HL Deb 15 January 1996 vol 568 cc362-4

3.2 p.m.

Lord Vernon asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that the system of "tagging" prisoners on their release from custody, which they have already introduced on an experimental basis in certain areas, has potential for wider application.

My Lords, the current scheme is not for prisoners on release from custody. The noble Lord is referring to the trials being conducted in Greater Manchester, Berkshire and Norfolk of the electronic monitoring of curfew orders, which are sentences imposed by the courts.

Lord Vernon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that co-operation between the probation service and the private companies which operate the tagging system is vitally important? Will she agree that the present hostility—or perhaps I should say unofficial but substantive hostility—by the probation service to the whole system of tagging could he prejudicial to the introduction of the scheme, which is widely successful in many western European countries?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have some sympathy with what the noble Lord says. So far the trials have already demonstrated that the equipment works well and that the curfew orders provide a highly controllable and flexible restriction of liberty. It is true that some members of the probation service are hostile to the whole notion of the sentence and that its co-operation is important to the success of the trial. It is in everyone's interest that we find an effective community sentence that will add to the sentences available to the courts. In turn, that will mean that fewer people will go to prison, and it could even act as a preventive measure. I take the noble Lord's point and have some sympathy with it.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, is it not true that there have been only 17 cases in which magistrates have awarded a sentence of electronic tagging? In that situation, how can it possibly be said that the experiment is a success? Is not this the case? There is not only the reluctance of the magistrates and the probation service to using that method of control but there are technical problems with the equipment. Are there not a number of examples of people who, despite tagging, nevertheless continue to offend? Under those circumstances, is it not a waste of money to spend a further £1 million on the experiment? Should not tagging be left to theme parks and Disneyland, where it belongs?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is more than 17 cases; it is 21. There is no fault with the equipment, which has not failed on one single occasion since it has been in use. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Vernon, is important: the system requires co-operation from the probation service. However, in its limited way it has also provided an effective community sentence. Magistrates have asked for an extension of the area and it has been granted. They have since also asked for an extension of the time, and I am considering the matter.

Perhaps I may pose a question to the noble Lord. Is he really saying that it is not even worth pursuing an additional effective community sentence? If successful, it could work both as a method of preventing further crime and, as in Sweden, where it has been trialled successfully, it could act as an alternative to short-term prison sentences and would prove more cost-effective.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Minister should not anticipate the general election and ask me to answer questions before the House.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, if the noble Lord is saying that the experiment is not even worth trying, it is only fair to say that we are in the business of looking for effective community sentences. I would expect at least the noble Lord's co-operation in doing what we can to produce effective and cost-effective community sentences which may in turn reduce the prison population.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, can the noble Baroness explain in what way the scheme is different from the one previously tried out in Nottingham? That was a resounding non-success, to put it mildly.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there is a good deal of difference about it. The principal difference is that the equipment is much more sophisticated and reliable. From everything we have seen, since the scheme has been under way not a single breach has taken place where the equipment has failed. That is the principal difference.

Lord Annan

My Lords, surely everyone recognises that we must do all we can to reduce the number of people who go to prison, even though they may have committed crimes. Otherwise, how can we achieve better conditions in the prisons? Everyone knows that that is a major problem. Surely, therefore, the Minister will agree that it is right that we should try any experiment which will help with the matter. If the experiment proves to be a failure, so much the worse, but if it proves to be a success then we shall have achieved something.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord's comments. We should all keep an open mind on the experiment; it is in everyone's interests that it should be a success. We know that the equipment works and that in certain circumstances it is an effective community sentence. I reiterate the point that the noble Lord, Lord Vernon, made, that it would be even better if it had the full co-operation of the probation service. We know that magistrates are doing what they can to make it an effective additional sentence available to the courts.