Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.15 pm

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): I shall be brief, as I shall stick to the specific subject of the debate and refrain from going over all the things that have or have not gone wrong over the 30 years that I have been in the House. I declared my interest as a practising lawyer in my intervention in the speech by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I have many years of practical experience as a solicitor and a barrister.

3 Jul 2000 : Column 49

The right hon. Lady's speech saddened me, as it combined prejudice with ignorance. It also coupled a lack of knowledge with an inability to foresee results. I do not mean that in a rude way, because the tragedy of the past 30 years is that we have failed to grapple with the simple, practical problem of why people who have been in prison commit crime again. Why has prison, supposedly such a great deterrent in the criminal justice system, failed to work?

When I was a young man, not so very long ago, I was a primary school teacher in the poorer part of Rotherham. My headmistress told me that the father of a child in my class was in prison, and that that was a great disgrace--to the street and to everyone. However, I know of streets today in which almost every resident has been to prison at some stage. Does that mean that we have become a much more criminal society or have we failed, for reasons of expediency, to tackle the problems of why people commit crime, and of what to do with criminals?

I fear that the answer to the second question is yes. I have heard many a speech over the past 30 years extolling the virtues of tough prison sentences and punishment, but the crime rate has not gone down. It has gone up, although it is falling again now. Even so, the prison population has risen, not fallen--so what has gone wrong?

I concede immediately that imprisonment is necessary in certain cases. I am neither a fool, nor a soft libertarian. I believe that people who rape and rob, harm and murder should go to prison, and that prison must meet three criteria. It must be a place for punishment, rehabilitation and repayment. By the latter term, I mean that prisoners must be able to repay their debt to society.

At present, overcrowding means that many prisons lack any form of educational provision and provide no means of rehabilitation. They fail on every conceivable score. That has not always been the case, so who is to blame for the present situation? That question immediately reopens the debate, and the slanging match about where the fault lies begins again.

I have always found that counter-productive, even though it was I who posed the question that sent the House into a spiral earlier. I asked why the Conservative Opposition criticise prisoner releases when the previous Conservative Government a few years ago increased the amount of remission that could be earned in a sentence.

Penal reform over the past 25 or 30 years has taken us away from the absolute deterrent of the death penalty and towards incarceration. Life sentences do not last for life, but for a set period of time. People serving a very long prison sentence are often released on parole or on licence, which contains a degree of supervision and of reintegration into society. That is a good thing.

The judiciary would say, almost to a man, that they wish that the suspended sentence could be reintroduced tomorrow. It was a very effective sentence, with the sword of Damocles hanging over what I call the middle-range offender's head. It was a deterrent, and it worked. It was abolished, which was a mistake. I will not lay blame for that: it happened, and we must look at the reality of today.

Remission rose from a third to a half for sentences of less than four years, although why we have that arbitrary limit of four years, I have never yet understood. Someone can receive a sentence of three years, 11 months and three weeks and get remission of a half, but someone who gets

3 Jul 2000 : Column 50

a sentence of four years--one week longer--serves three years. The remission in that case is a third, not a half. It is an arbitrary and pointless policy which has led to resentment in the prison system, as anyone who knows anything about the subject will readily concede. I have in the past asked the Home Secretary what is the point of this arbitrary four-year line. Why cannot we reconsider that, for example?

Home leave has been in place for a very long time; it is a means of reintegrating the long-serving prisoner towards the end of his or her sentence. We have seen the introduction of day release, work in the community and the development of open prisons. Far more development in this field could take place and with it, again, the policy of reintegrating the offender into society. If we can succeed in reintegrating the offender, we have achieved our purpose--he or she does not commit a further offence. That is good; it is what the whole thing is all about. That is how we develop our penal policy.

On home curfew towards the end of a sentence, I heard the figure of 700 crimes--gosh, shock, horror. It is a 2 per cent. failure rate.

Miss Widdecombe: It is 700 crimes.

Mr. Bermingham: The right hon. Lady, from a sedentary position, throws her eyes to heaven and says "700 crimes". Did she, in her experience at the Home Office, ever look at the figures of crimes committed by those released on licence and on parole, or when they were under a suspended sentence? If those were totalled up, noughts would be added to that figure of 700. I concede, from the word go, that 700 is 700 too many. However, in terms of success and failure, in looking at things realistically, it is a 2 per cent. failure rate, or a 98 per cent. success rate. I reckon that 98 per cent. success is pretty good, bearing in mind--[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady has an annoying habit--[Interruption.] No, just one. She sits there and mumbles like a little furry mole stuck in a corner with its snout out of the ground. Up come the little puffs of rubbish, disseminated frequently, and taking us nowhere.

