Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions (20-39)



  20. But it would be a relatively simple task to include an age limit on the use of weapons.
  (Mr Blunkett) I think it would be simpler than some of the other measures, and given that most people claim that they are doing this for leisure, target practice, yet we find on our estates there is the danger that it is being used to take people's windows—or worse—out, then we need to be rigorous in looking at how we can reduce that danger.


  21. On air weapons could I just bounce one other argument off you, Home Secretary? Are you aware that in some police forces more than half the call-outs of armed response units are in response to incidents involving air weapons? That is obviously an extremely expensive diversion of resources.
  (Mr Blunkett) It is expensive, and it raises the broader issue of the enormity of the anti-social behaviour that accompanies it. The American research Broken Windows is a bit too appropriate here, in terms of what actually happens as well as physical danger to people. Of course, in your neck of the woods, Chair, you have had an incident not too far away from your constituency of this sort, which is a terrific tragedy and of tremendous regret. However, a lot of it is associated with nuisance—very substantial and frightening nuisance—particularly for older people. We do need to be quite robust, I think, in protecting the police from the misuse of their time and, at the same time, being able to enforce what I was describing a moment ago as a tighter and tougher role.

  22. Just on timing. Can you suggest any timescale for doing something about air weapons?
  (Mr Blunkett) I have asked Bob Ainsworth, who is a junior minister, to come back with recommendations to me during the course of the autumn, and I think if we can get all-party agreement on a sensible package—if we can—then we could persuade the offices of the House that we would not inconvenience people by being able to act sooner rather than later.

  Chairman: Thank you, that is very helpful. Can we turn now to street crime.

David Winnick

  23. Home Secretary, is street crime under control? Can people go about their lawful business with less fear of being mugged and robbed?
  (Mr Blunkett) The answer to the first question is not yet and the answer to the second is yes, they can be less fearful than they were in January, February, March, because the incidence of robbery and snatch theft (as we know it)—muggings—has actually reduced by around 70 a day. So there is optimism that we are making progress, but we have still got a long way to go.

  24. Do you feel that that meets the Prime Minister's statement earlier this year: "As a result of the additional measures that we are taking on street crime we will indeed . . . by the end of September get street crime under control"?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, I am optimistic. I want to publish the full figures, and we will publish totally comprehensive data dealing with the six-month period in October as soon as it is collated, to build on the interim figures I published, which I did in order to try and get some balance into the discussion. If we fail we should be big enough to say so. If we are not meeting targets we should admit it and we should look collaboratively with the partners—not just the police but partners such as the Crown Prosecution Service, Court Services, Youth Justice Board, probation, prison and preventative services—at how we can do that, but when we are making some progress I think it is important for the motivation and morale of the police and their partners to be able to say so. That is why we published the interim figures through to the end of August. The two key indicators are a direct comparison with the same period last year and a comparison with the period immediately before the initiative began. In London it began two months earlier, and the figures for London reflect the downward pressure and the learning curve which means that the longer you do this in this particular intensive period the more successful you are.

  25. Is it not very alarming, Home Secretary, that amongst the offenders there is a growing number whose ages are about 10, 11 to 14, who seem totally out of control and do, in fact, cause mayhem in the areas in which they operate? Do you see any solution to that sort of problem?
  (Mr Blunkett) First and foremost, to actually send the right signals. So the introduction immediately earlier this summer of Section 130[1] to ensure that 12 to 16-year-olds could be dealt with in that rigorous fashion, in terms of when they are picked up and secured when they have been repeat offenders, is I think very important. There is an issue, which I have raised myself, about 10 to 12-year-olds and the way in which we need to operate with social services on being able to provide not just secure placements but actually intervention at a time when both the child is at risk because they are children and the public is at risk. We need both in balance. Incidents that are widely reported, as earlier in the year, about multiple low-level offending by 10 to 11-year olds, give rise to a real concern—which the Secretary of State for Health and I are dealing with—that intervention has not been forthcoming, and there is no excuse for it not happening.


  26. Turning very briefly to the Criminal Justice White Paper, Home Secretary—just one issue relating to it—the plan to allow previous convictions to be disclosed. Will that not tempt the police to round up the "usual suspects"?
  (Mr Blunkett) I remember that that was exactly the question you asked me when I made a statement on 17 July.

