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Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has read the intelligence reports that I have seen from time to time, which suggest that several terrorist prisoners who have been released early have since joined the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA. What does that say about recidivism?

Mr. Ross: I shall come to that in a moment. The hon. Gentleman pre-empted me by a few moments.

The Government did not give detailed, comprehensive thought to the effects of creating circumstances in which a well-organised terrorist structure could claim success in getting prisoners out before they had completed their sentences. That unquestionably happened. Hundreds of such people from both sides of the community have benefited from early release.

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The first releases took place on 11 September 1998. Those released include some of the most violent criminals that the United Kingdom has ever had to tackle. For example, the IRA Brighton bomber, Patrick Magee, was one of them--even the Home Secretary had reservations about releasing him early. Sean Kelly, who murdered nine people in the explosion in a fish shop on the Shankill road, was released early. That is only the IRA side. On the loyalist side, the men who murdered eight people in the Rising Sun bar in Greysteel, again in my constituency, will soon be released, if they are not already out. It cannot have escaped hon. Members' notice that the recent tension in the Shankill road has not been helped by the release of the area's former UFF commander. That also happened under the terms of the Belfast agreement.

It seems to the people of Northern Ireland that those people who have been released early are the untouchables in the criminal structures of Northern Ireland. Two weeks ago, a bomb exploded in the garden shed of a house in Ballymurphy. There are strong rumours that one of the individuals involved is the IRA quartermaster for the area, who is out on early release. Several months ago, a car carrying a bomb was intercepted near Lisburn. One of those involved was also an IRA man on early release. During an Orange order parade the weekend before last, two IRA commanders, out on early release, were spotted stoning the RUC.

In Northern Ireland, early release has aided the growth of a mafia sub-culture, which is steadily increasing. Legitimate business men are faced with demands for money from people who have literally got away with murder. Such demands have been made for a long time, but they are now more subtle. When a convicted killer who has served his two-year sentence walks into someone's shop or business and requests a donation to his cause, or suggests that he provides the doorman for his bar or nightclub, what should that person do? Does he go to the police who, seemingly, often cannot help? He can try to ignore that killer, but that is not a wise policy--or he can do as the Government have done and simply surrender to the demands.

This has all come about as the result of a completely wrong reading of the situation. When I look at the system of early release of prisoners on the mainland in the light of my own experience, I wonder whether we are not taking too soft a line with many of the people involved. The real tragedy of Northern Ireland is that, rather than try to ensure that terrorists conform to the normal standards of democratic behaviour--namely, to respect the rule of law and the decision of the ballot box--the Government have sought to turn logic on its head and accept the terrorists' propaganda. They are now trying to persuade the law-abiding majority that it is acceptable for murderers to sit as Ministers, for decisions on the police force to rely on the good behaviour of the very criminals and murderers whom that same police force has fought for 30 years, and for vast terrorist arsenals to remain under the control of those terrorist organisations.

Since some of the dumps in the Republic of Ireland have been inspected, I assume that the whereabouts of such weapons is now known. If not, our security forces, never mind those in the Republic, are failing in their duty. I therefore hope that they will act properly and pick up those weapons. In Northern Ireland, the results of the early release of prisoners are plain for everyone to see. The RUC is demoralised and saying to itself, "Why bother

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to catch them?" That exists in a lesser form on this side of the Irish sea. In Northern Ireland, there is a rejuvenated criminal class, drugs and spiralling crime rates and an increasingly angry and frightened populace. It is hard for parents and teachers to teach children and young people the difference between right and wrong when one of the principal wrongdoers is now the Minister of Education and when they can see people who have literally got away with murder walking the streets.

Early release has massive implications for the criminal justice system. If someone can shoot eight innocent people dead in a bar because they believe them to be Roman Catholics, or blow up nine innocent people in a fish shop because they believe them to be Protestants, and then, after being caught, be released after serving less than two years for such mass murder, how can we possibly decide a reasonable tariff for a thief or a burglar? Early release has been a disaster in Northern Ireland. It was misconceived there and is equally misconceived here, because it lets criminals off too lightly and forgets that there is not only a rehabilitation but a payment to be made for crime. It is therefore an insult to the victims of crime. The sentences of innocent victims cannot be reduced. Why, therefore, should there be a reduction of sentence, except in limited circumstances, for those who do the injuring?

6.13 pm

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) who, of course, is right: the purpose of prison is not only to punish and rehabilitate, but to protect people from crimes that criminals might commit if they were not in prison. As he said, in Northern Ireland terrorists have left prison early, joined Real IRA and Continuity IRA and committed terrorist offences in Northern Ireland and on the mainland of Great Britain.

