HL Deb 20 November 1997 vol 583 cc655-66

3.40 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the electronic monitoring—or tagging—of offenders which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"On 30th July, I announced to the House a number of measures, building on our manifesto commitments, to protect the public and to establish a criminal justice system which is fair, swift and effective in tackling crime and disorder. Many of the measures—including new community punishments—will be provided by the Crime and Disorder Bill which will come before Parliament shortly. Others, such as automatic life sentences for second time serious sexual and violent offenders and mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers, were brought into force on 1st October. Work is also in hand to bring the Prison and Probation Services closer together.

"This Government pledged to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Ex-prisoners are plainly much less likely to re-offend if they have settled into work or if they are actively looking for a job and with a clear prospect of a job. The Welfare to Work Programme will guarantee every young person who has been out of work for more than six months the opportunity to work or train. I have ensured that ex-offenders are targeted as a special group within the Welfare to Work Programme.

"Protecting the public and maintaining public confidence in the criminal justice system has been uppermost in my mind since May. Prison has to be used for serious and persistent offenders. That is why I discharged our manifesto commitment to audit the resources of the Prison Service. As a result I have provided an extra £43 million to help with the additional population pressures which we inherited and which were not adequately funded. Since May the prison population has risen by over 3,400 to 63,000, an increase more than double the April predictions of my predecessor. To cope with this increase I have also authorised the building of four new prisons, to provide 2,400 places. But we must also give the courts a wider range of options on tough community punishments in which they—and the public—have confidence. These can now involve greater deprivation of liberty by using new technology. I am therefore setting out today to the House and to the public new action that I am proposing in the use of tagging.

"Over the past 10 years there has been much interest in the use of electronic tagging to provide 24-hour supervision of offenders who have been curfewed. The first trials, in 1989, of curfews imposed as a condition of bail, were not a success. The equipment simply did not work as it was intended.

"The 1991 Criminal Justice Act provided for a new penalty of a curfew order enforced by electronic monitoring. The previous Government themselves delayed the implementation of these provisions until 1995, and then only introduced them in three trial areas in Norfolk, Greater Manchester and Berkshire.

"On Tuesday, I published the report of the second year of the trials. At first, sentencers were very cautious about using their new powers, with only 83 orders made in the first year. But as it became clear that this equipment really did work, and that the orders were effective, more and more use was made of them. In the second year, 375 orders were made. In the last four and a half months a further 269 orders have been made.

"There are three reasons for this increase in sentencers' confidence in tagging. First, the equipment has proved absolutely reliable. When an offender is tagged, it really is possible to tell, second by second, whether he or she is complying with the curfew. Not only are absences instantly noted, any attempt to tamper with the equipment is detected immediately. Secondly, the two contractors have performed well. Every violation of the curfew conditions is followed up by properly trained and managed staff. Thirdly, sentencers are using tagging as a high level penalty, in many cases for offenders who might otherwise have been sent to custody. It is therefore clear that this technology can offer substantial benefits both for victims and the public.

"The trial areas for curfew orders made under the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 are now being extended into four new areas: West Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and the Middlesex probation area, which covers the London boroughs of Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Enfield, Haringey, Harrow, Hillingdon and Hounslow. In addition, from January 1998, in the pilot areas of Greater Manchester and Norfolk, the courts will be able to impose a curfew order enforced by electronic monitoring as a community punishment on 10 to 15 year-olds, on fine defaulters who would otherwise be sent to prison, and on persistent petty offenders.

"Let me now turn to how I propose to use electronic tagging in respect of those who have been in prison and who are very near to the end of their sentences. Those who are sentenced to prison often have typically lived very disordered, irresponsible lives. They are poor at making sensible decisions about their own futures or those of their families. In prison, they do not have to. But the moment prisoners come out of prison, they have to make critical decisions about what they do with every moment of the day; whether they drift back into crime, and into the company of their criminal associates, or whether they try to bring order into their lives.

"Tagging has a key role to play here. If prisoners who are serving short-term sentences are tagged towards the end of the custodial period of their nominal sentence, they can be given the opportunity to structure their lives more effectively, and swiftly brought back to prison if they breach the tagging conditions.

"The research into the first year of the trials showed that offenders see curfews enforced by tagging as a severe restriction of liberty—just as magistrates and judges do. Some offenders have said they found the self-discipline required to complete such a curfew order made it harder than prison. It also provided opportunities for them to take proper responsibility for working or looking for work, for keeping their families together, and for maintaining self-control.

