Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Heald: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following: Amendment (a) thereto, at end, add—

    `(iv) an offence of violence on any other member of the emergency services or staff of the National Health Service.'.

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.''.'.

Mr. Heald: The object of new clauses 1 and 2 is to exclude certain categories of offender from the discretionary early release scheme inserted into the Criminal Justice Act 1991 by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Those arrangements allow what has become known as the home detention curfew scheme, which is often described as the special early release scheme for those who have committed serious crimes. The scheme allows prisoners sentenced to up to four years in prison to be released up to two months earlier than the usual halfway point of their sentence. Someone sentenced to three years could be let out after 16 months and someone sentenced to six months could be out in six weeks. The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), told the House on 12 June last year that someone released under the scheme would have an opportunity to be released before the halfway mark at which he would usually be released. That is not a secret. It is not a hidden proposal. That is the basis of the home detention curfew scheme. That is what it is designed to achieve. Someone who is sentenced to six months would become eligible for the scheme having served six weeks.

Members of the Committee may not have had the chance to read the latest figures given in an answer last week by the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). The official record shows that, from 28 January 1999—when the scheme began—to 31 January this year, 31,540 criminals were released early under the scheme. On average, they had received a sentence of 14.3 months, but served only 5.6 months in prison before being released—less than two-fifths of the sentence that they were given.

Those released on the scheme before serving even half their sentences included 64 criminals who had been convicted of manslaughter; seven who had been convicted of attempted murder; 4,152 who had been convicted of wounding, aggravated bodily harm and grevious bodily harm; 2,919 burglars; 1,348 robbers; 4,310 drug dealers and traffickers; 80 blackmailers; 50 kidnappers and 1,299 criminals who had been found guilty of affray and violent disorder. Such people are serious criminals and, given the almost 1,300 people who had been found guilty of affray and violent disorder, one is entitled to say that the Government's approach to the yob culture is something of a gimmick if they allow so many who have committed serious offences of disorder to laugh in the face of the court that gave them sentences more than double those that they actually served.

Since then, 1,000 further offences have been committed, including two rapes. Dozens of serious crimes of violence have been committed by prisoners who had been released under the scheme during the two-month period that they spent on the scheme. A total of 1,000 offences would not have been committed, except for the Government's policy. The Opposition have consistently opposed the scheme from day 1. When the Home Office announced it on 20 November 1997, the shadow Home Secretary, then my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) said:

    ``Today, we have seen a significant shift in this country's penal policy—from the victim to the criminal''.—[Official Report, 20 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 456.]

During the passage of the Crime and Disorder Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) condemned the policy, saying:

    ``what the Government are doing is wrong.''—[Official Report, 23 June 1998; Vol. 314, c. 928.]

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, the present shadow Home Secretary, has made clear the Conservative party's complete opposition to the Government's special early release scheme. Indeed, the Select Committee, which reported on the matter, was actively mislead when it was told that it would apply only to less serious offences. In fact, it was introduced, and is being used, to deal with offences that are more serious. It is a matter of concern that the Government have flown in the face of the views of the Select Committee and the official Opposition by insisting on going ahead with this scheme.

In the past two years, we have tried to correct the worst defects. Conservative proposals to exclude registered sex offenders from the scheme, which we initiated almost three years ago, became law last year through the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. I shall not embarrass the Minister by recounting the catalogue of errors that led to the release under the scheme of a number of child sex offenders before the exclusion became law. His hon. Friends have admitted to them and they are a matter of public record. However, the Government have consistently rejected the proposal in new clause 1, which, under the special early release arrangements, would prevent the release of criminals who assault police officers and resist arrest.

According to figures given by the other Minister, the right hon. Member for Brent, South, 15 criminals convicted of obstructing a constable, 13 criminals convicted of assault with intent to resist arrest and 246 criminals convicted of assaulting a police officer have so far been released early under the scheme. Indeed, a further 25 assaults on police were committed by those who should have been in prison but were released early. On average, the 246 criminals convicted of assaulting a police officer received a prison sentence of almost five months, of which they served six weeks—less than a third of the sentence handed down. That makes a mockery of the words of the hon. Member for Norwich, South, who told the House last month:

    ``Assault is a serious offence and assaults on the police are deplorable...We recognise our responsibility in supporting the police to protect the community...We expect the courts to use their full powers when considering sentences in cases where the police are assaulted.''—[Official Report, 15 February 2001; Vol. 363, c. 255W.]

Those are fine words, but the fact of the matter is that when the courts do their duty and impose prison sentences of, on average, five months, the Home Secretary lets such people out after six weeks under the discretion granted to him by the scheme. This is a gimmick of the Government. They say, ``Let's be tough: let the courts pass the proper sentence,'' but they let out offenders after six weeks. That approach is a nonsense and the Government must change it.

The Minister stresses his support for the police. He goes to a good deal of trouble to meet them and says that he will act tough. He must know that it is bad for police morale to release those who have been convicted of assaulting a police officer after they have served no more than a third of their sentence. That approach shows contempt for law and order in our country and it must be changed. No wonder the Minister finds it so difficult to recruit police. This is one of a number of factors that are damaging police morale. It makes a mockery of the police to deal with them in this way. It is a kick in the teeth for men and women who have a difficult job.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey used to share the Minister's view of our proposal, and twice voted against it. However, having had time to reflect, he has changed his mind, and I give him credit for that straightforward and honourable decision. The Minister must do the same. It is unacceptable for him, as the Minister responsible for the police, to allow this to happen. For the fourth time, I urge him to give our proposal some thought. He should consider the effect that it would have on the police if he were prepared to bend on this issue and to recognise the obvious sense of what we are saying at a time when it is hard to recruit police—especially in the cities, where they are more likely to be assaulted. We are pressing the Minister hard on this matter.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has tabled an amendment to the new clause that would provide the same protection to other emergency services and health workers. He has a good point, and we support him. Assault on people in the front line, such as police officers, is a particularly serious matter and is treated as a distinct sort of assault. Separate categories of offence cover the thin blue line that protects us all and the people in the emergency services, who are often assaulted by those whom they are trying to help. I hope that the Minister, having accepted our case on child sex offenders, will become another late convert to our views and say, ``Yes, you have found another category that it is right to exclude from the scheme.''

New clause 2 would exclude from the provisions of the scheme those who commit offences against children, which is a separate category under the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. It includes cruelty to children, serious assaults on children and dealing drugs to children. Children need such protection. When people go out and commit foul offences of cruelty against them, we, as a society, should be able to say, ``We are going to protect our children from this. When a judge passes a sentence, we won't cut it in half and knock off a further period: we'll let him pass his sentence and allow the normal position to prevail.'' I shall not go into our views about honesty in sentencing but, even under the present system, what the judge says should happen. Why should we do favours to people who assault police officers or emergency workers, or attack or deal drugs to children? They do not deserve the hand up that the Government are trying to give them.

There is a conflict between the Minister's rhetoric and what he does. He said recently:

    ``The Government believe those who offend against children should be dealt with severely by the courts''.—[Official Report, 15 February 2001; Vol. 363, c. 254W.]

Yet, when the courts hand out a tough sentence to an offender, he is let out when he has served a third of his sentence. That is nonsensical.

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