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6.50 pm

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): I listened carefully to what the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said about magistrates and judges. I also listened with great interest to the speeches of the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who is a judge, and my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), who is a magistrate. I am a member of the Home Affairs Committee but have no experience whatever in the criminal justice system. Although that is often a disadvantage, it is sometimes an advantage, because it means that I see the issues with fresh eyes.

I wish to concentrate for a few minutes on a rather buried aspect of the report. The report seeks to answer two questions: first, are community sentences effective; and, secondly, do sentencers make enough use of community sentences? The Committee drew attention to the Home Office research on that subject. When dealing with such an issue, the probation service is usuallyunder examination and must answer questions on the effectiveness of community sentences. However, the magistracy and the judiciary should also be under the spotlight.

One of the tables produced by the Home Office research study shows that magistrates were asked whether they were satisfied with the work of the probation service, and 89 per cent. said that they were very or quite satisfied. The same figure applied to stipendiaries, and 85 per cent. of judges were satisfied. It is therefore wrong to say that people within the criminal justice system are greatly dissatisfied with the probation service. However, if we put the question the other way round, and ask whether we should have complete confidence in, and satisfaction with, the magistracy and the judiciary, we may reach a different conclusion.

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The Home Office also asked magistrates, stipendiaries and judges whether, in the previous two years, they had visited probation centres or community service placements. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough referred to that research. The survey showed that fewer than half the magistrates had visited a probation centre, and that 82 per cent. of stipendiaries had not visited a probation centre. More probation offices had been visited, but that is not surprising, as they are often in the court building.

Community sentences are the most common sentence. In the past two years, three quarters of the magistrates and judges, and 93 per cent. of stipendiaries, had not visited a community sentence placement or even seen one in operation.

Whatever the wisdom or otherwise of their sentences, it is asking for trouble to hand out a sentence when one has no recent experience of what it involves. We would find it extraordinary if the director of a food company had never tasted his products or if the director of a car company had never driven the car that the company produced, but very few of those who are essentially the directors of the criminal justice system bother to see for themselves the effect of the sentences that they hand out. I do not have the figures for the frequency of prison visits by magistrates, judges and stipendiaries, but one can have little confidence in them, given the frequency of their visits to probation centres.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough quoted with approval Lord Bingham's comment to the Committee that it was desirable that people should look at what was happening, and that he was slightly surprised that more had not done so. When he gave evidence to the Committee, he went no further than to encourage judges to make more frequent visits. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that, although he agreed with that, we should not push judges because they were busy people.

If sentences are to be effective, sentencers must know what they are sentencing people to. The magistrates themselves say that. The Home Office research study asked magistrates and stipendiaries whether they ever learned about the outcome of the community sentences that they handed out, and 87 per cent. of magistrates said that they either never heard, or only occasionally heard, the outcome. The figure for stipendiaries was slightly lower because they are, after all, full-time. Even so, two thirds of them had either never heard of the outcome, or heard only occasionally.

Magistrates were then asked whether they needed to know more about the outcome of their cases--the very point made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough. Two thirds of the magistrates accepted that they needed to know more, despite the fact that most of them had just admitted that they rarely knew anything about them. Thus, they see the fault in the system: they pass sentences without knowing what they are doing.

The Home Office has started community sentence demonstration projects in Shrewsbury and Teesside, one of which we visited, to try to make magistrates and judges more aware of the sentences that they hand out. The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders pointed out that, unlike doctors, sentencers always see their failures return to court but never see their successes. If we are to have confidence in community sentences, it is absolutely vital that magistrates and judges take the trouble to visit placements so that they know what they are sentencing people to.

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6.57 pm

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): This interesting debate and the report that gives rise to it are uppermost in our minds for one reason: the increase in the prison population and the estimates for that increase. Five years ago, some 43,000 people were in prison; in September this year, that figure rose to 66,000, and the projection for the next seven years is more than 82,000. That represents a serious problem for the Government by any standard, not least because of the resource implications for the Exchequer in funding such a potential expansion in prison capacity.

