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Mr. Bermingham: As recent examples show, the period between application to admission to the police force for training can be as long as 18 months. Admission procedures and the funding of new recruits need to be re-examined.

Mr. Hughes: I agree. I hope that we can soon have a debate about recruitment. I think that we could usefully pool the various initiatives that have been suggested by my hon. Friends and me, and by members of other parties, to make the police service more appealing to school leavers.

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport): The chief constable in Merseyside proposes to ignore traffic accidents, as long as they do not involve human lives--as long as they are not "true" accidents--in order to put more bobbies on the beat. I think that that may be a good move.

Mr. Hughes: There is a big debate about it. I support a move in that direction. At the weekend, there was a story in the Financial Times about the Prime Minister's willingness to change the structure of the police. I do not know whether he consulted the Home Secretary about that, but, as I have said to, for instance, chief police officers, I think that jobs that could be done by others should not be done by the police. To her credit, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has made similar proposals. We need a debate on the subject. We should ensure that the police concentrate on what only the police can do, while others

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deal with matters such as certain motoring offences--although we shall continue to need the police to deal with some traffic matters, both in Merseyside and elsewhere.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many of us believe that maintenance of a good traffic police service would not only revolutionise road safety, but make an enormous impact on the numbers of road deaths and injuries? The suggestion that it is possible to hive off bits of traffic policing is a rather dangerous one that needs to be considered very carefully before the House accepts it.

Mr. Hughes: Not only has the hon. Lady long been a Member, but she has a specific interest in transport issues, on which she speaks with authority. I understand the point that she makes. I am not saying that traffic issues should not concern police. However, there is an argument--I shall not go into its detail now--that restructuring the police service would perhaps allow traffic, transport and safety matters to be dealt with far more comprehensively. British Transport police, for example, are a stand-alone part of the system, but perhaps they should be more integrated. Perhaps we should have more regional police forces, rather than county police forces. I hope that we shall be able to have that debate, as reform of the police service is on the agenda. I am sure that we will return to that agenda.

I believe that police are making clear representations to the Government on crime clear-up rates. We shall be better able to clear up crime if we better support and protect witnesses. We often fail to obtain convictions because witnesses either refuse to talk to police and the courts about the crime or, after talking about it initially, stop talking. Although I shall not elaborate now on how we can redress that situation, I have partly communicated thoughts on the matter to the Home Secretary. However, unless we devise a much better set of protection mechanisms for witnesses, we are likely to continue having a very poor conviction rate. Additionally, for those who interfere with witnesses and jurors, we should have more severe and automatic sentences. People who interfere with justice in this way should know that their action is an aggravating factor and that they will be additionally punished for it.

This debate--on when to release prisoners--is really about how we can reduce our appalling reoffending rates and make prison more effective. In the words of the former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), we have to do what works. That is not a party political sentiment. In the past week, another previous Tory Home Secretary has made it very clear that he still believes that prison does not necessarily prevent re-offending. The specific issue that we are addressing is whether home detention curfew helps to prevent re-offending.

Two years ago, in our consideration of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Government introduced the provision for home curfew detention. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who was then our Home Affairs spokesman, supported that proposal. Subsequently, Liberal Democrat Members supported the new clause introducing the proposal. Although the provision may not be operating perfectly, we shall not change our view on it today.

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Interestingly, on Third Reading of the 1998 Act, Conservative Front Benchers supported the provision for home detention curfew. The then shadow Home Secretary, in his speech on Third Reading, said not a word about the provision's iniquity or inappropriateness. Although he talked about other things, he did not talk about that. Home detention curfew was not the big issue that the current shadow Home Secretary suggests it has become.

I do not want to add to the debate about the role of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. However, as the Home Secretary rightly said, the Committee examined the issue of home detention curfew, as it should have done, and its members--who were from all three parties representing English constituencies--unanimously supported its introduction. That is the deliberative way in which such proposals should be implemented. The proposal was enshrined in law in the right way, with the support of this place and of the other place.

The Government's amendment to the motion correctly flags up the success rate of home detention curfew. The fact is that 18,800 of the 20,000 people participating in the scheme have not re-offended. Ideally, there would have been no failures. However, there have been a considerable number of successes. We should not forget the basic facts in this debate.

Before today's debate, the Home Secretary announced that the Government are reviewing sentencing policy. We believe that such a review is a good idea, and we welcome it. Although I have not heard that the review will be entirely independent of the Government, I think that it would be more authoritative if it were.

The home detention policy, together with electronic tagging and all other alternatives to custody--as well as custody itself--should be included in the review. It is no good having a review if we do not look at how successful prison is on the one hand and how successful the alternatives are on the other. The Select Committee on Home Affairs provided a useful check list of the alternatives and looked at them all. It would be good to have such an independent review again, as well as a look at sentencing.

The Committee listed not only home detention curfew and electronic tagging, but suspended sentences, weekend prison or short prison sentences and fines. "What works?" is the question. Is it better to have a punishment that is inside, outside with a restriction or outside all the time? I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that the review of sentencing in general will specifically include a review of home detention curfew and if he will tell us by when the Government expect the review to be completed. I suggest that it would be sensible for the review to be completed by the end of this calendar year, two years after the provisions of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 came into place. The Liberal Democrats will play a full part in the process and will be happy to do so.