"The case for introducing an element of tagging into the last part of a short-term prison sentence is therefore very strong in any event. But it has been reinforced by the recent rise in the prison population. No one wants to see an unnecessarily overcrowded prison system. It would be the height of irresponsibility not to take advantage of modern technology to help prevent that. The alternatives are bound to be at the expense of constructive prison regimes, and at the expense of improving the prisoners' prospects for resettlement: in other words at the expense of the law-abiding public.

"I have therefore decided to seek Parliament's approval to impose electronic monitoring on selected short-term prisoners in the last two months of their sentence. These orders will be called home detention curfews. The relevant powers will be sought in the forthcoming Crime and Disorder Bill.

"Home detention curfews will be available for prisoners who have received sentences of more than three-months but less than four years' imprisonment. They will be tagged for between two weeks and two months, according to the length of their original sentence. Currently, under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, such prisoners are automatically released at the half-way point of their sentence. They will therefore in any event shortly be back in the community.

"There will be no automatic entitlement to tagging. The Prison Service will in each case conduct a risk assessment. If the prisoner fails this risk assessment he or she will continue to serve the sentence in prison until its half-way point, as now. The prison governor will set the place and times of curfew, in consultation. where needed, with the Probation Service. This will usually be 12 hours a day and could be more, but in no cases will be less than nine hours a day. This will enable the prisoner to have a specified period of time each day in which he or she can adjust to living in the community, while still facing a restriction on liberty for a major part of each day. The curfew conditions will be in addition to the supervision requirements with which anyone with a nominal sentence of 12 months or more must comply.

"If a prisoner breaches the conditions of the home detention curfew he or she can immediately be returned to custody. As with the present trials of curfew orders enforced by tagging, the monitoring will be provided by private sector contractors, and there will be an invitation to tender in due course. Our aim is for the scheme to be operational in 1999.

"Madam Speaker, at the heart of all my policies as Home Secretary is my commitment to provide better protection for the public and for the victims of crime. I am ready to use every measure at my disposal to deliver that commitment. We now have a real opportunity to use modern technology to provide a much better transition for carefully selected prisoners from prison into the community. With the support of Parliament, I intend to take it."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.51 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the House will be grateful for that Statement about the extended use of electronic tagging. I was the Minister who introduced electronic tagging in the latest experiment, which has been incredibly successful. Every survey, even from the earliest days of the pilot scheme, has proved beyond doubt that the system works. I am therefore enthusiastic about this. Indeed, the previous government had plans to extend the use of tagging.

However, it is an extraordinary Statement. I suffered mercilessly at the hands of noble Lords opposite over the introduction of tagging in the first place. They fought tooth and nail against its proposed use. Nevertheless, this U-turn is welcome.

I have a number of questions. First, may we have the figures relating to Berkshire? Of the three piloted areas, it is common knowledge that from the start Berkshire courts have been extremely reluctant to use the tagging option. As recently as my last day in office, the figures were pathetically low and it would be helpful to know whether there has been a dramatic turnaround in the use of the tagging option in the Berkshire area.

I believe that this proposal is, sadly, Exchequer-led. It is all about money; it is not about the proper use of sentencing. Introducing tagging as an extra disposal for the courts makes a great deal of sense. I believe that the courts would benefit from having such extended options at their disposal.

What percentage of the prison population is serving a sentence of more than three months but less than four years? I understand that it is a very high percentage, so we are talking about releasing early potentially a very large proportion of our prison population.

It is true that against a background of a crisis in prison numbers a former Secretary of State, now my noble friend Lord Hurd, introduced a five-point plan to Parliament. He received the support of Parliament, including that of the Opposition of the day from the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley. Those five points included creating a temporary secure camp for 360 people; expanding and accelerating the prison building programme; encouraging the private sector (against enormous opposition) to become involved in the prison building programme; considering using powers of executive release but emphatically rejecting them and instead increasing the amount of remission dependent upon good behaviour by those serving sentences of up to and including only 12 months (which meant the less serious offenders) from one-third to one-half of the sentence; and at the same time initiating a wide-ranging review of parole and remission arrangements. That was an interim measure only and, as I said, applied to much less serious offenders. It also addressed an anomaly that was recognised by the courts at the time: that those serving sentences which were too short to qualify them for parole were serving a higher proportion of their sentence than those more serious offenders who qualified for parole.

When we discussed the Crime (Sentences) Bill, noble Lords opposite were absolutely and emphatically opposed to any notion that the Prison Service should assess good behaviour for the purposes of early release. Their view was that the only people qualified to do that work and the only people who should be involved in such work were members of the Parole Board. This is, therefore, a remarkable turnaround by the present Government.

