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Madam Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to consider the following: New clause 2--Exclusion of prisoners convicted of offences against children from power to release short-term prisoners on licence--
'In section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (power to release short-term prisoners on licence), after subsection (2)(c) there is inserted--
"(ca)(i) the sentence is for an offence listed in paragraph 1 of Schedule 4 to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000; or
(ii) the sentence is for an offence listed in paragraph 2 of Schedule 4 to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 which is committed against a person under the age of 18; or
(iii) the sentence is for an offence which causes the prisoner to fall within paragraph 3 of Schedule 4 to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000.".'.
'When passing a custodial sentence under which a prisoner would qualify to be released under the provisions of section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (power to release short-term prisoners on licence), the court shall state in ordinary language--
(a) the existence and nature of the power of the Secretary of State to release the prisoner under that section;
(b) the minimum term the prisoner would serve were the Secretary of State to release him immediately after having served the requisite period as defined in subsection (4) of that section.'.
'In section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (power to release short-term prisoners on licence), after subsection (2)(a) there is inserted--
"(ab) the sentence is for an offence for which the maximum term of imprisonment is ten years or more;".'.
Mr. Heald: The Government refer to it as the home detention curfew scheme, but we call it their special early release scheme for prisoners. As the House is aware, we have covered this territory on other occasions, so I shall not put our case in tremendous detail. We are discussing the policy that allows those who have been sentenced to up to four years in prison to be let out up to two months earlier than the normal halfway point of their sentence, so someone sentenced to three years can be let out after 16 months. The Government are quite shameless about it. They say that it is not a secret, but the basis of the scheme.
The latest figures show that from 28 January 1999 when the scheme began to the end of January this year, 31,540 criminals were released early under the scheme. The figure has since risen to 32,000, as the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), told us this week. Among those released are 64 criminals convicted of manslaughter, seven convicted of attempted murder, 4,152 convicted of wounding and assault occasioning actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm, 2,919 burglars, 1,348 robbers, 4,310 drug dealers or traffickers, 80 blackmailers, 50 kidnappers and almost 1,300 guilty of affray and violent disorder. We consider that those are serious offences and that it is ludicrous for the Government on the one hand to say that they are trying to be tough on crime, and on the other to let out these sorts of people when they have not served even half their sentences.
Since the scheme was introduced we have tried to get it changed and we have succeeded. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who has run a substantial campaign on the matter, was finally able to persuade the Government that registered sex offenders should be excluded from the scheme altogether. That became law last year.
New clause 4 takes our campaign a stage further because it would stop the release under the scheme of the most serious criminals--those who are convicted of offences where the maximum penalty is 10 years or more. It would mean that somebody guilty of manslaughter, attempted murder or causing death by dangerous driving or of drug dealing or trafficking would be excluded from the scheme. The scheme should concentrate on those who have not committed the most serious offences. If the scheme is to continue, which seems to be the Government's fixed intention--I have to be honest with the House and say that we would scrap it--it should concentrate on the less serious offenders.
The Government have consistently rejected our new clause 1, which would stop the release of those who have been found guilty of assaulting a police officer. So far, 15 criminals convicted of obstructing an officer, 13 of assaulting with intent to resist arrest and 246 who assaulted a police officer in the execution of his duty have been let out early under the scheme. Indeed, 25 further assaults on police officers have been committed by those
In Committee, the Minister of State described our arguments as a gimmick. That was wrong because not only are these serious points, but they are supported by the official Opposition and by the Liberal Democrats. To some extent the new clause is a combined operation.
In Committee, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) put forward the idea that the exemption should apply not just to those who assault police but to those who assault emergency service and health service workers. There is no doubt that it is a major problem. Doctors and nurses in accident and emergency departments are most concerned about the fact that people assault them. Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members have combined on this matter. I have to say that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is a bit of a late convert, having previously said something different about police assaults, but I pay tribute to the fact that he has thought the matter through and has reached this conclusion. In Committee we were united in pressing the Government on this point. If the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats agree on an issue and ask the Government to think again, in my view it is incumbent on them to do so. I have found the Government's arguments on this point very feeble and I hope that the Minister who replies to the debate will put forward a stronger argument. He might even agree. That would be good, but we will have to wait and see.
New clause 3 deals with what we would call honesty in sentencing, and what the Government occasionally call honest sentencing. The new clause is right at the centre of the debate about honest sentencing. Before the election, the present Home Secretary called for sentencing courts
After that, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was passed, which included the special early release scheme for prisoners. The effect of that is that a prisoner is released not after serving half a sentence but up to two months earlier. The discretionary power of the home detention curfew scheme was introduced on 28 January 1999.
I have considered how the matter has been dealt with in the courts and I am not satisfied. Other lawyers take a similar view, or at least their view is somewhat different from that of the Government. Last year, in the other place, my noble Friends moved an amendment to prevent the release under the scheme of a prisoner who had not been given the proper explanation when he was sentenced. That was prompted by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) who sits as a recorder, a stipendiary magistrate, and who, speaking on Report, said:
In the other place on 31 October 2000, the Attorney-General opposed our amendment which stated that one could not be released without being told in advance. He said clearly that it would be entirely wrong for judges to mention the home detention curfew scheme at all when passing sentence. He went on to explain his reasons for that at column 915.
On 31 October last year, despite the manifesto promise about the court spelling out what a sentence means in practice, it was clearly the Government's view that the existence of the scheme should not be mentioned by judges, and it is our experience that judges were not doing that. Therefore, we were somewhat surprised when, in answer to a question from me, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Norwich, South, who is no longer present--I wonder why--said: