§ 7.50 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)
rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 5th June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the purpose of the order is to extend the home detention curfew scheme to offenders aged under 18 who are serving sentences of detention under Section 91 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. The home detention curfew scheme was introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and has been in operation for adults throughout England and Wales since January 1999.
Under the scheme, prisoners serving sentences of three months or more, but less than four years, who are not subject to any of the statutory exclusions and who pass a risk assessment, may be released early under an electronically monitored curfew. Prisoners must be curfewed for a minimum of nine hours per day, although most curfews run overnight for 12 hours. The curfew period depends on the length of sentence. Parliament has recently approved a separate order, the Release of Short-Term Prisoners on Licence (Amendment of Requisite Period) Order 2003, which, from 14th July, extends the period of HDC to a maximum of 135 days, depending on sentence length and subject to a minimum of a quarter of the sentence being served in custody.
Section 91 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 relates to offenders aged under 18 who have been convicted of certain serious offences. These offences are those which attract 14 years or more in the case of an adult, plus indecent assault, and, in the case of 15 to 17 year-olds, causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs, all of which currently attract 10 years. A juvenile convicted on indictment of one of those offences is liable to be sentenced up to the adult maximum for the offence, although in practice the Crown Court will take account of the age of the offender in passing sentence.
When the HDC scheme was first introduced, the power to release on licence was limited to short-term prisoners aged 18 or over, with a power enabling the Secretary of State to repeal the age restriction by an order subject to affirmative resolution. Short-term prisoners include those sentenced to detention under Section 91 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. Under-18s were originally excluded from the scheme because, at the time, electronic monitoring was less well-established, particularly in relation to juveniles, and there were 85 some anxieties about its use with younger offenders. The Government said, therefore, that they wanted to await the outcome of evaluation of the pilots of curfew orders with electronic monitoring for juveniles aged 10 to 15 under changes made by the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997.
Since then, the pilots of curfew orders for 10 to 15 year-olds have been evaluated and the disposal was made available throughout England and Wales in February 2001. The use of electronic monitoring for under-18s is becoming increasingly widespread. In addition to the curfew order, juveniles may now be tagged on bail and as part of a supervision order or community rehabilitation order. In May 2002, electronic monitoring was introduced as part of the early release scheme under the detention and training order. The detention and training order, which is governed by a separate set of legislative provisions to Section 91, is the main custodial sentence for under-18s and is served partly in custody and partly in the community. Offenders serving sentences of eight months or more who meet the eligibility criteria are released one or two months early on an electronic tag.
Current litigation, to which I cannot refer in any detail because the case is still proceeding, has highlighted the fact that, despite these developments, offenders aged under 18 serving sentences under Section 91 remain ineligible for HDC, although they become eligible once they turn 18. The Government have decided that it is now appropriate to extend HDC to that age group.
Juveniles will be subject to the same eligibility criteria as adults. Certain statutory exclusions apply, for example to sex offenders subject to the registration requirements of the Sex Offenders Act 1997, and to offenders who have previously failed to comply with curfews. They, and other categories, cannot be considered at all, regardless of their behaviour in custody. From 14th July, offenders serving sentences for certain offences will be presumed unsuitable for release unless there are exceptional circumstances. The offences include manslaughter, attempted murder, possession of firearms with intent, possession of an offensive weapon, serious explosives offences, child cruelty, all racially aggravated offences and prisoners with any history of sexual offending.
Furthermore, no offender will be released unless a risk assessment has been fully completed and appropriate supervision plans are in place. Should the curfew be breached after release, swift action will be taken. Offenders who breach will be recalled to spend the remaining part of their custodial period in custody.
Given the nature of the offending to which Section 91 applies, it is likely that many juvenile;; will not in fact be granted home detention curfew. However, it is still appropriate that they should be considered. HDC can be a valuable tool in influencing the behaviour of offenders in the early weeks following release and in helping them to develop self-discipline and an ordered lifestyle. It will enable juveniles to return sooner to their families and to resume education or training, 86 thereby helping them to make a smoother and more effective transition to the community and to rebuild their lives. I commend the order to the House.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 5th June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)
§ Baroness Anelay of St Johns
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her very helpful and full explanation. I am sure that in so doing she has reduced the number of questions that we would otherwise have needed to ask.
We share the Government's wish to ensure that, as far as possible and appropriate, sentences can be served in the community rather than in prison. As ever, however, when measures such as this are brought forward, there are anxieties to ensure that they are being implemented for the right reason and not simply as a way of reducing the over-crowding in our penal institutions. The key to that is the same as in instances when the Government have extended home detention curfew for adults. The Minister was right to refer to a statutory instrument earlier this month which did just that. At that stage, I and my noble friends raised issues about the supervision programmes that would follow on such early release. The purpose of being at home is to be given something constructive to do that is an essential part of one's rehabilitation.
