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Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady may not be making that suggestion now, but it was the precise implication of her speech. Any system in which prisoners are released subject to a risk assessment requires us to do our best to get that assessment correct. In some cases, risk assessment will not work. That is true even at the most serious end of the sentencing regime in respect of those subject to life sentences for murder. The right hon. Lady well knows that successive Secretaries of State have taken very seriously their responsibility to ensure that there is a proper risk assessment, but, with the best will in the world, about 8 per cent. of prisoners subject to mandatory licence are recalled to prison for reoffending or because they are subject to a further risk assessment. I shall later outline the defects inherent in the right hon. Lady's proposals for so-called honesty in sentencing, which, in my view, would put the public at greater risk than our carefully calibrated system.

Miss Widdecombe: The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have pledged to abolish his scheme. Will he say from the Dispatch Box that he believes that abolishing the scheme will result in a rise in crime above the 700 extra crimes that he has brought about?

Mr. Straw: That is impossible to say. If our scheme works successfully, however, the overall result should be less reoffending by prisoners. The only figures that we have--we have done our best to provide the maximum information--relate to the number of offences committed on curfew. If we look further down the track, we hope--although it remains a matter for research--that, overall, fewer offences will be committed.

Only about a third of those eligible for the scheme are accepted. The point of the scheme is that those people are subject to a strict curfew of a minimum of nine hours a day--more usually 12--during which time they are not allowed to leave the confines of their home or probation hostel. Moreover, the scheme helps to impose a structure on what can often be chaotic lives. It forces curfewees to

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think and plan ahead, to establish a proper home address, to follow daily routines, and to submit to an ordered--if no longer institutional--life style.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): How many orders under the scheme are in force for more than 12 hours a day--if, indeed, any are? If they are not, and to the extent that they are not, does he agree with Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform--with whom I have not agreed too often in the past--when she says of those released under the scheme that they can always commit their burglaries during the day?

Mr. Straw: Like the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I have never found Frances Crook's interventions in penal debates--

Mr. Bercow: She is a member of the right hon. Gentleman's party.

Mr. Straw: I do not know whether she is a member of my party--[Interruption.]--The hon. Gentleman assures me that she is. I do not usually find her interventions on such issues particularly helpful, and I do not in this case.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) is right to assert that curfew lasts for a maximum of 12 hours. Of course, we accept that that is not prison; it is curfew and there has never been any suggestion otherwise. Later, I shall try to tease out from the Opposition the difference in principle between the arrangements for curfewing offenders, which are worrying the Opposition, and those that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the right hon. Lady introduced in 1995 on the back of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 for the use of curfew not only at the end of a prison sentence, but as an alternative to prison.

I have already explained to the House that the implication of the right hon. Lady's comments was that, but for the home detention curfew, people would be incarcerated in prison for months, if not years, beyond the date on which they were released on curfew. That is palpably untrue. It deceives the public to pretend that such people are not short-term prisoners and are not always due for release within a matter of weeks. The scheme is about improving the arrangements for the return of those people to the community and, hopefully, enhancing public protection.

Since the scheme began, 72,500 prisoners have been eligible for it, but just 22,000 of them were placed on it. Of those, about 94 per cent. successfully completed the curfew period, and just 2 per cent.--although even that is too many--are known to have reoffended while on curfew. Preliminary research published by the Home Office in January 2000 shows that, notwithstanding the complexity and large scale of the scheme, the home detention curfew operated successfully in its first year.

Mr. Bermingham: Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we compare the number of people who successfully completed the home curfew scheme with that for the parole scheme or the licence scheme, there are a small minority of failures under all those schemes? At least there is progress when people can live a stabilised life at home.

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend is entirely correct. Although, like any Minister in my position, I regret any

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reoffending while people are on licence--of whatever kind--the HDC success rate on reoffending is significantly better than that for other systems of release on licence.

Occasionally, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald is constructive and makes constructive suggestions about the scheme. When we discussed the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill on Report, she and her hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) tabled an amendment on sex offenders. I hope that the House will be pleased to hear that I agree that the protection of the public may best be served by excluding--as the amendment proposed--all sex offenders, subject to notification under the Sex Offenders Act 1997, whether or not their current sentence was for a relevant offence under that Act. We shall introduce an amendment in another place to achieve that.

Mr. Bercow: The Home Secretary's problem is the chasm between Labour's pre-election rhetoric and post-election reality. Will he tell the House where in the Labour party manifesto, which promised a "battle against drugs" and a


it was also stated that the Government intended to let out thousands of drug dealers early?

Mr. Straw: It was not intended that the Government should let out thousands of drugs dealers early, and nor have we done that.

I return to the point about the wilful dissembling in the Opposition's amendment, which suggested that people are released before they serve the minimum period required by law. Of course they are not released before they serve the minimum period required by law--

Mr. Hogg: You changed the law.

Mr. Straw: There is a huge and fundamental difference between changing the law, as we have done in the open, and what the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald suggests, which is that we have evaded the law and are releasing people before the minimum period required by law. That is simply not the case, and she knows it.

Miss Widdecombe: The Home Secretary has not answered the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). If the right hon. Gentleman had said before the last election, "Our answer to the drugs problem is to reduce the amount of time that drugs offenders will serve in prison and then let them out--tagged as they may be--so that they will still nevertheless be perfectly able to deal in drugs", does he think that that would have inspired the confidence of the electorate?

Hon. Members: Answer the question.

Mr. Straw: I am just about to answer the question. Of course nobody would present a parody of that kind.

Miss Widdecombe: That is exactly what the Government have done.

Mr. Straw: That is not exactly what we have done. What we said repeatedly before and after the election--

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and it is what we are doing--is that we need better to manage the transition between custody and the community so as to reduce the risk of reoffending. We are talking about whether prisoners should be released one week or five or six weeks later, having served a period in custody before that.

We have significantly increased the investment that we are putting into fighting the drugs menace both inside and outside prison. We commended without reservation what the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe did through the introduction of mandatory drug testing in prisons. We supported that measure, continued it and doubled enforcement of it. Following representations in my constituency, I have considerably tightened up the regime to prevent visitors and staff from bringing drugs into prisons. The overall result of mandatory drug testing and what we are doing with visitors and staff has been a further reduction in the number of prisoners testing positive for any kind of drugs in their blood.

We are also introducing what is called the counselling, assessment and throughcare scheme--CARATS--to provide far better treatment in prison. Alongside that, we have provided £20 million to police forces around the country so that they can establish arrest referral schemes in every major custody suite. When people are arrested, they can be put in touch in the custody suite or in the cells with a drugs worker, so that arrangements can be made alongside whatever sentence the court decides to issue to get them quickly into treatment. Everyone knows that if we delay getting drug addicts into treatment, we often delay beyond their life expectancy. In addition, as all the evidence shows, getting them quickly into treatment means that the number of offences they commit goes down rapidly.

We were responsible for the home detention curfew scheme and take the credit for it. I am, however, concerned that the Government should not claim all the credit for innovation in the use of electronically monitored curfews as an alternative to custody. I always want to give credit where it is due. As the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald will recall, it was the Conservatives who in 1995, commenced the provisions of Criminal Justice Act 1991, which allowed the courts to pass curfew orders supervised through electronic tagging.


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