too good, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have a blind side—if the right hon. Lady were sitting on my left, I would not be able to see her—but not a deaf side.

There is already plenty of legislation trying to prevent the use of illegal drugs. However, the resources devoted to the treatment of drug users are insufficient and not enough is being done to deal with the crimes that result from the use and abuse of alcohol. None of the provisions in the Bill will be effective without a real and substantial increase in resources for the treatment of people with a drug habit.

I believe that it would be irresponsible to identify drug users without providing treatment for them. The Bill is likely to waste resources on testing, which will prove nothing except that a person has used an illegal substance. Questions arise about the efficacy of the tests available, and whether they will always be 100 per cent. effective. The House will recall that a Conservative Member had occasion to realise that his use of a perfectly legal medicine could cause him to test positive, as happened when he attended a conference.

In itself, drug testing will not prove a link between a crime and drug use, and neither will it produce treatment for persistent drug users. Moreover, a human rights issue arises here. Before trial, everyone is presumed innocent, but, under the Bill, an innocent person refusing a drug test will have committed an imprisonable offence. The Minister will know that Liberty questions whether that is an infringement of rights granted under article 8 of the European convention on human rights.

Finally, I come to the proposals for the jailing of the parents of truants. Clause 55 provides for more serious sanctions than are in place already, including a level 4 fine of £2,500 and the possibility of a custodial sentence to ensure that a parent attends court. We share the Government's view that something must be done about the levels of truancy in our schools, but we cannot see how impoverishing a child's household, or jailing a child's parents, will improve matters.

What is needed is early intervention and more help for parents who feel unable to control their children, not new and ever more draconian punishments for people who already cannot cope. If the Government were deliberately setting out to create an underclass, I cannot think of a much better way for them to go about it. We shall seek to amend and overturn those provisions in Committee.

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, the Bill has cost implications that have not been touched on. Many of its provisions will lead to an uncosted rise in the prison population, and the Bill itself suggests that, assuming 50 per cent. compliance, an extra 3,000 prisoners will be created. The worst-case scenario therefore is that there will be an extra 6,000 prisoners. I doubt that the Home Secretary would consider it an effective indicator of his performance if the prison population continued to rise during his tenure.

We shall table a number of constructive amendments in Committee, and we shall reserve our view on Third Reading so that we can determine how open the Government are to improving the Bill during its passage through the House. I take comfort from the words of the Home Secretary, who said that this was not a perfect Bill.

7.27 pm
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

I want to begin by injecting a little realism into the debate. There have been many serious speeches, full of good intentions, but we all know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That is particularly true of this Government. Interestingly, however, the Government today slipped out a written answer to a question tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on one of the issues central to the Bill.

My right hon. Friend had asked the Government to say how many offenders released under the home detention curfew scheme were convicted of each category of drug offence. We have heard a lot of soft stuff today about drugs matters, especially from Liberal Democrat Members, as so often. In his written answer, the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng)—who sits spluttering on the Government Front Bench—reported figures relating to those prisoners released under the home detention curfew scheme up to 14 March this year. That is only two weeks ago today, and the figures show that no fewer than 2,931 released prisoners were convicted of drugs-related offences.

The Minister's reply sets out the numbers of prisoners convicted of each type of drugs offence. The answer shows that 103 were convicted of offences of production—in other words, that they were manufacturers of illegal drugs. A further 190 had been convicted of unlawful import or export—in other words, they were traffickers. Supply and intent to supply are among the most serious offences, and the written answer shows that 969 released prisoners had been convicted of supplying illegal drugs, and that no fewer than 1,238 had been convicted of possession with intent to supply. That means that more than 2,000 of those released were drug dealers.

After all the nonsense that we have heard from Labour Members about the home detention curfew scheme—I am particularly sorry that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) is not in his place—it is clear from the written answer given today to my right hon. Friend that she was right to criticise the way in which the Government are using the scheme and the way in which they have, once again, systematically and deliberately broken their promises and undertakings that the scheme was never intended to be used for this kind of serious offender.