My next questions are these: is the policy of releasing for the last two months of their sentence those offenders with sentences of over three months but less than four years to become nationwide? If so, by when? What are the costs of extending the tagging policy, not simply to the four areas which include my own area of Cambridgeshire but for the new policy mentioned at the end of the Statement? Where is the money coming from? We are within the two years which have been identified as those during which the Government want to stay within the spending totals of the previous government, so it would be interesting to know whether the money will come from within the Prison Service.

Why not simply extend the tagging curfew option for the courts as an additional disposal both for community sentences, (instead of custody) where appropriate, and for supervision purposes, where I believe that it has a role to play? How many prisoners is it envisaged will be released early by the new policy?

I now have some very important questions which the Minister really must answer. Will any category of prisoner be released? Is it intended that this policy shall operate across the board for those serving sentences of up to four years? Will burglars and sex offenders be included? Will the Probation Service be involved in this period of release? If so, what will the costs be and will the Probation Service be funded to meet the additional supervision period?

At present, anybody breaching a curfew order has to be returned to the courts in order to be returned to prison. Is it now intended that there should be differential treatment of those people on curfew orders? Those sentenced by the courts to curfew orders will have to be returned to the courts to be returned to prison, but somebody who is curfewed in the community on the say-so of a prison officer under the new home detention curfew will be returned to court without any appeal or any reference to the courts. Is it intended that there shall be differential treatment?

On that point, is the extension of curfew by tagging order for up to 12 hours a day, which will clearly be broken by the new policy, to extend beyond 12 hours a day, for those already the subject of curfew orders? Is it envisaged that that will apply only to those who fall into this category under the new home detention curfew and not to those who are sentenced by the courts? Is it intended that that 12-hour period shall be extended?

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. We on these Benches welcome the Statement, although it is still tinged with some of the macho rhetoric which has been used to address the subject for the past few years. The opportunity is not lost, for example, to refer to the introduction of automatic life sentences and mandatory minimum sentences which we on these Benches consider not worthy of a government who project themselves as a reforming government.

The prevention of crime in the first place is the priority of the criminal justice system, but who commits the crime? Very often, crime is committed by those who have committed it previously. If prisoners have been warehoused for longer and longer periods with inadequate training and if they are then released into the community, they will return easily to the way of life that took them to prison in the first place.

The rhetoric of the past few years has had its effect. Judges instinctively responded by passing longer sentences and were pilloried in the popular press if they failed to do so. We had hoped that the new Home Secretary would not go in fear of the tabloid press in the way that sometimes appears. The pressures on the Prison Service as a result of longer sentences have caused it to fail in its vital function of rehabilitating those who are in its care.

However, we welcome this Statement because it recognises some important issues; for example, the problem of prisoners who come out of prison with very little money and support. It recognises the need to give prisoners an opportunity to structure their lives more effectively and rebuild the supportive relationships of family, home and job—all aspects that will discourage them from reoffending and, crucially, prevent further crime.

We do not consider it enough simply to put a tag upon a prisoner and leave him to his own devices. This should not be seen as a cheap alternative to probation work. Can the Minister inform us what community supervision is proposed to go along with the tagging? How much will it all cost? Equally important, if by this means the prison population is reduced will the resources thereby released be used constructively to provide fresh training and rehabilitation courses? We on these Benches hope that the Minister will be able to assist us.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions that have been offered. I am a shade disappointed that the noble Baroness is not able to be more welcoming to an imaginative departure from our custodial regime. I can say without any fear of contradiction from any quarter that this is not Exchequer-driven. It is intended to manage what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, rightly identified as a very difficult period of transition from prison to what should be a new rehabilitated life. It is impossible for those who have not had to make that transition to grasp its difficulties and dangers. The fact is that our prisons are full of inadequate, petty offenders who very often are a menace to the public. At present they are not sufficiently assisted in their return to what should be a fresh start with family and the community. We cannot ignore the inheritance of a vast increase in prison population which was not anticipated by the former Home Secretary under the previous government.

A number of questions have been asked. This is not a response to the tabloid press in any way. This is a considered scheme which we hope will assure the public that their legitimate interests are being looked after; first, in the short-term, which is no longer than two months and, secondly, on a longer-term basis; namely, if a person is managed in his or her return to the community the opportunity for rehabilitation over the long term is much greater.

