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6 Nov 2001 : Column 54WH

Electronic Tagging

1 pm

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that is important to my constituents.

As a society, we are judged on our system of justice. It is important that we balance punishment of offenders with their rehabilitation. Punishment is important to show that our society does not approve of what has happened. It should also act as a deterrent to others, so that they see what happens if they break the law. Punishment should also enable the victim of the crime to feel that what was done to them has been paid for. However, rehabilitation is equally important in ensuring that people who have committed a crime can get on with their life once they have paid for their crime.

I apologise, Mr. Winterton, if it seems that I am going back to the first principles of the judicial system, but doing so will prove important to the debate. My constituency includes the centre of Reading—in fact, it reaches some way west of the centre—and covers almost the entire night-time economy. When I moved to Reading in 1984, it had the night-time economy of the smallish market town it then was. However, in the intervening years it has changed massively. It has grown into a larger, dynamic, thrusting city aspirant. It has changed from the home of the three Bs—beer, bulbs and biscuits—to the centre of the Thames valley high-tech service area. It is home to many international companies, such as Microsoft, and is a regional shopping centre. Of the three Bs, only the brewing of beer remains.

As Reading has grown, so has its night-time economy. When I moved to Reading, people who lived there used to go out at weekends to pubs and restaurants in villages nearby. There were just a few town centre pubs and restaurants, and they had a rather unsavoury reputation. However, in the past few years a large number of attractive pubs and restaurants have opened. Reading now draws in thousands of people every weekend. They travel some distance—sometimes from areas such as west London—for a night out in Reading.

As a result, more people are walking the streets of Reading at night, which has helped to make it a safer place. As a woman, I now have no fear of walking around central Reading at night on my own. However, one downside of growth has been an increase in crime, particularly drink-related crime, which usually involves violence. In the past few months there have been fatalities in the Minster street area of central Reading that were entirely the result of drink-related crime.

I believe that some of these problems are connected to the drinking culture that our licensing system encourages. I will continue to work for the modernisation of our licensing system, so that we can reduce the problems that it creates. I will also work to help reduce the need for a massive police presence on the streets at 11.30 at night, and again at 2.30 in the morning, to deal with the thousands of people who are simultaneously ejected from venues.

I have talked about Reading's night-time economy because it provides the background to the substance of today's debate: electronic tagging. A constituent of mine

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who was out at night in Reading with his friends got involved in some trouble with others and was arrested. He was found guilty of actual bodily harm and on 20 July he was sentenced to three months' imprisonment with a further three months suspended. He was imprisoned in Reading young offenders institution—more famously known as Reading gaol in Reading town—about which a beautiful poem was written by one of Reading's more famous, if less willing, residents, the genius Oscar Wilde.

I shall not name the constituent involved, at the request of his family. He had been serving his three months' imprisonment on a home detention curfew, which extended until 19 October this year. The curfew ran daily between 7.15 pm and 7.15 am. Home detention curfews were introduced on 28 January by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Prisoners sentenced to custody of three months or more are eligible to be released on home detention curfew. Prisoners must be over 18 on their release date; they are required to be at a specific address for at least nine hours a day, where they are monitored by an electronic tag. All eligible prisoners must pass a risk assessment and have a suitable address before they will be granted a home detention curfew, and the final decision is made by the prison governor.

Someone released on home detention curfew is subject to the same supervision as someone released early. Anyone released on home detention curfew can be recalled if they break the terms of their curfew. That can happen if they go out, if they present a danger to the public or if there is a change in their circumstances. They can also be recalled if it proves impossible to monitor them or they are charged with a new offence.

Curfew orders are a welcome addition to the judicial system. They balance the punishment and rehabilitation aspects of the system to which I referred earlier, with the balance probably favouring rehabilitation. A curfew order allows someone to try to rebuild their life while punishing them for what they have done. For example, it is possible for a curfew to be established in such a way that someone can work during the day but cannot go out at night, making it an appropriate punishment in my constituent's case. Every night when he could not go out with his friends, he was reminded about his previous behaviour.