Let us get back to reality, so that when the Minister has to justify the real facts that he had to admit in his written answer. If it had not been for my right hon. Friend, we would never have known those details. We would never have known what the Government were up to, and the electorate would never have known that, once again, the Government have been soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime. As we have so often said, the most serious cause of crime is drugs.

The Home Secretary suggested that the Bill was part of the Government's attempts to become more effective and targeted. He also had to reveal that when it came to the powers that he was proposing to take, appointments to the probation service were once again a matter of central control. Many hon. Members, even Liberal Democrat Members, said that we were right to challenge the culture of cronyism.

Jackie Ballard

I would like to refresh the hon. Gentleman's memory. During the 18 years of Conservative Government, the main opposition to his party's habit of stuffing boards with their cronies came from those on the Liberal Democrat Benches, so it should come as no surprise that we are opposing this Government for doing the same thing.

Mr. Hawkins

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald pointed out in her earlier intervention on the hon. Lady, that was not the case. As was made clear at Prime Minister's Question Time last week, the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments has said that she is concerned about political interference and cronyism since 1 May 1997. That is when the problem started.

I was interested in the Home Secretary's choice of phrase when he talked about these provisions. He said, very carefully, that the current proposal is for central control. I wondered whether this was yet another occasion on which the Home Secretary did not have his heart in his proposal. He said that Bills could be improved in Committee. I entirely agree with him, and hope that we will improve this Bill dramatically in Committee. However, I wondered whether the proposal was yet another imposed on him by No. 10 Downing street and not his own.

Then we came to electronic tagging. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald has elicited the true facts on how that is being used. We will examine very carefully in Committee whether those proposals can be changed pretty substantially, because we do not think that the Government are going about this the right way. My right hon. Friend dealt with those matters in detail in her response to the Home Secretary. In particular, she made it clear that she is concerned on behalf of victims about the crimes committed by those who are released early.

Some Labour Members later suggested that my right hon. Friend had been wrong to talk about specific cases. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) who, I am glad to say, is in his place, suggested that my right hon. Friend was mistaken to draw these cases to the attention of the House; but if not here, where? Is not the whole purpose of our debates in this place to test Government proposals? Given that we have already seen that what the Government have introduced has led to those who had been convicted of very serious crimes committing further crimes, having been released earlier than they should have been, it is absolutely right for the House to debate the matter and for the Conservative party to draw attention to the concerns of victims.

I disagree fundamentally with the hon. Gentleman that the victims would not want us to refer to their cases. I think that the victims want us to debate these serious matters in Parliament. I worked for many years with organisations such as Victim Support, and I practised for many years at the criminal Bar. I have heard it said repeatedly that victims want their concerns ventilated, particularly when those who have been released from prison sentences earlier than the judge intended are involved. We should be debating that issue.

Mr. Dawson

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. It is extremely important to look hard at the impact on victims of any of our policies. However, the references made earlier did not represent a serious debate on this matter. They represented the lowest form of party political point scoring, utilising people who had the most distressing experiences. I thought it extremely distasteful.

Mr. Hawkins

I could not disagree more with the hon. Gentleman. His constituents would be horrified at his suggestion that Parliament is in some way debarred from discussing these matters. My right hon. Friend was, quite rightly, referring to a case in which the headline said, "Three Jailed for Arson Death of Girl, 7, in Criminals Feud". The details are horrendous, and my right hon. Friend was right to draw attention to the consequences of people being released earlier in such tragic cases.

Mr. Dawson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins

No, I will not give way again. The hon. Gentleman has said that he does not agree with me. In these very serious cases, the public have a right to know if people are being released earlier than the judge intended.

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Erdington has returned. When he was talking about police numbers, he said something that sounded dangerously complacent. I greatly respect him as the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, a role which I know he takes seriously. However, he sounded dangerously complacent when he said that we probably have enough police officers if they are used properly. He might wish to reflect further on that, because I doubt whether his constituents would agree with him.

The hon. Gentleman made some passionate points. As he knows, I practised at the Bar for a number of years, dealing with both criminal and family law cases in the Birmingham and west midlands area. He will recognise that I understand the importance of criminal cases and family cases involving his constituents. I take his views very seriously. However, his fears that, as part and parcel of this measure, probation officers might be driving by and waving—which reminded me of the poetic phrase "not waving but drowning"—and his concerns about many of the prisons, the fact that the Government have not improved them, and his praise for Blantyre amounted to quite savage criticisms addressed to those on his Front Bench. He was right to draw the Minister of State's attention to these serious points. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald made it clear that she agreed with what he said about Blantyre, and so do I. Another prison in which these matters are taken seriously is Coldingley, in my constituency.

Mr. Corbett

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not being here for the start of his speech. There is no demonstrable connection between the numbers of police officers and clear-up rates. That is far too simplistic.

Mr. Hawkins

The hon. Gentleman will have to justify his views to his constituents, but I do not think that many would agree with him. Another of his hon. Friends made a point later about perceptions. We must look not only at how crime is cleared up but at the significant factor of public perceptions. I am sure that he at least agrees with me about that. Our constituents all want to see more police on the beat.

The hon. Member for Erdington may perhaps want to consider whether, in relation to drugs, prison regimes ought to make far greater use of organisations such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE. If he wants to intervene to praise its work at prisons such as Coldingley, I will give way, but he is nodding, so I take it that he agrees. There are issues on which there is no partisan divide, and the importance of drug treatment in prisons is one of them. I hope that we shall continue to deal with some of those issues without political partisanship.

As always, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) made an extremely thoughtful speech. He brought his great experience—from the Bar, from Government as Solicitor-General and Attorney-General and, more recently, as shadow Attorney-General—to bear on the problems that we are discussing. He showed how much he will be missed. It will be known to hon. Members on both sides of the House that last weekend my right hon. and learned Friend said that he intended to retire at the next election. I take this opportunity to pay the first of what I am sure will be many tributes to the enormous contribution that he has made to debates over his many years in the House. Inevitably, what my right hon. and learned Friend says will be listened to with care by Members on the Treasury Bench. We may have an opportunity to put some of his points in Committee. I hope that the Government will take them seriously.

I am dealing with the speech of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre a little out of turn because he made a point that related to the speech made by the hon. Member for Erdington. At the outset, I thought that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre was setting out to make a constructive contribution. He referred to his experience as a social work manager. I disagreed with him when he suggested that the significant points that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire and I made about nomenclature in the Bill were mere quibbles. He ought to recognise that when we talk about names of organisations and orders in the courts, nomenclature is important. These are not trivial matters or matters of soundbites, but matters that we will debate seriously in Committee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will come to realise that we are not quibbling about them, but that we are making serious points.

We do not want the law to be mocked, and there is undoubtedly a danger of mockery with some of the titles that the Government have chosen. I am sure that the Government will listen seriously to the constructive proposals that we shall make in Committee about that.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre went on to attack his Government for passing the new service, currently rather inappropriately named the Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, to the Lord Chancellor's Department. He said that it was dangerous to put social workers with lawyers. The debate has been all about social workers or former social workers and lawyers, and the Committee may be full of both. If that is a danger for the Government, they may have to look carefully at how they construct their representation on the Committee.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about a children's rights service and a children's commissioner. There is a great danger of over-bureaucratising these matters. We shall certainly not want any more taxpayers' money spent on bureaucracy. I agree with him that it is essential that children are protected. If there was ever any doubt about that, the recent child abuse inquiry has made the situation clear. I know from my years of practice as a family law barrister that no issue is more important than the protection of children. He and I agree about that.

The slogans about social exclusion that the hon. Gentleman used, and which we are used to hearing from him and his hon. Friends, must not be used as a substitute for thought. He must be careful not to belittle the issues. I am sure that he did not intend to do so.

We then had an interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). He pointed out that crime was always with us. That sort of truism is something that we frequently hear from Liberal Democrats. He also talked about the crime figures. At least he finally admitted that crime came down under the stewardship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). For once, at least, the Liberal Democrats were more realistic about the figures than the Home Secretary was. [Interruption.] The Home Secretary is chuntering from a sedentary position. The problem is that he always wants to have it both ways. When he talks about police numbers, he talks about only the past two or three years, not the whole period of government. When he talks about crime, he wants to talk only about the whole period, not about the past two or three years. The Home Secretary and his Ministers really must learn to be consistent. They cannot have one without the other.