Parliament and the Government should commission independent reviews of sentencing regularly because we are not doing terribly well at the moment. Whether prison numbers are going up or down, we are not consistently bringing down crime figures, nor are we consistently bringing down the numbers of those who reoffend. If we are not doing that, clearly we are not succeeding. In our amendment, we propose a review of the policy, which we hope could be incorporated into a more general review of sentencing.

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The review will be no good if it is not linked with other parts of the penal policy that the Government say are important but where we are making slow progress. For most people, we still do not have a fully constructive regime in prison. My view is that people in prison should do, in effect, 35 or 40 hours of work a week in prison. Until we get to that figure, we are failing.

We should support, but go further than the Government, the introduction of rehabilitative programmes for people while they are in prison--particularly for drugs and the like--and continue them in a more guaranteed way when people leave prison. All the prisoners to whom I have spoken have said that they need support when they go through those doors so they do not get back into the old habits, the old company and the old patterns of life. We need particular support for people in the years immediately after they are released, as that is when the risk is highest and when the risk assessment comes to the conclusion that they need the maximum support.

The Home Office guidelines for home detention curfews are concerned with the right matters. We must assess whether the right people are eligible; how we calculate the sentence; what preparation there should be; who does the risk assessment, how effective it is and how it is done; what the licence conditions should be; what we say to the prisoners and what they understand by the process; what the procedures are around release and what the post-release arrangements are. That list is clear and I do not quibble with it.

That is where the criteria set by the Conservatives for this debate are shown to be wrong. When I asked the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald about the honesty in sentencing principle--which appears to be her great answer to the problems of the present system--she failed on each count to answer the three specific questions I put to her. The House will be able to read that exchange, which is clear.

I understand, having read what the Conservatives have said on the subject in the past few months, that their policy would not mean longer sentences on average or cumulatively longer sentences in total. Nor would it mean many more people in prison. If that is the case, to pretend otherwise is to perpetrate a deception on the public.

We also cannot support a proposal that an incoming Government would abolish the home detention curfew scheme without any proper, objective review. It has been in existence for less than two years. It has not worked perfectly, but the answer to something that might not have worked perfectly but has worked rather well is to improve it, not abolish it. It is a hasty, inappropriate and ill-researched conclusion to say that it should go.

There is no proof that longer sentences work. Longer sentences punish more, but, as our amendment points out, almost everyone is eventually released. The scheme covers those who would be released between six months and four years later. Their sentences are shortish, and it is ludicrous to reject a scheme for their sensible, phased reintroduction into society, as the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) pointed out. As I have said, we must ask what works.

It would be helpful if the Minister of State would give a considered response to the question that the Conservatives, people outside and I have asked about

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whether we can now work on the basis that we have 4,000 spare prison places--even though prison governors tell me that their prisons are overcrowded and they cannot cope. I understand that any spare capacity is mostly in open prisons. If that is the case, the Government may need to review whether we are using our prison establishment appropriately. The Government could also review the categorisation of prisoners, because they might be able to reallocate prisoners more effectively. That could reduce overcrowding in some places and stop some prisons trying to do several things at once. Some are asked to act as a local prison, a prison for lifers, a prison for immigration offenders awaiting deportation and a remand prison, and it is difficult to do all those jobs at the same time. A review of the use of the prison establishment-- why some prisons are overcrowded and some are comparatively under-occupied--could be appropriate and I hope that the Minister will let us know when he winds up whether the Government will consider a review of this too. It could discover whether we have a sufficient prison stock for future projections and can save lots of money by not having to build all the additional prisons, which will not be cheap.

Let us have a coherent prison and penal policy debate, but let us not believe that being tough on crime and on the causes of crime is proved only by the punishment meted out. That is not the only test. Longer sentences do not by themselves lessen the chance of reoffending.

Some of the Government's suggestions are out on a limb. For example, in their amendment, they suggest two policies that we believe would be unhelpful in obtaining the right balance between rehabilitation and punishment. The first is the proposal that offenders on benefits would lose their benefits. The second is the removal, at a stroke, of the right to choose jury trial, which will have no great benefit in reducing crime, or the causes of crime.

When the Prime Minister was shadow Home Secretary, his policy became, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". That soundbite worked well then, but I hope that what has happened over the weekend has taught us that we must be equally tough on soundbite policy, and tough on the causes of soundbite policy. Policies must not be made up on the back of an envelope, or according to the latest wheeze. It would be helpful if the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition came up with fewer unsupported and insufficiently developed ideas.

The lessons from criminal justice policy over the years are that what sounds tough often does not work, and that what works often requires a much more sophisticated balance between punishment and rehabilitation. After this debate and the events of the past few days, the arguments about criminal justice and penal policy would be best served if all parties resolved to have fewer gimmicks and to be less intent on grabbing immediate headlines. An additional benefit for the House might be that political leaders might also look a little less foolish.

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