I shall focus my remarks on two questions. First, how have we reached this position, and what policies have this Government and the previous Government pursued to get us to this position? Secondly, what radical solutions, which would amount to alternatives to custodial sentences, have been outlined in the report?

I shall begin by summarising the main thrust of criminal justice policy in the past 10 years. On the one hand was the view that prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse--a view largely held by the former right hon. Member for Witney, now the noble Lord Hurd; on the other is the view that prison works--a view expounded by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I think that prison does work.

I take issue with the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and other Labour Members because, in the three years until the general election, recorded crime fell by 10 per cent. The Government have been the happy beneficiary of that fall in recorded crime. They have not sought to reverse the policy that the previous Administration established to achieve that fall. The Minister is happy to endorse the sentencing regime that we put in place. If Labour Members are not happy with this tough sentencing regime and go for more soft disposals, the crime figures may not be pegged at present levels. That issue has not been addressed in the debate.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): Is not the point about criminal policy not whether solutions are hard or soft, but whether they are effective?

Mr. Ruffley: The hon. Lady is right. No one doubts that, in the three years to 1997, recorded crime fell. That fall in crime coincided with the implementation of a tougher sentencing regime by Home Office Ministers in the Conservative Administration. That was manifestly a policy of containment. It may sound crude, but we all know intuitively that, if hardened criminals are locked up, they are not on the streets committing crime. As a rough rule of thumb, it is estimated that two thirds of recorded crime is committed by one fifth of hard-core serial offenders, so a policy of containment goes some way towards cutting the crime rate. The evidence shows that that has happened--certainly up until 1997. I believe that the trend is a decline in the rate of increase of recorded crime.

Mr. Mullin: If the hon. Gentleman refers to my speech, he will find that I dealt with that point. I said that prison was effective as a form of containment, although it did not prevent people from offending when they were

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released. A couple of other factors also account for the fall in crime. One is the 40 per cent. reduction in unemployment in the relevant period, and the other is the fact that policing in the past few years has been much more effective.

Mr. Ruffley: The hon. Gentleman is right. There have also been improvements in education and training. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), in his eloquent speech, spoke for everyone in the Chamber. Innovative youth projects--which in the jargon are referred to as diversionary disposals--better education and training, more economic activity and more job creation all contribute to a falling crime rate. It is not fair to characterise the view of Conservative Members as being that prison works, because there is much more to it than that. The argument has not been made that prison does not work. I do not want to labour the point, but tougher sentencing has resulted in a demonstrable fall in crime. That fall has coincided with a palpable change in sentencing policy.

There has been a change in culture, which is evident when politicians on both sides of the House talk about crime, responsibility and the causes of crime. I had a ringside seat in 1992-93 when I was a special adviser to the then Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). When we moved into the Home Office in 1992, we were warned by people whom I would broadly describe as on the right of the political spectrum that we would face a liberal conspiracy. It was said that a large part of the criminal justice establishment, some senior Home Office officials, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and the Howard League for Penal Reform were Guardian-reading, nut-cutlet-eating, open-toed sandal- wearing--[Interruption.] This is a caricature. It was a widely held view that there was a liberal conspiracy to frustrate Conservative law and order policies. [Interruption.] The Minister of State may laugh, but I am describing the caricature: this is not necessarily my own view. It was a caricature, but it was not far off.

Many of the initiatives that the then Home Secretary wanted to take were frustrated. They were met with ill-concealed opposition from many civil servants and voluntary bodies. I could give hon. Members a long list of examples. For instance, little progress was made on the proposal for secure training centres, much to the annoyance of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe. The proposal in the Criminal Justice Act 1993 that gave courts the power to take into account previous convictions when setting sentences was fiercely contested, as were provisions to introduce mandatory sentences for bail banditry and to make it an aggravating factor in any offence.

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