  27. It was.
  (Mr Blunkett) It is a very fair question. I think it has to be dealt with by ensuring that not only the parameters of the Law Commission but any legislation that builds on that actually makes sure that in the admissibility of that evidence we are clear as to what it is we are trying to achieve. I will give you an example. In cases where a defendant may seek to discredit a witness in relation to his or her own past would lead us to believe that the disclosure of previous relevant convictions and activity would help the jury make a better decision than finding out afterwards and failing therefore to take into account that balanced approach in terms of who was telling the truth. It is just getting to the truth and, therefore, to justice that we seek, not to simply seek to get more convictions; it is to convict the guilty whilst protecting the innocent.

  28. Do you still have an open mind on this, or is your response set in stone?
  (Mr Blunkett) I have an open mind on the parameters. I am strongly in favour of getting common sense into the system in terms of previous convictions being extended because there are circumstances now—very limited ones—where that happens.

  29. At the end of the day, I am sure you would agree, there is no substitute for evidence, is there?
  (Mr Blunkett) Nothing at all. What is put in place needs to provide not only the evidence but to do so in a form that is robust enough to stand up to scrutiny otherwise we will have failed within the system. My enthusiasm for reform in the criminal justice system is not to find more innocent people guilty, it is to try and ensure—relative to everything we have seen in the past and building on the safeguards, including the 1984 codes—that we do not allow more guilty people to go from the courts without a conviction and, therefore, to put the community at risk. We do in our adversarial system have a situation where if we are not careful it is a contest between clever lawyers and not a seeking of the truth.

  30. I think we all accept that, Home Secretary. Tempting though it is, we should not cut corners, should we?
  (Mr Blunkett) No, I agree entirely with that.

  Chairman: Prison overcrowding. We are leaping about here, Home Secretary, but once we come to rest on asylum and immigration we shall not move.

Mrs Dean

  31. Home Secretary, earlier you mentioned the additional funding in the 2002 budget which will provide an extra 2,300 prison places. Could you say how soon you expect those to be available and are you worried that there is a crisis brewing in the meantime?
  (Mr Blunkett) A thousand of those places should be on stream by October. I expect that by the spring we will have got all those places operational. I believe that there is enormous pressure on the Prison Service; the figures today are 71,844. These are very substantially higher than any estimates that existed previously, and this is despite the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and I being clear about greater consistency, reducing variation in sentencing across the country, proportionality in terms of non-violent first offences and the need to understand that the objective is to prevent re-offending as well as to provide punishment and rehabilitation. So we are undoubtedly facing an enormous challenge. In talking to my equivalent ministers in other European countries the trend is also upwards there, albeit from a much lower base. As Members of this Committee who have been around for some time will know, we have risen from around 50,000 prison places in the mid-90s to this figure today of over 71,000, which is an exponential rise. Unfortunately it has not been matched by a reduction in offending. So we might draw some lessons from that.

  32. You mention the need to prevent re-offending. Are you not concerned that the overcrowding that there is is actually going to impede the targets we have for treatment and for full useful activity?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, I am. I am very keen indeed that we should place emphasis on the offending behaviour programmes, on adult learning and on the work-based programmes leading to the job opportunities. For example I took part, with the Department of Work and Pensions, in launching a new programme at Lewes Prison in August—these are excellent initiatives which can be undermined by what might be described euphemistically as "musical cells" where the pressure at local level displaces longer term prisoners from the local facility and, thereby, disrupts the programmes which are crucial to avoiding re-offending and, therefore, to protecting the public. It is quite difficult to have a rational debate about prisons, regrettably, because if you are not consistently in favour of extremely long sentences for everything from shoplifting all the way through to dangerousness, then you are judged to be either irrational or inconsistent. It would help if people just took a deep breath and were able to see this proportionately.

  Mrs Dean: Thank you.