Mr. Straw

In the spirit of openness and frankness, would the hon. Gentleman now like to put it on the record that under the previous Administration, whom he supported, crime doubled between 1979 and 1997?

Mr. Hawkins

The Home Secretary is well aware that the steepest decline since the war took place in the last three years of the Conservative Government. The right hon. Gentleman wants to use his statistics selectively. He wants to use one period for one thing and another for another.

Mr. Straw

It is a simple question to answer. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that crime doubled between 1979 and 1997?

Mr. Hawkins

Will the Home Secretary agree that the police numbers have to be looked at over the whole period? That is the point that I am putting to him. He will not have one without the other—that reminds me of a song title.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey today attacked Labour for its policies in the Bill. I appreciate that his attacks on the Government may have cost him the leadership of his party, but I wonder whether tomorrow we shall find that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) support the Government on another Bill. We never know from day to day whether the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady will be consistent. We always get mixed messages. Certainly, the hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to the remarks of the outgoing chairman of the Prison Governors Association. I wonder whether the Minister of State will be prepared to talk in his reply about not only the remarks of the outgoing chairman but the recent press coverage of the misuse of drugs within Strangeways prison.

The hon. Member for Erdington and I have talked about some of the better prisons. The Minister seems to think that drugs in prisons are funny—I certainly do not. If he is listening, I ask him to deal seriously with the issue of drugs within Strangeways. The press coverage reinforces some of the concerns of the outgoing chairman of the PGA.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey rightly pointed out that, too often, we have from this Government legislation by spin and hype, with one-off press releases rather than thought. It is odd to have a Liberal Democrat spokesman talking about spin, hype and one-off press releases. That may be the pot calling the kettle black, but on this occasion at least the hon. Gentleman is right to attack the Government—if the cap fits, wear it.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the lifting of bans on those working with children. He made an important point with which I want to deal specifically. It may have been based on the Liberty brief from which a number of his subsequent points came. He said that when the risk had gone, the ban should perhaps be lifted. When it comes to those who commit offences against children, one can never say that the risk has gone. The immediate danger that that person may once have posed to children may have gone, but I am not sure that parents of either the original or future victims would be prepared to accept that the risk had ever gone. We shall have to debate that issue seriously in Committee.

The hon. Gentleman certainly spoke from the Liberty brief when he discussed the reverse burden of proof. He also raised questions about technology for electronic tagging, and we shall wish in Committee to press the Government hard on whether it is up and running. Too often during their time in power, technology has not been ready—the chaos caused by the new computer system in the Passport Agency was but one example.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) made a powerful contribution, based on his experience of criminal justice. He pointed out that the Government must be willing to deal with those who fail drug tests, and that they have not been terribly good at what they might call joined-up punishment.

The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) made an interesting speech. Leaving aside his totally specious figures on crime and the police since the Government came to power, I thought that he seemed extremely hesitant when challenged on the value of tinkering with the names of orders. Is there any point in changing the name of a probation order when Harry Fletcher of the National Association of Probation Officers entirely rejects it? It is tinkering for no good purpose.

Mr. Gareth Thomas

The hon. Gentleman has accused me of using specious statistics, but will he confirm that crime doubled between 1979 and 1997?

Mr. Hawkins

If the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends accept that overall police numbers rose by 16,000 over the whole period, we can agree. They cannot have one without the other.

Mr. Straw

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins

I have given way twice already to the Home Secretary on this point, but will again.

Mr. Straw

I am happy to put on the record figures already in the public domain. Police numbers rose by 2,000 a year—by 10,000 in all—between 1974 and 1979 under Labour Governments. They rose by about 1,000 a year between 1979 and 1992, giving an increase of 16,000 under Conservative Governments. They fell considerably after that until 1997, and they have continued to fall since then, although I hope that they will turn round now. Having put all that information on the record, I ask the hon. Gentleman to answer our question. Does he accept that crime doubled between 1979 and 1997?

