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4 Dec 2002 : Column 978—continued

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): Would the hon. Lady care to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), who spoke about the situation in the US? Over the past few years, longer sentences have led directly to a decrease in crime there. What is the hon. Lady's response to that?

Mrs. Brooke: I have a coherent argument, from which I shall not digress. However, when we talk about shorter sentences, we are talking about sentences that are of less than 12 months. I would need much more specific information about the length of the sentences involved before I responded to the hon. Gentleman's question.

Last week, the Howard League for Penal Reform won a judicial review against the Home Office. The High Court decided that the Children Act 1989 applied to children held in prison. Today, I saw for the first time the press statement issued by the Home Secretary, and one sentence leaped off the page at me. I was somewhat horrified. It said:

The matter is very important, as this was an historic judgment. To be fair to the Home Secretary, I should add that the statement goes on to say that there is deep concern and that many things need to be improved.

We are talking about reforming the criminal justice system, but what are we doing to improve the treatment of children? The criminal justice system should treat the children who come before the courts as children whose behaviour has been unacceptable, rather than as criminals who happen to be children. The Bill is sometimes not clear about whether its provisions would apply to minors as well as adults. That problem will need much scrutiny.

For example, mention has been made of the definition of bad character. I am not sure about whether that applies to minors. I would also like the alcohol treatment requirement to be applied to minors, but that is not entirely clear. It seems unbalanced that under-18s can be eligible for drug testing and treatment but not for alcohol treatment, but we know that alcohol is an enormous problem among young people.

I always like to welcome the many positive initiatives in our local communities that the Government have introduced. I know that some people have concerns about proposals for parent orders and that there are questions about them, but research shows that they have produced very good results. Similarly, there are questions about referral orders, but we need to consider the research.

Individual support orders will accompany antisocial behaviour orders. As I have said many times, I dislike the idea of having a stop measure alone, without accompanying measures. I will be interested to see what is involved in an individual support order.

Being tough on crime has the connotation of locking more and more people up. It costs the taxpayer a great deal of money and, in certain circumstances,

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it reinforces criminal behaviour. At least one newspaper report has suggested that the changes proposed in the Bill could result in having more than 100,000 prisoners before the end of the decade. That would cost an extra £2 billion a year on top of the £3 billion a year that the Prison Service already costs us.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Brooke: I should like to make progress.

Some proposals in the Bill could have advantages, such as that to introduce a new indeterminate sentence for serious violent offenders. In very exceptional circumstances, and with certain caveats, that could have advantages, for example, it would enable an offender's progress to be regularly reviewed during a prison sentence so that he could be released if and when it was safe so to do. However, it is important that there is ultimately a court decision on that offender.

In principle, I welcome the new custody plus sentence, which will ensure that short-term prisoners are subject to supervision on release. At present, short-term prisoners receive little in the way of rehabilitation while in prison and are not under supervision when they leave. Not surprisingly, they have a high rate of reconviction and are responsible for much of the high-volume crime that is so troublesome and distressing. However, if custody plus sentencing is to be successful, it must be backed by resources to fund probation service supervision and efforts by voluntary agencies to help with accommodation, employment and mentoring. That is crucial to prevent reoffending.

I recently raised with the Department the issue of adequate funding in relation to early release with tagging. I was given the impression that the money was being spent. However, a number of agencies and organisations share my concern about resources. Indeed, it will take time to recruit and train sufficient probation officers even with adequate resourcing. The Howard League for Penal Reform suggests that the proposal should be deferred until it can be delivered properly. That would be a shame because it is a good proposal, but it shows the strength of concern about the need for probation officers to be in place to make tagging work properly.

There is a risk with the custody plus sentence in so far as the courts may find it an attractive proposition for offenders who currently receive community sentences. It is crucial that the sentencing framework strongly dissuades courts from passing short-term prison sentences as opposed to a straightforward community sentence. There are opportunities to develop excellent practices across the country with community sentencing. We need to avoid a situation in which more people end up in prison because they have defaulted on a community sentence. To my mind, having a tough community sentence means having a good one that works—people stay on it and it leads to a reformation of behaviour.

