HL Deb 08 April 1981 vol 419 cc525-6

2.37 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of growing concern about prison overcrowding on the one hand and the ineffectiveness of fully-suspended sentences on the other, they will investigate the cost-effectiveness and the deterrent value of partly-suspended sentences.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, we keep under review both the working of suspended sentences and the possibility of implementing Section 47 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 which provides for sentences to be partially suspended. We have not so far introduced such sentences because of uncertainties about their effect on the size of the prison population if they were used instead of fully suspended sentences of imprisonment.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Is he aware that a Conservative Member of Parliament, the honourable Member for Paddington, who is a former assistant prison governor, wrote recently that the conventional suspended sentences had been a failure? Following on from that, because it is generally acknowledged that the first month of imprisonment is the most traumatic, if convicted prisoners were sent to serve the first three or four weeks of their sentence in prison and were then released to return to their normal occupation, knowing that if they put one foot wrong they would be back to serve the rest of their sentence, would this not have a much more dramatic deterrent effect and therefore have the effect of lowering the prison population overall?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I hesitate to say that suspended sentences are not effective. I am aware of criticisms and, indeed, research is being undertaken to try to throw more light on this particular aspect. With regard to what the noble Lord said in the second part of his question, I assure the noble Lord that the Government recognise the strength of the argument for introducing partially suspended sentences, but we really must be confident that the overall impact of the provision would be to offer relief and not add to the prison population.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, could not the effect of introducing partly suspended sentences be to increase the size of the prison population and tend to encourage courts to pass such sentences in lieu of, for instance, probation or indeed suspended sentences?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I would agree with the noble and learned Lord. This is the danger, and this is what causes the Government to hesitate.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that short sentences overcrowd the prisons very much less than long sentences, and a partially suspended sentence must be shorter than any other kind of sentence, except the wholly suspended sentence? Is the noble Lord aware that all the recommendations for the partially suspended sentence have included the recommendation that the remainder of the sentence should be served under supervision?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I think the area we want to look at is the prisoner serving the shorter sentence, and indeed the Lord Chief Justice has emphasised in cases in the Court of Appeal that that is the area at which he would wish the courts to look. It is intended shortly by the Home Office to publish the results of a review of the parole scheme which will look not only at its operation within present statutory limits but also at the possibility of some extension to shorter sentences of early release arrangements. I think that is the way we should proceed.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, could the Minister indicate when the review of this subject which he has promised is likely to be concluded?

Lord Belstead

Shortly, my Lords.

Lord Jacques

My Lords, would the Minister bear in mind that there are considerations other than the immediate effect on the prison population?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, and the Government are committed to ensuring protection for the public against violent and dangerous criminals. However, violent offenders are, I am glad to say, still in the minority in our prisons, and there is reason to believe that a reduction in the use of imprisonment for non-violent offenders could be achieved without sacrificing the protection which the public are entitled to expect.