  33. Just on juvenile places, successive Home Secretaries have always promised more places for juveniles. Are we expanding the juvenile estate?
  (Mr Blunkett) We are expanding the Prison Service places by up to 600 if required, and we are also expanding the use and facility of social services secure accommodation which is intensively supervised. I would like us to look with the Department of Health at how to deal with adolescents with mental health problems. There is a very real issue here about the behaviour of those in their teenage years who, if we do not get a grip of it then, become highly dangerous and ill adults who re-offend for the rest of their lives. I know that the Secretary of State is keen on this. We are in intensive discussions with the Department of Health—very helpful discussions—as I was when I was Education and Employment Secretary about adult literacy and the adult education programmes in prison, about stepping up the investment in and the relevance of our health programmes, in both the prison and juvenile estate. I think we can do a much better job than has been done in the past on this.

  34. While everybody will accept the point you make about taking a deep breath before one discusses prisons, and the virtues or otherwise of prisons, it is a fact, is it not, that we have a problem with this repeat failure of some juvenile offenders, who walk down the steps of the court and start committing their offences within a matter of an hour or two of leaving the dock?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, we do. That is why the introduction of Section 130 was important. It was intended to bring it in in 2004. We have strange time scales, I discovered, in my department, which I am doing something about. We also need intensive supervision to work effectively, and the Youth Justice Board with our department has been working very well on the development of intensive supervision, including the way in which police can now check on whether someone is actually where they say they are and have access to the home. We had interesting discussions with those engaged in this at court level, about ensuring the legality of the police being able to check when a member of the family declared that the person could not show themselves because they were in the bath or they had suddenly fallen asleep in bed. We have overcome that, so the supervision programmes with tagging can actually be made to work effectively. I was amused when I first came in to find that there had been a case of a man who had had a tag placed on his wooden leg and, as a consequence, he was able to leave the leg at home and go out enjoying himself. I hope we have got over that era.

David Winnick

  35. I wonder, Home Secretary, if the Prison Minister and others in your department have read the booklet which has just been issued by the Prison Reform Trust called Prison Overcrowding?
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes. I was with him yesterday evening at an Inside Out Trust reception and know that he has. I have got a great deal of respect for the Prison Reform Trust; they act in a very responsible and rational way and, as a consequence, what they say is taken a great deal more seriously than those who never come up with solutions.

  36. Of course, the Trust is chaired by one of your predecessors as Home Secretary. I just quote simply this: "... visitors felt that overcrowding was getting worse by the day and that prison conditions were going to further deteriorate as a result." There is no room for complacency there, is there?
  (Mr Blunkett) No, there certainly is not.

  David Winnick: Thank you.

Mr Watson

  37. While we are on the subject of reports, Home Secretary, the Prime Minister's favourite think tank, the IPPR, published a report over the summer suggesting that thousands of prisoners should not be in prison in the first place. Do you have similar respect for their views on this matter?
  (Mr Blunkett) I am addressing the issue from the angle of developing a whole range of options—a menu—for magistrates and district judges to be able to choose, especially within community sentencing, what to do. The White Paper, as you are aware, actually suggests a range of measures, from custody minus, which would actually hold the offer of further action over the heads of those who are placed on community sentences, and the way in which we want to mix community and custodial sentences more effectively with part-week sentencing programmes, particularly reducing the number of women prisoners, which has risen exponentially and keeping the family together to try and keep people in their job when they have committed minor offences and having greater consistency. I accepted very little of the rhetoric around the IPPR report, which seemed to me to be both ill-founded and out-of-date.


  38. Just sticking with this point, finally, Home Secretary, we all accept, do we not, that, sad though it is, there is a core of criminal youths who are too badly damaged to be re-educated and in relation to whom our constituents just need a rest from their activities?
  (Mr Blunkett) I could not have put it better myself. That is how it was put to me in my surgeries, which is why it is so good to hold surgeries because you see the real world.

  39. At the end of the day—this is the bottom line—one of the functions of the Prison Service is containment.
  (Mr Blunkett) Yes, it is, but it needs to be containment with rehabilitation, where necessary, with mental health and drug treatment. I would just conclude by saying that the issue of drug treatment and consequent rehabilitation is a critical issue. The arrest referral programmes are proving to be at least successful enough to be able to begin to bottom our problems. The treatment programmes within prison have been massively extended and there is the important follow-through in terms of release. I think that we have got a long way to go but at least there is an understanding now of how crucial this is.

1   Note by witness: Of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. Back

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