It is important that people who transgress have the chance to get their life back on track, and work is an important part of that. The curfew order's success depends on the monitoring of the person against whom it is made. This involves the offender wearing an electronic tag, which, in combination with equipment located at the curfew address, monitors when the offender is at the address. If the offender leaves the address during curfew hours, or attempts to move or damage the equipment or tag, the private companies that monitor the schemes are alerted.

I was visited at my surgery at Whitley advice shop on Monday 15 October by my constituent's parents. When his parents visited me, four days of his detention order remained. At the surgery, they presented me with a letter that set out the following situation. At 4.30 pm on Friday 12 October, the sentencing unit at the Home Office revoked my constituent's licence on the grounds that it had been breached. The alleged breach took place

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during the 12-hour period between 11 October and 12 October. At 7.30 pm on 12 October, my constituent was arrested by Thames Valley police and returned to Reading young offenders institution. The case appears straightforward because the order can be revoked at any time if it is breached. However, my constituent's parents were adamant that the order had not been breached and that their son had been at home on the night of the alleged breach. They were also worried because their son had been offered a job, which he was due to begin on 15 October. His father rang up the firm to say that his son would not be in that day and was worried that his son would lose the job.

When I returned to my office, I passed the matter on to my caseworker, who telephoned Reliance Monitoring, the firm responsible for monitoring the scheme, and was referred to a named member of the electronic monitoring team at the Home Office. My caseworker telephoned the electronic monitoring team but no one was available, so a message was left on the voice mail. On the next day, we had still not received a reply so we rang again. This time, my assistant spoke to the named member of the team, who seemed very cagey and promised that she would ring back because she was looking into the matter. When my office was called back, we were told that there was a question mark over the electronic tag, as Reliance Monitoring had found it to be dormant. Upon asking questions to gather further information, specifically about whether the tag was working, my office asked for the situation to be put in writing. The following conversation took place. The electronic monitoring team said, "Why do you want it in writing?" My caseworker replied, "Because my MP would like to discuss it and make representations to Ministers." The electronic monitoring team then asked, "Is she Conservative or Labour?" My caseworker said, "She's Labour." My caseworker then received an e-mail setting out the situation in writing. My caseworker did not know whether the e-mail would have been different had I been a Conservative. I am at loss as to why that question was asked.

The e-mail said that the Home Office electronic monitoring team was informed by Reliance Monitoring on the afternoon of 16 October that the tag was in dormant mode—it had shut down and had stopped transmitting for an unknown reason. The e-mail said that that could have occurred for a number of reasons and that Reliance was to have faxed that information to the sentence enforcement unit on the afternoon of 16 October in time for an appeal by my constituent. It was suggested that my office contact the sentence enforcement unit. The e-mail also said that my constituent had failed to answer the telephone between 7 and 8 pm and had not responded to a knock on the door between 1.20 and 1.30 am on 12 October. It stated that it is the offender's responsibility to let the monitoring company have access to investigate a suspected violation at any time of the night. This is noted in the release licence, or in words to that effect. It is also the offender's responsibility to answer the telephone.

There is some lack of clarity as to what Reliance Monitoring did. In discussion with my office, Reliance staff originally said that they called at my constituent's house at 10.30 pm, finding the lights off and no one home. The statement was later altered to say that they

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called at the house at 2.30 am. I have not been able to establish whether they called to gain access to the house or, upon seeing that the lights were off and no one, apparently, was home, did not try to gain access. Reliance claims to have made the required telephone calls to my constituent, who failed to answer and return the calls. My constituent acknowledged that he missed the calls but that he had thought nothing of it.

On arriving to arrest my constituent, Thames Valley police checked with Reliance Monitoring to see if it could pick up a signal from the tag. No signal was coming from the tag, but the officers had no choice but to arrest my constituent; as the licence had already been revoked, they had no discretion over the matter. My office then phoned the sentencing enforcement unit. The home detention curfew manager explained that my constituent would need to go through an appeal. I faxed a letter of support to the home detention curfew manager and contacted the Home Office which was happy to help, but the time scale meant that the appeal hearing could not physically be speeded up.

My constituent's appeal was heard and he was released on Thursday 18 October. The home detention curfew plays an important role in the criminal justice system, but we must have confidence that it works. I would like assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that we can be confident that technical malfunctions will not cause United Kingdom citizens to spend days, possibly longer, in prison when they should not be there. Is there any information about how many tags have so failed, causing the problems suffered by my constituent? The importance of allowing monitoring should be made clear to offenders, including the importance of answering the telephone. I do not believe that that is made clear to everyone released in this way.

The system is important and I support it, as do other hon. Members, but we must be confident that it works properly.

1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Beverley Hughes) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) for raising the case of her constituent who was released under licence on home detention curfew. I am also grateful for the help she gave her constituent and the liaison that she undertook with officials to help sort out what was going wrong with that case. On the issues that she has raised, I will take up any matters that I can to ensure that the system is working as well as possible.

Inquiries suggest that this was an isolated case. I will explain why in a moment. As my hon. Friend said, her constituent's licence was revoked when it appeared that he was absent for an entire curfew period of 12 hours. As a result, he was recalled to prison. He appealed against that decision, the monitoring equipment was tested and found to be faulty, and he was released. I share my hon. Friend's concern at what happened, and want to tell her about some of the steps that we have taken to prevent a recurrence.

I will first explain how the home detention curfew scheme and electronic monitoring works in general, and then set out the facts in this case and the action that we have taken in response. The scheme was provided for by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, and began to operate

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in January 1999. As my hon. Friend recognised, the scheme's aim is to ease the transition of prisoners from custody to the community by enabling short-term prisoners to serve up to the last two months of the custodial part of their sentence in the community, subject to an electronically monitored curfew. Most prisoners serving sentences of between three months and four years are eligible for release under the scheme. As my hon. Friend said, the prison governor decides on behalf of the Secretary of State whether a prisoner can be released on HDC. The decision is made on the basis of a stringent, robust risk assessment that takes into account the risk of harm to the public, the risk of re-offending during the curfew period and the likelihood of compliance with the curfew.

The law requires a minimum curfew of nine hours a day for released prisoners. In practice, as was the case for my hon. Friend's constituent, the curfew is normally 12 hours, typically running from around 7 pm to 7 am. I think that it was 7.15 pm to 7.15 am in this case. The electronic monitoring of those under curfew is carried out by private sector companies, such as Reliance, under contract to the Home Office. They provide a complete service, supplying and maintaining tagging equipment, monitoring compliance with the curfew and following up any breaches. Those are reported to the Prison Service's sentence enforcement unit, which exercises on behalf of the Secretary of State the power to revoke a licence and recall a curfewee to prison.

On the day of release from prison, the contractors visit the released prisoner at the curfew address. They fit a tag, usually around the offender's ankle, and install a monitoring unit at that address. The tag sends a signal to the monitoring unit at frequent intervals. The signal is sent down the telephone line to a central computer at the monitoring centre, also operated by the contractor. The tag is calibrated to the monitoring unit, so that if the person goes out of range—in practice, goes outside the house where the unit is located—the signal is not received. The monitoring staff are then alerted to begin enforcement procedures. As standard practice, those involve a telephone call and a visit if necessary. If the available evidence suggests that the curfewee has breached the conditions of the licence, it can be revoked and the curfewee recalled to prison.

I turn from the general position to my hon. Friend's constituent, who was released on home detention curfew on 4 September to an address in Reading. His curfew was due to expire on 19 October. In accordance with procedure, staff from the monitoring company visited him on 4 September to fit the tag and install the monitoring equipment. That was completed successfully, and the equipment at that stage—and apparently for most of the licence period—was working properly.

On 11 October, at the start of the curfew period at 7.15 pm, the computer at the monitoring centre recorded an absence of signal from the tag. The contractor's staff tried to telephone my hon. Friend's constituent at 7.24 pm and 7.47 pm, but there was no answer. A visit was scheduled to the curfew address. Records indicate that that took place between 1.20 am and 1.30 am on 12 October. The staff were unable to enter the premises. I take my hon. Friend's point—it is a matter that I will follow up—that it is unclear exactly what occurred during that visit: whether the door was

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knocked and there was no answer, or whether further efforts were made. I think that the door was knocked but I am not clear whether anything else was done.

The central computer continued to record an absent signal until the end of the curfew period at 7.15 am on 12 October. The contractor reported that to the sentence enforcement unit. Inquiries were made of the prison from which the person was released, the probation service, the contractor and the police. The inquiries showed that the absence was not authorised and the licence was revoked that day in accordance with the law. My hon. Friend's constituent was arrested that evening and transferred to prison the following day. He subsequently appealed against the revocation.

On 15 October, the contractor's staff retrieved and tested the tag that my hon. Friend's constituent had been wearing from the prison to which he was returned. They discovered that the tag was in dormant mode. That is the mode in which the tag operates when it is not in use to monitor people, and when it has been removed from one person before being fitted to another. That prevents the accumulation of unnecessary data and means that the tag does not send a signal to the monitoring unit. The tag resets itself from time to time as a precautionary response to any possible interference with its power supply, although it is programmed to continue normal operation. As far as we are aware, this is the first occasion that a tag has reset itself to dormant mode, rather than being programmed to do so by the contractor's staff when it is not in use. We do not yet know why that happened in this case, and the contractor has asked the manufacturers to examine the tag.

The contractor notified the sentence enforcement unit of the tag's fault. That cast doubt on the safety of the revocation of the individual's licence and, consequently, his appeal was upheld and he was released from prison on 18 October.

The malfunction of even a single tag of the many that are fitted is a matter of concern. We discussed that with the contractor and relevant operating procedures have changed as a response. In future, on all occasions when a tag resets itself, the contractor's staff will visit the curfewee to replace the tag and return it to the manufacturer. That will ensure that a tag cannot reset itself to dormant mode and continue to be worn by a curfewee.

I realise that that will be of little consolation to the individual in this case and to his family. However, as I said at the outset, the incident seems to be isolated and action has been taken to prevent a recurrence.

Over the past 12 months, the sentence enforcement unit received 71 appeals against revocation of licences. That is 10 per cent. of the 700 revocations that were

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made during the same period. We conducted a manual sift of all appeals, which revealed that only eight of the 71 prisoners who appealed claimed that the breach arose because of equipment failure. Only eight people claimed that the breach was technical. All eight cases were investigated fully. In only one case—unfortunately that of my hon. Friend's constituent—was the breach found to have arisen from a fault in the equipment. The most common finding in the other seven cases was that the tag had been deliberately damaged or cut off by the person himself. I accept that such information is not necessarily helpful to the person under discussion, but I am confident, because of our subsequent inquiries, that this is the only case in which the tag was responsible for what seemed to be a breach that resulted in the consequences described.

On a more general note, my hon. Friend is aware, notwithstanding the unfortunate circumstances of the case, of what an important role home detention curfew plays in enabling offenders to make the transition from custody to the community more effectively. More than 40,000 people have been released on home detention curfew, with only a small minority—less than 5 per cent.—having their licences revoked for one reason or another. Indeed, within that 5 per cent., the number of people whose licences have been revoked because of a serious issue, such as committing an offence, is smaller still and is less than 2 per cent.

The system has a success rate of more than 90 per cent. It helps prisoners to make the transition, which is important if we are to resettle offenders effectively back into their families and communities and help them to resume life without further offending.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. I shall investigate whether we can clarify procedures and make them as robust as possible. We want contractors to telephone or make contact in response to an apparent breach. I hope that she accepts that we have followed up her point systematically.

Jane Griffiths : Can my hon. Friend assure me that the obligation on offenders to answer telephone calls and to allow access is made clear? It has become apparent in my investigations that such a procedure has not been made clear to those on release.

Beverley Hughes : I assure my hon. Friend that I shall check that the offender's responsibilities are clearly understood and that there is a proper procedure whereby we can ensure that we have a record of individuals having the process fully explained to them so that there is no misunderstanding. I thank my hon. Friend for helping us to improve a successful system even further.

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