It is a privilege to speak in this debate as a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I am the only Committee member here today, although that is not the result of my colleagues' negligence--they are off on a visit to Europe, examining the integrity of ports in respect of asylum seekers and others trying to enter the United Kingdom. The Government's policy on asylum seekers demonstrates the Home Office's effectiveness on that, as does its policy on early releases. The Government have become notorious for the use of spin, re-launching existing policies and announcing new sums of money which, time and time again--as a little examination demonstrates--double, treble or quadruple the actual amounts that are given.

In considering whether we are soft on asylum seekers and why they seek out this country, the Home Affairs Committee visited Sangette, on the outskirts of Calais, where we saw 600 or 700 asylum seekers living in the most appalling conditions. Those who spoke English told us that they had travelled across Europe from locations as varied as Iraq, Kurdistan, Iran and Syria.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the title of the debate is "Prisoners (Early Release)". I should be grateful if he would direct his remarks to that.

Mr. Fabricant: I was going to point out a continuity, as those people had the sole objective of coming to the

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United Kingdom--[Interruption.] I shall answer the hon. Members for Basildon (Angela Smith) and for High Peak (Mr. Levitt), who question why I am raising the issue--not that they have participated in the debate. There is a continuity, as the Government try to claim that they are achieving many things, but they have not achieved anything on crime and punishment in this country. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) asked the Home Secretary two questions to which we still have not had a proper answer. The first question was, where are the 4,000 prison places that are now available? The Home Secretary tried to answer, but could not reach the figure of 4,000.

The right hon. Gentleman was asked another question that he could not answer--perhaps, in fairness, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked him several questions. However, I shall repeat it in the hope that the Minister may be able to answer it in his summing-up. How many double cells are now occupied by three prisoners? That follows on from points made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who pointed out that prison conditions are important too. As I said in my opening remarks, prison should be a place in which rehabilitation can take place, perhaps, as my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out, through the acquisition of new skills.

The Home Secretary tried to maintain that our support for electronic tagging somehow allowed the use of the home detention curfew scheme. The two do not go together, and it is not right and proper that a tagging system should mean that people can leave prison early. Indeed, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said, to ensure discipline in prisons, there should be a system of rewards as well as punishments for prisoners' behaviour.

Clearly, a system of reward, as well as allowing prisoners to perform certain functions in prison that they might not otherwise be allowed to perform, should include the reward of early release. I am inclined to follow the argument presented by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham that early release should amount to perhaps only 20 per cent. of the prison sentence set down by the judge. A 50 per cent. release is certainly not fair and is not safe for society, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry pointed out.

It is worth bearing in mind that between the introduction of the scheme on 28 January last year and 30 April this year, more than 20,000 convicted prisoners were released early. They were not released early for light crimes, as the Home Secretary referred to them: 53 people had committed manslaughter; six, attempted murder; and 2,562 wounding, aggravated bodily harm and grievous bodily harm. Most awful of all, in some respects, 2,767 had been sentenced to prison for drug dealing; 23 for cruelty to children; 20 for sex offences; 1,887 for burglary; 811 for robbery; 237 for violent disorder, and 535 for affray.

Perhaps if those convicted prisoners had learned their lesson and society was now safe from them, that would be justification, yet 700 prisoners on special early release have breached the conditions of their curfew and 40 have disappeared and remain unlawfully at large. Nearly

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400 of those released on the scheme have committed further offences--offences that they would not otherwise have been able to commit had they still been in prison. They include two rapes, five threats to kill, 119 offences of burglary, theft and robbery and 43 assaults.

We should remind ourselves that those offences were committed by people who could not have committed them had they still been serving a prison sentence, yet what does the Home Secretary say? He has said:

That is no remarkable success.

It is not my intention to speak at length. The Government have been successful up to now in one thing and one thing only: playing with the imaginations of the electorate by launching and relaunching initiatives and by doubling, tripling and quadrupling the money available for those initiatives, at least in the imagination. However, like the little boy who cried wolf once too often, Ministers are finding that they are no longer believed. Even their core supporters can see that the Government score full marks only on rhetoric, but continue to fail in delivery, as we have heard in this debate on crime and punishment.

The early release scheme is a clear demonstration that, far from being tough on crime, as is the case with asylum the Government and the Home Secretary are regarded as a soft touch by criminals. He does not deter them. To the majority of people who are law abiding and just want justice to be done and our streets to be safe, that is unforgivable. Criminal sentences must be just, but sufficiently harsh to deter future criminal acts. They must succeed wherever possible in rehabilitation, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said, and must keep criminals away from society if they are unwilling to abide by the decent rules of society. The Government and the Home Secretary have failed the British people on all four counts.

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