The noble Baroness asked a number of questions which I attempted to note, but if I miss any of them I shall write to her. I make absolutely plain that this is not an amnesty, as has been considered by previous governments. As a scheme it applies only to those who are serving between three months and four years. The total number in that category is 26,000 out of the present total prison population of 63,000. I disappoint myself by returning every week to answer questions, for instance from the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, when the figures appear to rise inexorably. However, one needs to look at reality. This sentence band presently attracts automatic release at the half-way point, and that includes burglars. That was the regime conducted under the previous government. One wants to be measured and cautious in what one says on these occasions.

Some categories of prisoners will be excluded. Those categories will be set out in detail in the legislative scheme. They will include those prisoners who are unable to comply with the scheme, perhaps because they do not have access to a place that can be curfewed, and those who represent a clear risk of breach; for example, those who are in custody for a breach of a curfew order by electronic monitoring imposed by the courts.

To reply to the specific question relating to Berkshire put to me by the noble Baroness, between July 1996 and June 1997 the figure was 35.

Baroness Blatch


Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Baroness says "pathetic". On this occasion I am simply the messenger, not the message. I simply give the fact. The noble Baroness also asked whether the courts would decide on recall. The answer is no. As the noble Baroness implied, the technology is now sufficiently advanced. I readily agree with the noble Baroness that it has greatly improved.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. My question was not whether they would go back without recourse to the court. That was made absolutely clear in the Statement. The question was whether there would be differential treatment of people who were serving curfew orders by tagging imposed by the courts and those who received home detention orders. Would criminals from one category go back to court to be returned to prison and the others go back on the mere say-so of a prison officer?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I was about to deal with that. Because the technology has improved Prison Service headquarters will decide recall on behalf of the Secretary of State and give any person who is adversely affected the opportunity to make representations. I remind your Lordships that a similar power already exists for those who are recalled from parole licences. This is not a new device.

Questions were put about the involvement of the probation service. There will be a risk assessment which involves the probation service where appropriate and assistance by way of supervision of appropriate prisoners. One must bear in mind that these questions must be individualised. Not everyone will have the full two months. It will taper down to two weeks.

We cannot say how many prisoners will be released early. We do not know what the overall effect will be on the prison population, except that we trust and firmly believe realistically that it will have an ameliorating effect on the prison population. We cannot give the number because we do not know what the take-up or failure rate will be. As with any prudent government, we shall monitor the scheme in practice with very great care. It is intended that the policy should be nationwide, and it will not come into effect until 1999.

As the prison population changes and technology improves we believe that it is prudent to deal with these matters in this way. The scheme has been carefully thought out and is restricted to those who are serving between three months and four years. No one will be released without a risk assessment programme having been carried out. I suggest to your Lordships that prison governors will be extremely prudent and cautious in using this particular device. But one cannot see in reason any well founded argument against a determined effort by the Government with the assistance of the Prison Service to manage that chasm between incarceration—the total deprivation of liberty—and what one hopes is the result of any prison sentence; that is, a return to the community and a fruitful life.

Lord Milverton

My Lords, I welcome the fact that Her Majesty's Government have decided upon this course. The principle is very good. I am glad that they have decided to carry further and improve what the previous government began.

As a parish priest one had visits from ex-prisoners; somehow they found their way to the vicarage or rectory. It was noticeable that, having been in prison for a short or a long time, they were so institutionalised and so used to having decisions made for them that they found it difficult and awkward to make their own decisions and did not know how to conduct themselves without help. As the Minister pointed out, it is important that when they come out they are given help to acclimatise themselves and become responsible individuals in society. I hope that the Government are successful in what they propose and I am glad of it.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for that support. I believe that everyone with his experience, or comparable experiences in dealing with discharged prisoners, would come to the view that he articulated. It is an exceptionally difficult period. I hope that we are imaginatively using what is now available to us, which was not formerly; that is, modern technology to restrict liberty in a way which many people find more burdensome because it involves individual choice. They will be deprived of their liberty in their own home. There will be a saving of cost, and we believe that there will be a saving of misery to members of the general public who are not well served on every occasion by our present prison regime.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, can I ask a question about the role of the private contractor? As I understand it, if a prisoner is released, his performance will then be monitored by the private contractor and if he is in breach of curfew I think the Minister said that he will be immediately returned to prison. Who would pick him up and take him there?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the monitoring is very simple. One has the monitoring device attached in the prisoner's home and a tagging device attached to the prisoner's body. If the private contractor comes to the conclusion that there has been a breach, then the prisoner is returned to custody on the basis of a warrant, in other words, by a police officer acting on a warrant and not by the private contractor's employee.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in that this is a dramatic U-turn. I do not agree with her that it is essentially Treasury led. I agree with the noble Lord the Minister that it represents a transition, but it represents a transition backed by the Government to the well-established principle that prison is a very expensive way of making bad people worse. That was the view expressed by previous Home Secretaries and adhered to until the advent of Mr. Howard as Home Secretary.

Ultimately, it has been realised that a grossly overcrowded prison system, coupled with the cutback in the finance available, means that there is no constructive time available in prison to provide even the hope of rehabilitation, let alone the probability of it being successful. That is the reason for what is proposed. It is a means whereby the Government get themselves off the hook upon which they have impaled themselves by accepting the minimum sentences and the automatic life sentences, despite the way in which both were criticised in this House prior to the change of government. I welcome the Statement as a step forward but I wish that the Government, in making a U-turn, would be a little more frank as to what motivated them.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I never look a gift horse in the mouth if at all possible; therefore I welcome the general support that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, has given. I venture gently to disagree with him. We are not getting off the hook on which we impaled ourselves. These are problems of long standing which do not derive from the automatic minimum sentences or the automatic life sentences. We are talking of a large number of persons who were sentenced under a regime which had no connection with those automatic sentences at all.

I well recognise the quotation which the noble and learned Lord provided to your Lordships. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, when he was Home Secretary, who uttered those words. We are not concerned with a U-turn, because I do not recall that a previous government has ever suggested this scheme, or, therefore, that we ever resisted it. I suggest again that this is a good deal more important than the usual knock-about party point. We are trying to deal with returning into the community those who have demonstrated themselves not to be equipped, not fit, to live in that community for a certain period of time. It is in everyone's interests that that transition should be properly and imaginatively managed.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of us agree with him that this is a particularly inappropriate subject on which to have routine party knock-abouts? Whether the Government have or have not done a U-turn is irrelevant, given the gravity of the situation which the noble Lord indicated a few moments ago, with the prison population already at 63,000. Will the Minister recall that he recently wrote to my noble friend, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, indicating that if the present trends in sentencing continue the prison population is expected to reach 71,800 by September of 1999, a truly frightening figure? All this being said, we welcome what the noble Lord said about reducing the prison population in the way he described.

Can I put two questions? First, will the Minister recognise with me that a good quality risk assessment by the prison authorities for longer sentence prisoners is possible? It is extremely difficult, on the other hand, to have a risk assessment for a very short sentence prisoner. These people are being warehoused at the moment in very large numbers and some go in and out of prison without many prison officers recognising the fact that they are going through their particular establishment.

Secondly, the Minister referred to four new prisons. Were those four new prisons in the building programme of the previous government and, therefore, allowed for in the public expenditure plans of the previous government? Or is this a new commitment to public expenditure?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not regard this as an occasion for trivial tittering; it is much more important than that. My belief is, I think, shared by the overwhelming majority of your Lordships. If the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, expresses a reasoned public concern about the state of our prison system and, therefore, the state of the public good, and I happen to welcome that, I do not see that it is an occasion for merriment.

The noble Lord raises the question of the figures. I did indeed write to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, with those figures. No one with any sense or sensibility can close his eyes to them. Risk assessment, of course, will vary according to the period of time that a prisoner serves. The longer a prisoner is in prison, I suppose in the nature of things, the deeper the risk assessment is likely to be. Equally, one has to bear in mind—I make no apology for repeating it—that all of these prisoners in the band I described will be released automatically, as of right, after half the sentence has been served. It is true that many petty inadequates are in and out of prison in a short period of time and that is something we constantly have to question. May I write to the noble Lord about his particular question, because in the moment or two available I have not been able to get specific information? I believe I know the answer, but I do not want to mislead him, even if inadvertently.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that prisons are universities of crime, especially when they are overcrowded, and that therefore many of us welcome every effort being made by the Government to reduce the prison population so long as it is consistent with public safety? Will he therefore give us some idea of the degree of efficiency of the present tagging system, bearing in mind that he was kind enough to say that the first experiment was not fully successful?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord who has significant experience of these matters having himself been a Home Office Minister. I agree entirely that if one keeps men in prison without education, training, or skill opportunities, one is likely to have a dismal outcome. Prison will then perform the important but limited function of merely keeping a man or woman out of circulation for a short period of time. I do not overlook the importance of that, but I agree with the noble Lord that the over-arch must be public protection. That is why we want public support; that is why we have built in careful provision; and that is why we have limited the scheme in the way I described. We are confident that the technology is now capable of working on every occasion. It is a rash layman who puts his faith in science to that extent, but that is the information we have. It is sufficiently sophisticated to be a foolproof scheme.

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