HL Deb 02 June 2003 vol 648 cc1044-6

2.51 p.m.

Lord Taverne

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What evidence they have that longer sentences are an effective deterrent to crime.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, deterrence is not the only purpose of sentencing. Reconviction rates are lower for those who serve longer terms of imprisonment than for those who serve shorter terms. That, however, reflects a number of factors and deterrence cannot readily be isolated. It is difficult to obtain reliable empirical evidence on the deterrent effect of sentencing severity but it is clear that the choice of some potential offenders as to whether o offend is influenced by their perception of the risks and consequences of being apprehended and punished. This suggests that increased sentence severity can have some specific effect on sentenced offenders and a general deterrent effect on the general population.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, although I concede that there is no very direct and clear evidence of any relationship in this regard, if one compares the penal regimes of the rest of the European Union, where sentences are in general much shorter than they are here, with those in the United States, where sentences are much longer, does that not undermine the whole basis of the Home Secretary's addiction to ever longer sentences? Is it really his view that sentencing policy should be determined by popular acclaim or by the Daily Mail? Does he really want to move closer to the penal regime of the United States?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the Home Secretary's view is that sentencing should be effective. It should be effective in terms of stopping reoffending and it should have the confidence of the public. That is not a populist approach. It is always dangerous to mention statistics in this area. For example, in America sentence lengths have gone up and crime has gone down, but I am the first to say that a simplistic conclusion should not be drawn from that. As I say, the right approach is that sentencing should be effective in reducing reoffending. We are introducing a range of measures in the Criminal Justice Bill to make sentencing more effective.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, following the supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, do the Government agree that more important than length of sentence is rehabilitation policy within the Prison Service?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, there is no one simple answer to that. In some cases long sentences are plainly required, for example, for public protection. But as important as length of sentence is what happens when an offender comes out of prison. If there is no support in relation to housing, family relationships and drug and alcohol abuse, there is likely to be more offending. We must be practical in ensuring that correctional options are effective in reducing reoffending. That is where the focus should be, not favouring one particular sentence over another.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I believe that the Minister referred to the confidence of the public. Would I be right in thinking that the confidence of the public is sadly led astray when one sentence is given in one part of the country and a totally different sentence is given for the same offence in another part of the country? I think particularly of people being injured or killed through dangerous, ghastly driving. Does the Minister agree?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I agree with the premise underlying the noble Baroness's question; namely, that if sentences are completely different in one place as opposed to another people will not have confidence in the system as they will believe that where one is sentenced will affect the length of sentence that one receives. We believe that consistency is very important. It is important that communities believe that the sentences imposed will protect them and are sensible in terms of reducing reoffending. I come back to that point time and time again.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, is not a system which delivers two-thirds of prisoners back into prison within two years a system that is failing? What extra efforts is my noble and learned friend making to encourage courts to give more serious attention to non-custodial sentences? All the evidence shows that, where targeted and properly resourced, non-custodial sentences are much more successful in avoiding reoffending on the part of people who have completed their sentences.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as regards both community sentences and custodial sentences the aim must be to reduce reoffending. That is why much time, effort and resources are devoted to training people whether they are serving a community or a custodial sentence and in introducing offender behaviour programmes to make people face up to their offending behaviour. That applies just as much to those on community sentences as to those on custodial sentences. In both frameworks more work needs to be done to try to reduce reoffending.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord consider that tagging is an effective deterrent compared with prison?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, tagging is an effective and sensible way of dealing with people who are granted bail without imposing a custodial sentence to try to ensure that they do not commit further offences while on bail. Tagging allows such people to go back into the community with proper surveillance and supervision. It plainly has a part to play in our correctional policy.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the prison population is projected to reach 100,000, which is 30,000 more than it is at present. What will be the extra cost of building new prisons to house those extra 30,000 prisoners? Is the 100,000 projection the highest figure that is considered by the Government and, if not, what is that figure?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I have always said that it is unwise to comment on prisoner projections over the next few years as they always turn out to be inaccurate in some respect. It is projected that there will be more people in prison. For that reason in the previous Budget the Chancellor of the Exchequer made in excess of £100 million available to provide more prison places. We must ensure that there are enough prison places for those whom the courts send to prison. But, as I say, it is for the courts to decide what the appropriate sentence is; it is for the Government to ensure that those sentences can be delivered.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that until you have effectively tackled overcrowding in prison these pious hopes to reform the experience of prison are not likely to be realised?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do not agree with that proposition. I refer to the work that has been done by the Prison Service under the leadership of Martin Narey in relation to the vast increase in the number of educational programmes, the vast number of offender behaviour programmes and the decrease in the reoffending rate. That shows that the pessimistic prognostications of the noble and learned Lord are wrong.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, I am afraid that we have run out of time. The noble Lord, Lord Blaker, has an important Question.