Is someone is raped or murdered in this land, that is a horror for which there is no justification. However, no one has ever devised a policy--whether it is licence, parole or probation--that prevents all rape, all murder and all crime. How about those who commit crimes while on home leave and never come back? Despite that, we are not stopping home leave. No one will get it perfectly right.

We should look at the overall picture. If, by and large, the system is working--and to a very large extent, it is--we can look at the ways in which we choose those who are eligible to participate, learn lessons from our failure and improve our success in the future. That is a positive way forward.

Fair sentencing sounds wonderful. We will say to the prisoner, "You will go to prison for three years." Three years later, the door opens and out he or she comes. My experience extends across half the world. I have seen prison systems in the east and in the west, in Europe and elsewhere, and I have never yet found a system that works in that way. The one thing that a prison needs is the ability to encourage prisoners and to give them an incentive or a goal, whether that is done by remission or privileges, or a combination of the two. In that way, discipline is

3 Jul 2000 : Column 51

retained and the progressive behaviour of the prisoner is enhanced. In other words, his or her rehabilitation is enhanced.

If we say to prisoners that there is no hope, no matter how good they are, that is a policy of despair and disaster. It is dishonest and counter-productive; it takes us nowhere. If that is what the Opposition mean by honesty in sentencing, it is a recipe for disaster.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that that is the view of all prison governors and their staff. They need not only an end of sentence period, but an earlier date of release period. That gives prisoners an incentive. They realise that if they behave themselves, they will get out more quickly. Without that, the job of prison staff would almost certainly be impossible everywhere.

Mr. Bermingham: I could not agree more; that is absolutely right. That has been my experience in the conversations that I have had over the past 30 years.

I said that I did not intend to take long, and I hope that I have not. I end as I began, by saying that we are discussing an experiment that is in its early days. To date, it has been 98 per cent. successful. That is not bad for a first shot. It is a block upon which we can build. We can develop other sentencing theories and schemes, and perhaps rehabilitation. There may come a time in the not too distant future--I suspect long after my time professionally and politically--when it can be said that it is the minority of prisoners who reoffend. We shall then have developed a penal policy that is a success and a credit to us. We have taken a step on that road. It is a long road and we have a long way to go. I wish the Government well with it.

5.27 pm

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): The Government's policy on law and order is plainly in a serious muddle. It is ill thought out. It is designed to sound tough, but in practice it is weak on real criminals. It is becoming increasingly illiberal and increasingly oppressive on the rights of the ordinary citizen who is on the margin of crime or who may find himself accused unfairly. His rights are being diminished.

A sensible law and order policy requires a clear and consistent message which tells those who seek to make their living out of crime that crime does not pay. That message was clearly spelled out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) during the last five years of the previous Conservative Government. Sentences for housebreaking and burglary increased. They were served for more substantial periods and the degree of housebreaking and that sort of crime fell during the period. It was a matter of cause and effect.

We in the United Kingdom believe in a firm policy on law and order. Certainly we in the Conservative party believe in that. But the Briton, the Englishman, requires a policy that is fair. An important part of that fair policy is a fair trial by jury if the individual chooses that right, not if it is granted to him from on high by a court.

3 Jul 2000 : Column 52

The problem with the Government is that on all matters of serious crime, what they say and what they do are different. What they are doing in practice is deceptive and weak. On the rights and freedoms of the subject, however, they are becoming oppressive and illiberal.

This debate centres on early release and the home detention curfew. The problem is the extent to which home detention has not been used for the purpose for which it was introduced--as an alternative to custody so that borderline offenders could be kept out of prison. It is being used instead as a method by which to keep down the prison population and, thereby, to save money.

That is deeply disillusioning to the public. How can it be otherwise if someone rightly sentenced to six months imprisonment comes out in six weeks? It is equally disillusioning when the same applies to more serious offenders; for robbery, for example, people sentenced to an average of 26.3 months are being let out in 11.4. That sends the wrong message, which dissipates the deterrent effect on criminals, which in turn results in what is happening now: the incidence of crime in areas in which it was falling under a Conservative Government is now rising under the Labour Government. The Government are making a grave mistake.