I note that the Explanatory Notes state that the numbers involved as a result of the order are small and that the costs will therefore be absorbed within existing budgets. I am also aware that the Probation Service budgets are tight. I should therefore like to ask the Minister two questions. First, can she tell us. if such calculations have been done, roughly what numbers they expect to be involved in the first year of operation? I suppose that I am really asking how small is small. She also referred in her explanation to the fact that there will be no release unless appropriate supervision plans are in place. So my second question is whether she can assure us that the Probation Service itself has confirmed that it will be able to provide the rehabilitative work and supervision that will be needed for this new group of juveniles who will obtain early release.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for explaining the order. From these Benches we do not oppose the order. However, we have some questions and comments. We believe that the order will affect only a few young offenders and is not simply a means of reducing the prison population. Only about 500 young people are sentenced under the relevant Act each year, and many of those will be released on a tag already, simply because they reach 18 while in prison and become eligible under the earlier orders.
The order we are debating is a logical extension of the home detention curfew principle. We welcome the fact that it will take even a few young offenders out of custody and back into the community. There are few for whom the risk assessment would show that that would not be appropriate. We are not overly concerned about the possibility of their committing offences while out on home detention curfew since we 87 are aware that only 1 per cent of offenders over 18 released on a tag are known to have re-offended. We do not believe that a person's former actions are necessarily a reliable predictor of his future behaviour anyway. That becomes clear when you look at the statistics for reoffending. For us, the issue of tagging has always begged the question, if they are safe to be let out on a tag, why were they in prison in the first place and not serving a community sentence?
What concerns us more, as has already been said, is what happens to these young offenders once they are released. The only factor against getting them out and away from what are known as the universities of crimes as soon as possible is that if they are in custody for too short a time nothing of any value can be done with them. Their educational needs cannot be properly assessed and appropriate programmes cannot be commenced. If they have a problem drug habit, a few weeks is scant time to evaluate their needs and set in motion a suitable programme of treatment and rehabilitation, even if that was available in a Young Offenders Institution, which it is usually not.
We therefore ask the Minister what effect this order is likely to have on the availability and delivery of rehabilitation, education and resettlement programmes. We also ask how the new scheme will interact with the Custody Plus scheme under the Criminal Justice Bill passing through your Lordships' House at the moment. Also, what will happen to young offenders who break the terms of their curfew or cut off the tag?
We wonder what the Government intend to do to address the public credibility issue. Unless the public know what is happening to a young offender released early under an HDC, what sort of community work is being done, what the value of it is and what measures are being taken to address the cause of the offending behaviour, they will not understand why a person is released after four and a half months when he has been sentenced to 18 months.
Community sentences can be much more constructive than custody and we agree with the Government that, if properly planned and supported, they can be much more effective in preventing reoffending. However, I do not believe the public always understand this. In the interests of public confidence in the justice system, it is time the Government addressed this issue. I would be most grateful to know what the Government plan to do.
§ Baroness Scotland of Asthal
My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Anelay of St Johns and Lady Walmsley, for the constructive comments they have made on this order. I will try and respond to the questions in order.
The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, asked first about the numbers. About 150 young people sentenced under Section 91 are released as juveniles each year. How many are released on HDC will depend on how many fit the criteria for eligibility but our estimate is that in practice it will be about half.
88 The HDC scheme will not affect the overall period of time the offender spends on supervision and therefore this provision will have no resource implications for the supervising services. It just shifts when the supervision takes place; it does not mean the quantum is changed in any significant amount.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked why prison in the first place. We have to distinguish those offences for which prison is the appropriate sentence, because of their gravity and nature. The purpose of the home detention curfew scheme is not to be an alternative to the prison sentence, but, after the offender has served that penalty, to be a way to reintroduce and rehabilitate the offender—successfully, we hope—into the community, having identified their needs in order to maximise the possibility of ceasing offending and restabilising them when they come out of prison.
I have touched on breaches already. Any offender who breaches the curfew is liable to be recalled to custody. A breach of curfew will include being absent in the curfew period, damaging the monitoring equipment or threatening or assaulting a monitoring officer. A breach report is sent to the Prison Service to consider and if they are satisfied there has been a breach the offender's licence will be revoked. All breach reports are considered within 24 hours of receipt.
The plans will be as carefully crafted as possible to limit the risks of reoffending and maximise compliance. We have had some quite positive results so far, which are encouraging. We think this will work very well with Custody Plus. The Government recognise the benefits of home detention curfew schemes and they will continue to apply to prisoners sentenced to Custody Plus. An offender will be serving a custodial sentence of at least eight weeks to be eligible for home detention curfew; this compares with three months under existing provisions. The maximum period they can spend on the scheme is a quarter of the custodial part of their sentence. We agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that there has to be confidence in these sentences and greater knowledge of how they will operate among the public. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government are doing everything they can to make sure there is a better understanding of how sentences actually work. There is quite often a difference between what happens and what people believe happens. We would like the two to be the same thing.
On Question, Motion agreed to.