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Mr. Simon Hughes: May I ask a follow-up question? Given that, at the moment, almost everybody sentenced to prison is released, do the Conservatives believe that more people should be sentenced to prison with no chance of ever being released?
I refer to some of the remarks made by my right hon. and hon. Friends. From his great experience as a former Attorney-General, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) pointed out that the Government's law and order policy is in a mess, saying that although the Government sound tough, in practice the policies are weak and designed to save taxpayers' money. Reducing periods spent in prison, especially for the serious offender, saves the Treasury money, but does not protect the public.
My right hon. and learned Friend spoke with particular authority. In 1981, during the debates in Committee on what became the Criminal Justice Act 1982, he was the first person to suggest a type of curfew scheme, which those in Hertfordshire who pioneered the idea called the night restriction order. He pointed out that it was intended for borderline offenders who might not get custodial sentences. It was never intended for serious offenders, to whom the Government are now applying it.
My right hon. and learned Friend also pointed out that over our 18 years in government we built up what he described as a fine quiverful of disposals and sentences that are open to the courts. By using the policy as an Executive act, the Home Secretary has undermined the integrity of sentencing judges and magistrates in the court. That is the most serious condemnation of the Government.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who always makes a powerful speech to the House, supported honesty in sentencing and talked about the need for the public to feel that sentences are appropriate. He stressed that the problem with home detention curfews as the Government use them is that they represent an Executive decision, which departs from the principle of honesty in sentencing, and made a powerful call for moving to a sentence discount of no more than 20 per cent. and for that discount to be earned with good behaviour and work in prison.
My right hon. and learned Friend also made the important point that so many prisoners, as I know from my own experience at the Bar, lack basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. Therefore, one needs to provide incentives and to try to ensure that prisoners are asked to do worthwhile work in prison.
In an extremely powerful speech, the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) called for a tough approach to those who have committed the most serious offences--in particular, terrorist offences in Northern Ireland--and drew parallels with what happens in Ulster. He knows that we on these Benches have repeatedly called for an end to early releases until there is actual surrender of guns and explosives and he is aware that we strongly support what he said about that: too many concessions were made to the terrorists and too soft a line has been taken.
As the hon. Gentleman said, based on their highly sophisticated spin machine and to get over the short-term difficulties, the Government made promises without giving any thought to the long-term consequences for law-abiding citizens. I say to him that that is true not only in relation to Ulster. Sadly, the Government cause the same problems--spin as opposed to substance--on the
The Home Secretary made desperate stabs into political history to try to bolster his argument, but got into trouble when he talked about the so-called vacant prison places. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) pointed out the difference between certifiable normal capacity and usable operational capacity. Just like the initiative for on-the-spot fines, we know that that is another matter that the Prime Minister has completely misunderstood. On home detention curfew as on so many other law and order policies, we can be absolutely certain that what is vacant and certifiable is Labour policy.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): We can be equally clear that crime doubled under the Conservatives while the number of criminals convicted by the courts fell by a third. That is the base from which we were required to move. Protecting the public and ensuring that we use prisons as an opportunity to address the underlying causes of offending with far greater success than the Opposition ever managed when they had stewardship of these matters are at the heart of what we seek to achieve. Therefore, it is disappointing that the Opposition have chosen to use this, their day, in such a way.
Let us not forget that today is the Opposition's day, not ours. We do not have to come into the Chamber to listen to them, but when one considers who turned up to listen to whom, it is interesting that the maximum number present on their side when Opposition spokespersons were not speaking was four on my count. Indeed, at one time they were outnumbered by Ulster Unionist Members, so let us be clear about who attended the debate.
Let us be clear: despite all the shilly-shallying and all the ranting and raving that we have heard from the Opposition, they cannot get away from the fact that the overwhelming majority of those placed on the home detention scheme have successfully completed their curfew. The overwhelming majority have not offended on curfew and the scheme has helped thousands of short-term prisoners to make the difficult transition back into the community. That is what it was designed to do--that was its purpose--and it is better to protect the public by ensuring that we better manage the transition of offenders from custody into the community.
Let us have a brief look at where all this began. The home detention curfew scheme was universally approved, without dissension, by the all-party Home Affairs Committee. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) put his signature to its report and no amount of slithering and sliding can get him away from that fact. His fingerprints are all over the report--we do not need DNA to tell us that. Furthermore, I have here a record of the debate of 8 April 1998, in which he spoke. He had this to say:
We need to be clear that the home detention curfew scheme is just one of the many measures that we have introduced to help prepare prisoners for release, as part of our strategy for reducing reoffending and protecting the public.
Some good points have been made in this afternoon's debate. One was made by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who spoke of the importance of ensuring that we take care to reflect on what we do in prisons to address recidivism. That point was taken up with some force by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham), who endorsed the Government's approach on this issue. The right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke about how, on occasion, he was "deeply troubled" by the failure of his Government and the Prison Service better to address that issue. Well, we have been addressing the issue. We have been applying additional resources to addressing basic skills in literacy and numeracy, which were neglected for 18 years by the previous Conservative Government. It has taken a Labour Government to begin to address those deficits.
We are spending additional resources: £26 million has gone into education--basic literacy and numeracy skills--to address the causes of offending. That is money that was never spent by the Conservative Government when they had stewardship of the Prison Service. Now, without costing their proposals, they seek to renege on their previous commitment to developing a penal policy that would have recognised the benefits that the home detention curfew scheme presents in terms of better protecting the public by better managing the transition from prison into the community.