The same error is about to be repeated in relation to the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill on trial by jury. The rights of ordinary citizens will be reduced and removed. Meanwhile, serious criminals, who should be kept in prison for reasonable periods in order that the public may be protected, will serve reduced terms of imprisonment. If Home Office answers to parliamentary questions are correct, the term in prison of an average thief or handler will reduce from just under 11 months to just over 3.5 months.

The policy is designed simply to save money. The Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill is expected to save £120 million, but close questioning has revealed that the Government expect £84 million to result from reductions in periods of imprisonment among precisely the type of criminal who should be in prison--the experienced, repeat, dishonest offender who is alleged to be playing the system. Far from suffering, those criminals will serve only one third of the sentence that presently faces them. The Government's policy on trial by jury is deeply mistaken. It is relevant to this debate because it will reduce sentences for serious crimes committed by recidivist offenders from whom the public should be protected. That ought not to happen.

The public should see that the Home Secretary's policy to prevent wrongdoers from playing the system will in fact assist wrongdoers; and, far more seriously, it will take away the centuries-old right of the people of England and Wales which is an absolute foundation of our liberties. Much is said about democracy in current jargon, and even in the European convention on human rights--in almost every article of which the word "democracy" and stipulations of what is needed in a democratic society are mentioned. However, those who enjoy the privileges of this country should never forget that one of the greatest protections of our democracy, and one of the greatest protections that our citizens enjoy against oppression and--in Lord Devlin's word--tyranny, is the fact that, when they are accused by the public prosecutor and tried in the public courts, the decision on whether they are

3 Jul 2000 : Column 53

guilty is tempered and decided by ordinary citizens sitting in the mini-parliament of 12 good men and women and true--the English jury.

It is that right to an English jury that this oppressive Government are setting out to reduce. One of the frightening aspects of the matter is that they are stumbling into it semi-blind; they have not thought about it. They do not believe that they are doing what I described; they think that what they are doing does not really matter, but they are wrong. They should wake up.

There is a real place for tagging and for the home detention curfew. About half an hour ago, that matter was properly debated by the Home Secretary and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who tried to pin down exactly which cases home detention curfew should deal with. I speak with some knowledge of and affection for the policy: I am proud that I was the first person to suggest such a scheme to the House--in 1981 during the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Act 1982.

The idea was sensible; it had been proposed by Hertfordshire magistrates and carefully worked up--unlike the Prime Minister's policy proposals at the weekend. The scheme was introduced in a small way through night restriction orders and, with the development of electronic tagging and scientific testing, has become much more practical. The problem--then and now--is to ensure that people will remain at home if they are given a home detention order as an alternative to custody.

The scheme is about a tough law and order policy. My right hon. and hon. Friends--including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) who is in the Chamber--constantly tried to persuade our colleagues and the House that to be tough on law and order, one does not have to demand long sentences on every occasion. The courts must have a range of sentences and disposals--in the jargon--so that they can impose a penalty that fits the particular offence and the particular offender. I am proud that, during 18 years, we built up a fine quiverful of penalties and disposals for the range of offences met by the courts.

Nowadays, the home detention curfew will play an increasingly important part in dealing with offenders who represent only some risk to the public. If we can be sure that they are at home and if we can give their family, the police and the probation service some opportunity to check that they are where they should be, the scheme provides a valuable penalty and disposal. It keeps people out of prison--as it is much better to do. Recidivism rates after the home detention curfew are likely to be much lower. When people go to prison, they do tend to get into colleges of crime. It would not be sensible to say that much reform is undertaken in prison; it is right to attempt reform, but difficult to succeed.

The home detention curfew was introduced in 1991. I should be happy to see it develop--provided it is used for the right purpose. It has a real place in that quiverful of remedies. However, it is not being used rightly at present.

I end as I began--attacking the Government for deceiving themselves and the public. The Government are not being tough; they are being soft on serious criminals and letting them out too soon. The Government are abusing--if that is not over-harsh--or misusing a remedy designed to keep borderline offenders out of prison; they are using it to help to reduce the number of people in

3 Jul 2000 : Column 54

prison, to save money, to give a false impression, to send the wrong signal and, in the end, to weaken the criminal justice system that it is their duty to strengthen. The debate has brought that out. I commend our motion to the House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page