Mr. Hawkins

Yes, and the Home Secretary has finally accepted that we must consider police numbers over the whole period. The Home Secretary chose to talk about previous Labour Governments, but did not reveal that at the end of those Governments' period in office, police morale was so damaged that the police were threatening to strike. If police numbers are not turned round, he will again face real problems with morale.

Mr. Simon Hughes

May I ask a much simpler question? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we clearly need a completely independent Office for National Statistics?

Mr. Hawkins

Members of Parliament have the advantage of being able to have our figures checked by the House of Commons Library, but it is extraordinary that the Government often will not accept independent Library figures.

I shall finish on a point on which we shall press the Government hard. I have talked about problems with resources and technology. However, there is further concern about provisions that the Government have already introduced. I recently received a letter from the chairman of a youth panel—a bench of magistrates—about the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, from which the Bill follows, as the Home Secretary has said. The chairman pointed out that the youth panel had not had the training it needed to implement what the Government have already put into law. I shall send the letter to the Home Secretary because it outlines serious concerns.

I hope that the Minister of State will undertake not to leave magistrates to find their own way. Whatever the Government do—probably after many amendments in Committee—they must ensure that those who operate the new arrangements are properly trained. Those on the Treasury Bench surely take as seriously as I do the fact that magistrates say that they have not had the training that they need to implement laws dating back to 1998.

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

The Bill is about improving crime prevention and reduction and making it more effective. It is about reducing offending and improving public protection. It puts rehabilitation at the heart of the criminal justice system, and it protects children better. The Bill—improved, no doubt, in Committee—will ensure that the prison and probation services are able to work to reduce reoffending.

Our serious debate has been characterised by important speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) and for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who demonstrated from differing perspectives the importance of what we seek to do. There were also important speeches by the right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd), who brought his Home Office experience to bear, and the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell).

The right hon. Member for Fareham made an important speech, not least when contrasted with that of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe).

Miss Widdecombe

You surprise me.

Mr. Boateng

I should be failing in my duty if I did not seek to surprise the right hon. Lady. She failed to grasp the seriousness of the occasion. She fell into a trap later identified by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), who castigated the Liberal Democrats for succumbing to the dangers of one-off press releases as a substitute for thought. The right hon. Lady's whole speech was a one-off press release. It focused on home detention curfews and the supposed failure of the scheme, despite a success rate in excess of 90 per cent. Better public protection is at the heart of the scheme, and the right hon. Lady's Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, signed up to it at every stage. He failed to introduce any note of dissent when he had the opportunity to do so.

The right hon. Member for Fareham recognised the importance of tagging and electronic monitoring for the improved protection of the public. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady says from her sedentary position, "If used in the right way". We are using it in the right way, and the Bill contains the legal context that will enable us further to extend its use so that we can protect the public better and ensure a smoother transition from custody to the community for those sentenced by the courts. The Bill is all about ensuring better protection of the public.

Miss Widdecombe


Mr. Boateng

I want to get on a bit before I allow the right hon. Lady to make her points. She raised some issues worthy of consideration.

Let me set the Bill in the wider context of all that the Government have done to reduce crime and protect the public better. In doing so, I can respond directly to the challenge made by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire. I always enjoy his speeches, and he always stood up well for his county when I spoke on police matters. I happen to have the figures for current spending on policing in Bedfordshire. For 1999–2000, the amount was £61.4 million; for 2000–01, it was £64.1 million. His county has benefited by a total of £492,000 in crime reduction funding. That money is more than was expended when the Conservatives had stewardship of those matters. It would not have been spent had not a large number of people in his county and an even larger number of people throughout the country voted to return a Labour Government in order better to protect the public, and to address the doubling of crime that occurred while the Conservatives were in power—the latter point is an admission that my right hon. Friend finally managed to drag from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

The Minister has given the latest figures; we were grateful for that modest turnaround in police moneys. However, does he realise that the amount is inadequate compared to that received during the first two years of the Labour Government? Will he confirm my figures on the percentage fall in the number of police officers and on the shortfall in that number since May 1997?

Mr. Boateng

I have no doubt that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's figures will be correct. Nor does he doubt for one moment the figures that I am sharing with the House; he is gracious enough to acknowledge them. It is a matter for his chief constable, in whom we both have the utmost confidence, to determine how that money is spent on police numbers on the ground.

