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Mr. Hawkins: That is true, too.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman says that that is true, but he was appointed to the Committee in early March, and the Committee did not report until the end of July. We can draw a new rule from that experience: the Hawkins rule of personal responsibility. Individuals are not responsible for any decision to which they sign up if

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it has taken less than four months to reach a conclusion. Whatever the excuse, which changes time and again, it is poor. The hon. Gentleman backed the home detention curfew two years ago, and his explanation for his volte face is demeaning to him as well as the Committee.

Let us consider honesty in sentencing.

Mr. McLoughlin: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: I shall give way in a moment.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald claimed today that she would scrap the home detention curfew and all automatic early release on licence. Of course, we all understand that when we talk to the public, they instinctively want not so much honesty, but complete certainty in sentencing. We all understand that instinct. People want 10 years to mean 10 years, and two years to mean two years. However, I suggest that anyone with an understanding of the penal system must acknowledge that there is bound to be tension between absolute certainty in sentencing and the need to maintain good order in prisons, to provide incentives to address offending behaviour, and to support effective reintegration into the community. The way in which that tension is resolved is at the heart of the debate.

The right hon. Lady accepted, not least by her silence, that the practical effects of her proposals for so-called honesty in sentencing would not add one day to the time that any prisoner served in prison under a sentence that he or she received today. However, she also said that the sentence given would be the sentence served. Under her scheme, as far as one can understand it, there would still be flexibility in the length of time that a prisoner served, as there was under the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. Under that Act, up to one sixth of a sentence could be cut for good behaviour. Thus an offender who received a 12-month prison sentence could be released two months earlier than the time laid down by the court. However, there is a difference between the right hon. Lady's scheme and ours. Under her scheme, unlike ours, prisoners would be released without any electronic curfew system.

Mr. Hogg: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: In a moment.

The problem with the right hon. Lady's so-called honesty in sentencing is wider and more fundamental. Indeed, the drastic way in which proposals were brought before the House in early 1997 and frequently changed, as we all remember, shows that it was ill-considered and poorly thought through. Prisoners would be assessed for early release on the basis of their behaviour in prison, not on the basis of the risk they posed to the public. Once released, offenders who breached their supervision requirements could be recalled to custody only by bringing them before the courts and charging them. Of course I am worried about the number, albeit small, of people who commit offences while on curfew, but the numbers who committed offences under the right hon. Lady's early-release scheme were bound to be greater because it provided for no quick recall. That contrasts with the quick system that section 103 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 established.

Mr. Hogg: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: I shall give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) in a moment.

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The Government believe in honesty in sentencing. No one disagrees with that principle. The question is how we achieve it, given that there is no system--none is proposed by the Conservative party--that would achieve what the public want: absolute certainty in sentencing. In our manifesto, we proposed that courts should spell out in the sentence the period that an offender was likely to serve in custody and the period that he was likely to serve in the community. The Lord Chief Justice's practice direction, issued by Lord Bingham in January 1998, when he was Lord Chief Justice, ensures that the courts do just that.

Mr. McLoughlin: The Home Secretary spoke about honesty in sentencing. Will he give us an honest answer on when he expects to introduce legislation to follow the Prime Minister's pledge on on-the-spot fines?

Mr. Straw: We shall introduce legislation as soon as possible.

Mr. Hogg: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: I shall give way in a second, but first I want to answer the rest of question asked by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire. We shall introduce legislation, but not in the next couple of weeks.

Mr. Hogg: Reverting to the question of honesty in sentencing, I personally accept that it is necessary to give a degree of discount to maintain order in prisons. However, the right hon. Gentleman must address whether, in sentences up to four years, that discount needs to be one half. Most people think that that is far too much to achieve the purpose of maintaining order in prisons and better integration in society. A discount of 20 per cent., which should be earned, might be altogether more appropriate.

Mr. Straw: There is no particular magic about the current arrangements, which were introduced under the Criminal Justice Act 1991. I had objections to the proposals in the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, of which I am happy to give further particulars, not because I disagreed in principle with what the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe was trying to do, but because the more I looked at their detail, the more I thought that all that would be produced was some high degree of chaos on sentencing for no purpose. As the right hon. and learned Member admitted in government and subsequently in opposition, the proposals would not have made any difference to the overall sentence that an individual served.

Having served as an Under-Secretary in the Home Office between 1986 and 1989, the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham knows that these are complicated issues. I established a review of sentencing so that, in slower time, we can work out a better sentencing regime--or what I would call a seamless sentence in which, for example, there is greater use of suspended sentences, short-term time in custody and, in some cases, day prisons, evening custody and night custody as appropriate, along with electronic tagging and periods spent under supervision. I hope that we can have a serious debate about that, as it is an important issue.

If we are to try to reduce reoffending in our society and have that flexibility which is related principally not to good behaviour in prison--although that should be a

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factor--but to likelihood of reoffending, a degree of discretion should be given to those administering the sentences, which, to some extent, collides with the issue of the court's control. One way of squaring the issues in that important debate is to ensure that the courts manage sentences in a way that they do not at the moment. We have introduced that in the drug treatment and testing order, and I believe that if sentencers--judges and magistrates--are the managers of the sentence, we will secure better sentences targeted at an offender's individual circumstances. We will also increase hugely the information available to sentencers about the effect of their sentencing decisions.

Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham): I should like to follow up the point that the Home Secretary is making. If his policy of early release, which he feels is successful, is designed to help to reintegrate prisoners into law-abiding society, surely it is needed even more for high-risk prisoners than for low-risk prisoners, who are unlikely to offend when they are released. He needs the release programme for the high-risk prisoners if he is going to reduce the likelihood of them reoffending. Surely the Home Secretary is dealing with the easy end of the problem, rather than the harder end.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman's criticism comes from the opposite direction from that of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham. I happen to believe that it is better to start such arrangements at the lower-risk end of the scale; it would have been impossible to justify starting at the other end. I can understand that, right at the other end of the scale, if someone was released after a very long period in prison it might well be sensible for him or her to be tagged for quite a period, not as an alternative to time in custody at that stage, but to strengthen supervision in the community.

I admit that there was a high degree of scepticism about electronic monitoring systems when they were first discussed 10 years ago, but I have no doubt that they are proving increasingly effective technically and, I believe, in terms of reoffending and the control of prisoners. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a particular interest in sentencing policy, and I hope that he will make observations to the sentencing review, which we intend will be an entirely open affair.

As ever, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald used some extravagant language this afternoon.

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