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Miss Widdecombe: The sentence served would be the sentence handed down. Judges would be expected to take into account what they would have expected someone to serve. At present, a judge will sentence someone to five years, meaning two and a half. In future, he will say two and a half and he will mean two and a half.

In deliberately letting thousands of convicted criminals out of jail before they have served less than half their sentences, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have shown the House and the country exactly what their promises to be tough on crime were worth. They have been tough on crime fighters and soft on criminals. Their special early release policy is an insult to the police, the victims of crime and the people of this country. That is the way in which the Labour Government conduct themselves in office.

The Government swagger and they posture; the Prime Minister grins and he spins. The rhetoric of the Government is as vainglorious as any action that they take is vacuous. The fact remains that none of the Government's flagship policies on crime has worked. There are no child curfew orders--only a handful of anti-social behaviour orders. Prisoners are let out early, despite all the tough talk about the sentences that the courts should set. Those responsible for arresting criminals are reduced to the point at which they can hardly take any sensible action because there are simply not enough of them to do so.

It is a shambles of a record. What baffles me is that the Home Secretary, who, when he started in office, used at least to admit when things were going wrong, has recently taken to pretending that everything is absolutely fine. He calls a policy that results in 700 crimes being committed while their perpetrators should have been in jail, but who were out only because he decided that they could be, a successful implementation. It is cynical, it is disgraceful, and it is a betrayal of victims.

The change in government, which I believe will happen, cannot come soon enough. When it comes, criminals will serve the time that the judges have said that they should serve. No criminals will be released early just

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because it is an easy way of coping with a rising prison population. If we have a rising prison population, we will build the necessary prisons to house that population, as we did before. We will ensure that prisons are purposeful and worthwhile places, not merely empty warehouses where prisoners kick their heels waiting to be released to commit more crime. That is what I envisage as a sensible way of coping with crime. Both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary should do one thing and do it now; they should apologise for the total shambles.

4 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I greatly welcome the debate, not least because it provides a timely opportunity to contrast the Government's strategy for sentencing offenders with the huge contradictions at the heart of the Opposition's approach. We saw those contradictions exposed as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) twisted in the wind on the effect of her so-called policy of honesty in sentencing, to which I shall return. To manufacture her specific case in respect of the home detention curfew she had to dissemble and to build her argument on two insinuations that are demonstrably incorrect. I shall begin by putting the facts straight about the HDC.

The Opposition's motion claims explicitly that the home detention curfew scheme is operating outside the normal sentencing regime set down in law. That is simply untrue. The HDC is an integral part of the operation of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which lays down the current sentencing framework. Within that framework, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 creates a new threshold for the release of prisoners serving less than four years. It allows for the placement of a short-term prisoner on curfew after he or she has served

It further defines in statute what is meant by "the requisite period". The meaning and intent of the HDC provisions in law are clear.

Contrary to what is asserted in the motion, the HDC scheme does not allow release from prison before the minimum period required by law. Instead, the scheme has

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changed the minimum period required for short-term prisoners serving sentences of at least three months but less than four years. It provides for release on a scale linked to the overall sentence up to a maximum of 60 days before the halfway point of the sentence for someone sentenced to just under four years.

There is nothing novel or radical about that concept. The sentencing framework laid down by the 1991 Act sets out the concept of discretionary release for prisoners serving four years or more. The Act was introduced by the previous Conservative Government, of whom the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and many other right hon. and hon. Members were members. It was operated by the right hon. Lady when she was a Home Office Minister. The scheme--parole--is a familiar part of our criminal justice framework. The HDC extends the same principle of discretionary release and applies it to those sentenced to less than four years.

Parole and the HDC also share another common characteristic. In both instances, while the majority of prisoners are eligible for the HDC, decisions as to who to release are taken only after careful risk assessment. In both instances, it is only a minority of those eligible who are placed on curfew.

Like parole, the fact that a particular custodial sentence will make an offender eligible for the HDC is something of which the courts are fully aware when sentencing. The courts are now well used to the idea that there is an earliest and latest point at which a prisoner might be released.

What is new about the HDC is that it aims to improve the effectiveness of the period spent by prisoners on licence or under supervision. The right hon. Lady talks about the need for prisons and sentencing better to rehabilitate prisoners. I accept that entirely. One of the major problems, of which she must be aware, is high levels of reoffending by prisoners, who come out on their normal release date or later. Securing a better transition between custody and the community must be one of the aims behind any sentencing policy designed to ensure that prisoners are less likely to reoffend. The right hon. Lady's description of the scheme as an early release scheme fails--as her entire approach does--to take account of the significant curtailment of liberty imposed by a curfew backed up by electronic monitoring.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Just what would the Home Secretary say to the two women who were raped by prisoners who were in the community rather than in prison?

Mr. Straw: I should say the same to those victims of crime as I would to anyone else who had suffered a serious crime, perhaps committed by someone released on parole under schemes operated by the Conservatives, or even by someone released on the normal release date. I would deeply regret that those crimes happened, but the overall aim of the scheme is better management of prisoners' transition between custody and the community.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald insinuated, entirely falsely, that if people served the extra period--never more than 60 days, and typically 30 or 40--of their sentences before normal release, they would never, ever reoffend. In fact, we know that well over 55 per cent. of people released at normal points of their

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sentences reoffend. One of the great crime challenges facing us--it should be a cross-party matter--is how to reduce the number of those who reoffend.

Miss Widdecombe: The right hon. Gentleman has put into law a scheme that has meant that a large number of criminals--20,000 at the latest published count, and probably more--have been released before the point in their sentences at which they would have been released had he not done so. Some 700 crimes have been committed. It would be bad enough if all of them were trivial, but some them crimes have been extremely serious. In addition, dozens of those who have been released have disappeared.

The point is that but for the right hon. Gentleman's intervention, those criminals would still be in prison, and the particular victims probably would not have suffered. I am not suggesting that those people would never reoffend if they were kept longer in prison, but they would not have committed the particular offences that they committed, and the victims of those offences, who should have been protected by the fact that those criminals were in prison, were not protected. That is the point.

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