The Bill must be seen in a context that includes the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 and all the other measures introduced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Furthermore, important measures have been implemented by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor—as my hon. Friend the Member for Erdington pointed out—and other right hon. Friends to tackle social exclusion and the causes of crime.

Miss Widdecombe


Mr. Boateng

I shall not give way at the moment. The right hon. Lady will have her chance.

On electronic tagging, it is important to give the lie to the suggestion that the home detention curfew has been anything other than a success in its first year of operation. Of 16,000 offenders released to HDC, 95 per cent. successfully completed their curfew. Only 5 per cent. were recalled to prison; the most common reason for recall—for 68 per cent. of offenders—was the failure to comply with the curfew conditions. The rates of release for different types of prisoner show that the risk of reoffending is a key factor in the release decision. There were 45,000 prisoners who were assessed for risk and suitability; the release rate was 31 per cent. Great care is taken by the Prison Service before decisions are made on release.

It would be uncharacteristically dishonest of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald to deny that, when the Prison Service or any Government are administering a system for licences or for home detention curfews, there will regrettably be occasions when people who are released commit offences. To build a whole edifice of opposition around that fact is unprincipled; it is unworthy of the right hon. Lady.

Miss Widdecombe

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way at last. It is the right hon. Gentleman who underestimates the seriousness of the debate. If he had come to the Dispatch Box and said that he was concerned about the failures—especially about some of the more serious ones; that there were lessons to be learned; that he was asking the Prison Service and others how such lessons could be learned; and that he wanted to improve the system, rather than dismissing the 5 per cent. of failures and saying that there was a resounding success; and if he had at least attempted to express some sympathy with the victims of those whom he released before they had reached the minimum point of their sentence, things would have been different. [HON. MEMBERS: "Give way."] My intervention may have been long, but I waited a long time to make it.

Mr. Boateng

I am only too happy to respond to the right hon. Lady. Of course there are lessons to be learned. Of course risk assessment must be kept under constant review. Of course it is right, in cases of grave failure, to ask why. I shall write to her about one such case. As it is sub judice, she will understand why I do not mention it at the Dispatch Box.

I assure the right hon. Lady that we are asking those questions. I genuinely look forward to the Committee, because there are issues that we need to address. The value of the Bill is that it creates the legal framework that will enable us to pilot and develop the new technology so that the public will be better protected. We shall feed into that process the lessons we have learned from the operation of the HDC.

The right hon. Lady has made her point; it is a nakedly party political one. It falls into the trap of the one-off press release—such as the one I have in front of me—as a substitute for thought. Nevertheless, we must move on from that. We shall address those matters in Committee.

Mr. Simon Hughes


Mr. Boateng

I shall give way in a moment. I want to respond to some of the other issues that were raised during the debate.

We must strengthen enforcement. It is vital that the probation service deliver to courts and to sentencers a sentence that is so administered as to command public support and confidence. In order to have credible community sentences, the present inconsistencies and failures in dealing with breaches must be addressed.

In relation to the points made by Liberal Democrat Members, those matters must be dealt with in the context of a clear understanding that some offenders have chaotic and disordered lives. However, those offenders must realise that that chaos cannot be allowed to continue—leading as it invariably does to increased and repeated offending in a vicious cycle. We need a clear and focused legal framework to restore order to that chaos. Order can be restored only when there is an understanding that breaches will lead to imprisonment. There are no two ways about it and there is no soft or easy answer. It must be understood that community sentences are not meant to be a soft option. When someone fails to take advantage of the opportunity that a community sentence offers, he will go to prison.

Mr. Hughes

The Minister talks tough again, but surely he understands that there is a world of difference between the sort of breach that results from someone just failing to turn up for an appointment and someone, when out on a conditional sentence, assaulting another person. We cannot have just one remedy—lock them up—no matter what a person has done wrong.

