Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for the huge difference between the Government's rhetoric and the reality is the rapacious demands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer? It is expensive to keep people in custody for the full period of the sentence. Perhaps the Home Secretary and the Minister are under orders from the Chancellor to build up an ever bigger cash pile for the handouts that we will no doubt hear about tomorrow.

9 pm

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend is right, but no doubt there is a bit more to it than that. The Government believe that, if someone comes up with a cardboard cut-out scheme, which has some sort of flimsy 24-hour popularity and which generates a headline in a newspaper, he has done his job. There is nothing long term about it and it does not work. One need only look at the child curfew scheme, which was supposed to deliver untold benefits. The Prime Minister lauded it to the skies, but what happened? Not one curfew order has been issued. There were supposed to be 5,000 anti-social behaviour orders every year, but only 150 have actually been made.

I shall not go on for too long, Mr. Hood, but when one examines these proposals, one sees that they are all cardboard cut-outs, and that they are full of problems and will not work. All the experts, such as police organisations, are tearing their hair out over the extra bureaucracy and gimmicks, when all they want is to get down to some basic, honest policing, which means having more police officers doing the job properly. All these gimmicks of extra criminal justice measures are all very well and good. Obviously, we support some of them in principle, but if the police officers are not out there, and if the courts are not supported when they pass sentences, we shall undermine everything that we want to achieve in our criminal justice system.

It is annoying to hear a Minister saying, ``Oh, those who offend against children should be dealt with severely by the courts.'' That is blaming the courts, as though they are not doing their job. When the courts hand out a sentence, the Home Secretary, under a discretionary power, reduces it so that only one third of it is served. What way is that to deal with criminals? Every time that happens, a message is sent out that what is said is not meant.

Jackie Ballard: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is implicit from what he has just said that the only form of sentence that he considers to be such is imprisonment?

Mr. Heald: No. I never said that. I like measures that work.

Mr. Clarke: Common-sense measures.

Mr. Heald: That is a good way of putting it. It is good that the Minister is using that expression. It shows that we are getting through even to him.

The hon. Member for Taunton is wrong to say that I think that imprisonment is the only thing that works. It can work and it is important to be able to send people to prison, because some of them will not reform. I am perfectly happy to concede that there are good community penalties which work. I have never been someone who says that only prison works. However, it is laughable and makes a farce of the court if someone is given a prison sentence and is told that he will serve five months for assaulting a police officer, which is a serious matter, and is then let out after a third of that time. It undermines everything that we are trying to do. I have represented hundreds of thousands of criminals over the years. They look to see what the sentence is, and they almost have a degree in what it means.

Dr. Ladyman: If prison works, why does Britain have the highest number of people in prison in the developed world?

Mr. Heald: The problem is that we have a lot of crime . The hon. Gentleman might agree that one of the best deterrents is to have sufficient police officers to catch criminals. It is the fear of being caught that deters people.

Interestingly, there was an experiment recently on anti-robbery initiatives in Hillingdon, which found that the more police there were working on initiatives, targeting people, and so on, the fewer robberies were committed.

Mr. Hawkins: Is not part of the answer to the hon. Member for South Thanet that prison undoubtedly works for the duration of the sentence because the criminal is out of circulation? Therefore, the law-abiding are protected from him while he is serving a sentence. Is not my hon. Friend right to say that, if the criminals are to be deterred by the risk of being caught, it is important that they serve the sentence that is handed down by the courts?

Mr. Heald: I agree with that.

I remember, a few years ago, debating secure training centres and being told by the police and some communities that young offenders were likely to have real problems. I am the first to concede that many come from a damaged and fractured background. Most of us are genuinely sad about that and believe that a lot of attention should be given to them and to their problems. I am all for community penalties, but one person who continues to offend, time after time, can do a huge amount of damage. The Prime Minister has only recently realised that approximately 100,000 people commit most of the crimes in Britain, but it takes only one or two to start a crime wave. That is a huge problem and such offenders must be locked up because the public must be protected. A balance must be struck between trying to rehabilitate the individual and solving the problem for the public, and uncomfortable decisions must be taken on the margins.

If someone who is given six months serves only six weeks, the wrong message is sent to the offender, who does not need a degree to know that the courts do not mean it when they say five or six months. The wrong message is also sent to the public, who know that the courts are not being honest when they say six months because they mean six weeks. The result is the farcical situation in which a Minister says that the courts should deal severely with those who offend against children, but when the courts do so, offenders are let out early. That is daft.

