HL Deb 27 May 2002 vol 635 cc1044-7

2.52 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that adequate use is being made of community service orders as alternatives to custodial sentences in the United Kingdom; and, if not, what steps they intend to take to improve the situation.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Government believe that greater use should be made of community penalties for non-violent offenders, such as those convicted of theft, handling or fraud. The reform of the probation service, with its central focus on reducing re-offending, means that rigorously enforced community sentences are a real and tough alternative to imprisonment and likely to be most effective in reducing re-offending for many offenders, especially those currently sentenced to short terms of imprisonment.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is a great deal better to keep most non-violent offenders out of prison, and it is a great deal better from the point of view of the taxpayer because prison is extremely expensive? If the Government believe in the use of the community service system, how is it that over the past four years, a period in which the prison population has gone sky-high, the use of community service has stagnated, as revealed in the Written Answer which I received on 1st May from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker? It has increased by only 6 per cent in England and in Scotland it has actually fallen by 10 per cent. Does he not realise that there is something seriously wrong with the way in which community service is administered and used? Will he do something positive about that rather than merely talking about the reform of the probation service?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. It is important that we make good use of community service orders and community punishment orders. The information I have suggests that community service and punishment orders have increased from some 45,900 in 1996 to 50,000 in 2000; so there is an increase and I think the noble Lord should welcome that. Some 30 per cent of those sentenced in England and Wales in 2000 for indictable offences were given community sentences compared to 25 per cent who received immediate custody. Therefore there is acceptance and widespread use of these orders and I believe that Members on all sides of your Lordships' House will welcome that, not least because of the very important point that the noble Lord makes about cost.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the cost of someone on community service is about £2,500 a year, whereas the cost of somebody in prison is about £25,000 a year and that there is some doubt as to whether those who are sentenced to prison are more or less likely to re-offend? In the circumstances, will he please undertake to look to see whether it is correct that the community service is underfunded and would do a better job if it were better funded? Will he then report back to the House and tell us whether some more funding will be available to a service which is so very cost-effective and important?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is true to say that recent legislation has re-emphasised the importance of supervision in the community, which was the principal purpose of reforming the probation service. The noble Lord's figures for the relative costs are slightly inaccurate. The information I have suggests that community service orders cost about £1,800 each and that a new prison place costs approximately £32,000 per year.

Noble Lords


Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there is always a danger with information that you can shoot yourself in the foot$ The point I was really trying to underline was that the noble Lord has made an extremely pertinent point and it is valuable to reflect more on it. The Government have maintained a very careful review of community sentencing and that is why we have underlined its importance. That is why the Home Secretary has done exactly that in recent speeches and comments. Obviously, there is more work to do to ensure that community service orders are properly enforced.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, I speak as the junior Minister who took the Criminal Justice Act 1972 through all its stages in another place. Does the Minister agree that the introduction of community service was one of the most important changes in penal policy in the past 30 years? Are not the figures that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has mentioned, showing a proportionate reduction in its use, very disturbing? Surely the best answer to prison overcrowding is a reduction in the number of short sentences and their replacement by an increased use of community service. Will the Minister confirm that that is so and that that is the view of the Government?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I thought I had already underlined the point that we share the noble Lord's support for and commitment to community service orders. That was exactly what we put in place in recent legislation. The Government are looking very carefully at ways in which we can strengthen that. As I said, the Home Secretary in recent comments and speeches has made it clear that he expects much greater, more imaginative and better use of that approach to sentencing. I believe that the benefits of that are there for everyone to see.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, we are pleased that there is a slight increase in community punishment orders. Will the Minister accept his own figures, the criminal statistics for 2000, which show that of all sentences passed only 11 per cent of them are community service orders? Does he accept that the people who would previously have been fined are now receiving community service orders and that the people who would benefit by community service orders are now finding themselves in prison? Is the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, not right in saying that people who are in prison, particularly the short-term prisoners, would benefit much more from community service orders? Will he advise the Home Secretary to follow the lead given by the Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolfe, to shout much more about community sentences rather than prison?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord underlines very usefully points that other noble Lords have made. I have made it plain that we accept the importance, the case, the value and the merit of community service orders. The Home Secretary has made that plain and guidance makes that plain. However, the Government must be independent of the judiciary and ultimately it is for those who act in judgment over others to decide what is appropriate when issuing sentences in court. One has to respect that fact.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans

My Lords, the Minister has made it clear that community service orders are good value for money, yet the use of prison sentences is increasing. Does he believe that that increase in prison sentencing is a trend in the right direction? If not, what steps will he and the Government take to redress that trend?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I thought that I had made it plain that it is the Government's view that we want to see increased dependence on community penalties—community service orders. The Government are committed to improving the way in which the orders are used. We have commissioned research in the form of the important Halliday report, Making Punishments Work, which reflects on those issues. It is an important element of government policy. We shall continue to promote the virtues and benefits of community sentencing.