Mr. Boateng

The hon. Gentleman refers to someone just failing to turn up for an appointment. He must get real. It is just failing to turn up for an appointment that brings community sentences into disrepute, wastes the probation service's time and money, makes it less likely that an offender will be able to hold down a job and puts the public at risk. As long as the hon. Gentleman takes that type of uncharacteristically weak-minded approach, Liberal Democrats will simply demonstrate that they have not grasped the plot.

I want to say a few words about the importance of multi-agency work. The issue was touched on by my hon. Friends the Members for Erdington, for Clwyd, West and for Lancaster and Wyre in particular. However, significantly, the issue was also mentioned by the right hon. Member for Fareham, based on his experience as a Minister. It is clear that prisons, the probation service and the voluntary sector need to work ever more closely together. We are looking to develop closer synchronisation of the work of the Prison Service and the probation service. Announcements will be made in the fulness of time about how a strategy to that effect might be best developed.

At present, we are ensuring that jointly accredited programmes between prisons and the probation service can be delivered in both a custodial and a community setting. They will have a capacity for follow-through and that is never more important than in relation to employment, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Erdington and other Members in connection with drugs.

We need to ensure that agencies are not only provided with the necessary resources to work effectively together, but are provided with the structures that promote such work. The Bill does that. Yes, there are issues of resources and we have not ducked them. We have provided £217 million. That includes £57 million to support more sustained and better drug education and prevention work in schools and the community; £21 million for schools to support the training of teachers and the delivery of effective drug education programmes; £18 million for anti-drug publicity programmes; £18 million to set up the Home Office's drug prevention and advisory service; £60 million for the implementation of the drug treatment and testing order; and about £60 million for treatment in prison. A further £70.5 million has been allocated to drugs services in the community.

That is serious money and it has to be applied in ways that are evidence based. The evidence shows that there is a link between acquisitive crime and drug taking. Evidence shows that link for class A drugs, but we have not closed our minds about class B drugs. There is no question of our going soft on class B drugs, but the evidence is not there at the moment to justify the implementation of the provisions for such drugs. It is right that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should have available to him the capacity to extend the use of the powers, and no one can doubt that he will not hesitate to use those powers when the evidence suggests that it would be right to do so.

I want to say a word about the role of the new boards. It is important that the probation service be rooted in the community and that we build strong local coalitions of interests around the probation service and the reduction and prevention of crime. The new boards should have a status comparable with that of national health service trusts. It is important to ensure that talented and committed people from diverse walks of life are attracted to take up the challenge and the opportunity of joining the boards.

We make no apology for the fact that we believe that the best way of ensuring that aim is through appointment by the Home Secretary. Of course, such appointments will be transparent and accountable, as is expected by application of the Nolan principles. Would that Conservative Members had demonstrated the same commitment to transparency and accountability when they packed NHS trusts with all those Tory supporters who were invariably described as business consultants. When I became a Minister in the Department of Health, I did not know that business consultants had such an insight into the management of the health service. Business consultants and accountants were everywhere. Conservative Members complain when we take steps to ensure that local boards are genuinely representative. [Interruption.] To those who bay their protests from the Opposition Front Bench, I say that we shall take care to make sure that the new boards are genuinely representative of the whole community.

Mr. Hawkins

Let us wait and see.

Mr. Boateng

The hon. Gentleman can wait and see. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating; we will be judged by our success in achieving our aims. The serious point is that the voluntary and the business sectors have an enormously important role to play. It is vital that both sectors be represented on the boards. I assure the House that they will be.

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) about housing. The role of local authorities and local housing associations is vital in smoothing the transition from a life of crime to one of law-abiding and industrious activity.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Boateng

I do not think that necessary. [Interruption.] It is neither necessary nor desirable. But against my better judgment, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hughes

The Minister has been unusually generous. Even if the Home Secretary will technically keep the power of appointment, will Ministers reflect on whether appointments can be made only if they have the agreement of the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats?

Mr. Boateng

I think that that suggestion is highly unlikely to commend itself to the Committee considering the Bill. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to make his point in Committee—and at length, if he keeps to his usual practice. We will then consider how best to take the message forward.

The message that the Bill sends out is clear: crime will not be tolerated. The criminal justice system will respond in a tough and unequivocal manner at every stage to fight crime and improve public protection. The Bill takes that agenda forward and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).