I shall not continue further because the new clauses have merit.

Mr. Hughes: I want to speak to amendment (a) to new clause 1, but I shall be brief, because, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire said, I have made my views clear.

I accept that the system introduced by the Government is a form of detention—it is home detention rather than detention in prison. The Minister knows that my party is generally keen to consider alternatives to custody whenever possible. For example, we have supported a trial of tagging. In principle, we have no problem with being imaginative about ensuring that people remain in the community if an adequate risk assessment suggests that they are not a significant risk and if a community sentence can be revoked. However, two other issues concerning sentencing policy must be discussed.

First, we are trying, when it is sensible to do so, to reduce the number of people in the prison system, but that has not brought about a considerable decrease in crime. The hon. Member for South Thanet rightly inquired about that. Evidence around the world and in western democracies shows the same thing--there is no direct correlation between the number of people inside and the crime figures, and no evidence that doubling or tripling the population of those who are locked up suddenly produces a reduction in crime. Indeed, without a good prison regime, it is likely to do the opposite. We are keen to have a debate on alternatives to custody that work, but we accept that risk assessment is difficult. Since taking on the job of Liberal Democrat spokesman on home and legal affairs, I have come to the view that we need a system that does not determine when people should be let out until an assessment has been made later in the sentence. We are talking not about the most serious offences, but of another category of offences.

A good argument can be made now, for good public policy reasons, to exclude certain offences from the home detention regime. I want to persuade the Minister, as he sought to persuade us to change our view on other amendments, of the merit of such a move; it would be helpful, especially in the present circumstances. Such flexibility would be useful if evidence of the Government's success in reducing offending rates and public pressure demanded it. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, who made an entirely reasonable case, might believe that it should be done in all circumstances, but I interpret him to mean that it should be result of a combination of the number of offences committed by people on home detention and the effect that it has on the morale and confidence of the police service. Those are proper and valid considerations. Had nothing been said to me about the effect on the police service, I might not have been persuaded to change my position, but that tilted the balance. We now support new clause 1, and we tabled amendment (a) because key public workers believe that they, too, should be protected.

I briefly acknowledge that there is a difference. The hon. Gentleman said, quite properly, that new clause 1 deals with specific offences against police constables. The Minister could reasonably say that it is a ring-fenced area; but even if he does not buy amendment (a), it would be right to accept the new clause, because the offences would be committed against people whose job is to enforce the law. They deserve the protection of the public while they are doing that job, and they should know that offences against them carry a particular consequence.

Amendment (a) recognises that some key workers among those who work in the public services are having a particularly hard time. That is not only an opposition view; I remember that, when the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) was Secretary of State for Health, he regularly mentioned the assaults made on workers in the health service. I know from personal experience and from second-hand information—it is not disputed across the Committee—that ambulance drivers and crews are regularly assaulted in the course of their work. Before Christmas, I spent some time with an ambulance crew. They did a brilliant job and saved a little lad's life. Ambulance staff deserve our respect and our support. That is why the new clause is so important.

We want the new clause to apply to the other emergency services and to those in the front line of the caring professions. For instance, nurses and doctors cannot turn people away from accident and emergency departments; they have no choice but to serve the public. I appreciate that many others do public sector jobs; indeed, Ministers may argue that one could make a long list of them, including Benefits Agency staff. Those mentioned in amendment (a) work in the emergency and immediate care services, and that differentiates them from other public sector workers. That leads me to new clause 2.

I understand the argument of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire that new clause 2 relates to certain specific offences. He is entitled to put that argument. I also understand that the public have a strong view on the matter. I shall be as honest about that as I have been on other matters. We are considering our position. We have not closed our minds to the argument. It is difficult to keep chopping away at the proposal that people should be detained at home. However, we shall not vote against it, and we may reserve our position this evening. I would be interested to hear the Minister's response. The debate calls for a change in the Government's position.

In moderate terms, I hope that I have joined the hon. Gentleman in putting the case. Even if the Minister says that the Government will listen to what we have said in a positive light rather than merely rebutting it, he will be doing the public a service. The change would be worth making not only for the people affected, but for him and his colleagues.

9.15 pm

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