HL Deb 15 January 2001 vol 620 cc922-4

3 p.m.

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is still their objective to reduce the number of prisoners.

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

My Lords, the objective of the Government is not to set artificial targets for the overall prison population but to reduce offending, ensure that the courts have adequate powers to be able to effect a just disposal in the cases that come before them and to ensure sufficient provision for those whom the courts sentence to imprisonment.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am grateful to the excellent Minister for his gallant attempt to defend the indefensible. Everyone knows that the Government have no case to answer here. Are they aware that the Lord Chief Justice has come out strongly against them, describing the overcrowding as a cancer undermining the whole prison system? Are they aware that the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has called for a reduction in the number of prisoners? Are they aware that the all-party Penal Affairs Group has done the same? I do not expect the Minister to put up a defence—that is impossible—but I am sure that he will do his best.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it will come as no great secret to the noble Earl that I disagree with him. The Lord Chief Justice probably disagrees with him as well because, speaking on the Today programme on 27th December, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said: Let me make it clear first of all that, if a person has committed a serious crime, I am strongly in favour of the person receiving serious punishment". He went on to say: I also—and I've emphasised this—do not favour sending people to prison unless it's necessary but if it's necessary I'm all in favour because society has to be protected and it's very important that society knows that the judiciary will protect them". The attitude of the Government is very much in keeping with that spirit. The Home Affairs Committee made the point that, Prison will always be necessary for the most dangerous and/or the most persistent criminals, but it must be closely targeted on them, with other offenders being given non-custodial sentences which are effective and in which sentencers and the public have confidence". I would also echo that.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, there is growing concern that in the coming months there will be a competition in the public debate and in the public arena as to who is toughest on crime. In what way are the Government prepared to demonstrate that being tough on crime can involve proper attention being paid to the rehabilitation of prisoners and preventive activities rather than to their upwardly mobile statistics?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, of course the Government are concerned to reduce reoffending; of course we are concerned to reduce reconviction rates. It is for those reasons that we have put in place a whole package of measures to ensure that when people are sentenced to prison they receive proper access to education and training which will enable them to lead a straight and fruitful life when they come out of prison. That will always be the case. We continue to press ahead with that investment and SR 2000 underpinned that. It is an important part of our policy.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there are concerns about the large number of women in our prison establishments? Are there any plans to set up some kind of inquiry to look at the situation regarding women offenders, particularly those in penal institutions? In the meantime, will he draw the attention of sentencers to the fact that community sentencing is 15 times more effective and 15 times cheaper than prison?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, a review of the sentencing framework is currently being undertaken. No doubt it will look at some of the issues to which the noble Lord has drawn attention. We have made it clear, particularly through legislation such as the Crime and Disorder Act, that we see community penalties as being very important. The recidivism rates for those serving community penalties are much in line with those serving prison sentences. They have equal merit and equal value. We need sentencing which is appropriate to the crime and which has an impact on the life of the criminal.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, does the Minister recall that at the time of the inception of the home curfew scheme his right honourable friend the Home Secretary undertook that no releases of prisoners serving sentences for serious offences would be made? Does he not agree that up to 30th November last year, 62 prisoners serving sentences for manslaughter and 269 for homicide or attempted murder had been released and that there have been 25 assaults on police officers by prisoners released under the scheme? In the light of the Home Secretary's undertaking, can the Minister assure the House that the practice of allowing early release for serious offences will be discontinued?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I understand the intention behind the noble Viscount's question. Home detention curfew has been a very successful policy. It replaced a very unsuccessful policy—the early release scheme—which was chaotic. We have made sure that there is something like a 95 per cent success rate for HDC. Of course, HDC means that when people are released earlier in their sentence than otherwise would have been the case they are under a kind of close supervision and licensing. That was not the case with early release, which led to abuses. That system was incoherent; it lacked clarity and cohesion as a sentencing strategy.

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