Examination of Witnesses (Questions (20-39)
WEDNESDAY 18 SEPTEMBER 2002
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
windowsor worseout, 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 nuisancevery substantial
and frightening nuisanceparticularly 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
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 packageif we canthen 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.
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)muggingshas
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 partnersnot just the police but partners such
as the Crown Prosecution Service, Court Services, Youth Justice
Board, probation, prison and preventative servicesat 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
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 concernwhich the Secretary of State for Health
and I are dealing withthat 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 Secretaryjust one issue relating to itthe
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 nowvery limited oneswhere that
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 ensurerelative to everything we have seen
in the past and building on the safeguards, including the 1984
codesthat 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.
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
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
(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 Augustthese 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 Healthvery
helpful discussionsas 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
(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.
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
(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
(Mr Blunkett) No, there certainly is not.
David Winnick: Thank you.
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 optionsa menufor
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 daythis is the
bottom lineone of the functions of the Prison Service is
(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