I have some doubts about the proposed intermittent custody sentences. There is an attraction in the argument that offenders will be able to maintain jobs, family ties and education. The burden on society is less

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and there are positive contributions. However, an offender considered for such a punishment will not be perceived as a threat to society. I wonder whether it is right to put such people into our already overcrowded prisons, creating extra administrative burdens and burdens relating to travel. Will it be a workable proposal?

The proposal to empower magistrates courts to pass prison sentences of up to 12 months could also prove to be a mixed blessing. It will reduce waiting times on remand if offenders who would otherwise have been committed to the Crown court are dealt with by magistrates instead, but there is the possibility that magistrates may pass prison sentences of nine or 12 months where the Crown courts might have imposed a community sentence or a shorter prison sentence. We must be very sure about our guidelines.

I believe that it is important to have consistent leaderships at all levels to support a reduced use of custody in appropriate circumstances to make sentencing truly make sense. I am excluding serious and dangerous offenders from my comments, because I agree with other hon. Members that imprisonment should be a penalty of last resort when no other sentence is adequate for the protection of the public and the severity of the crime. It is so important to develop well-supported, worthwhile community sentences with the objective of being smart on crime. Above all, we need to be effective on the causes of crime by tackling them with better educational, housing and employment opportunities and well-structured youth programmes. These issues must not be forgotten when changes are made to the criminal justice system. The early intervention through sure start is a major breakthrough and we are beginning to see excellent work with crime and disorder partnerships and the youth offending teams. However, there is so much more to be done, and we must not forget that while we are debating the details of the Bill.

8.7 pm

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West): I would like to turn the focus of the debate on to the victims and communities suffering from crime, as that does not seem to have been addressed so far. Those communities and people, in working-class and deprived areas, face crime on a daily basis. They face crime committed against their families, themselves and the wider community. They will understand and support the measures in the Bill. Those are the people for whom I wish to speak today.

Those people understand implicitly the comments of the Home Secretary when he said recently that when the criminal justice system works badly, everyone suffers. He said that at the moment, too many offenders escape justice and cases drop out at every stage of the process, often because of court practices that need modernising or because of tactical manoeuvres designed to disrupt the justice process and secure acquittal of the guilty. The fundamental principle remains that the prosecution must prove its case, but that does not mean that the system should enable a defendant to obstruct justice by inaction or by abuse of the system.

The people with whom I am concerned understand that only a fifth of the cases taken up by the police result in conviction. They know that the criminal justice

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system is letting them down. It is to them that we owe a duty to improve the system and to improve the quality of their life and security, which is impaired by crime every day.

I support the measures in the Bill with very few reservations. I will comment briefly on only a few because of the time constraints.

Clause 3 allows for street bail, which should give police officers greater flexibility in dealing with offenders. A Library research paper noted that if only 10 per cent. of arrests were dealt with in that way, 390,000 patrol officer hours could be saved—equivalent to 200 police officer posts. That potential alone should recommend the clause.

Clause 5 will extend the detention time limit for any arrestable offence to a maximum of 36 hours. That period applies only to serious offences at present. Although I am not fully convinced of the need for the proposal, I am prepared to accept the contention of the Association of Chief Police Officers that the initial detention period may provide insufficient time for the investigation due to delays elsewhere in the custody process; for example, when intoxication renders a suspect unfit for interview, the provision will be helpful.

Clause 23 deals with conditions on bail before a charge is made. I concur fully with the conclusion of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which states:

Clause 84 is one of the most controversial elements of the Bill. It will allow evidence of a defendant's bad character to be admissible automatically in a range of specified circumstances. I take a simple view of that matter—as will my constituents. Most of them cannot understand why a person's record is not revealed automatically, and I agree with them.

Many of my constituents have heard criminals outside the court boast about their criminal record. What is good enough outside court should be good enough in court. No one has thrust a criminal record at such people. They gain their CV of their own accord by breaking the law, so my constituents and I believe that their full CV should be available to the law when they appear in court.

Although I should like to refer to many other clauses, I shall speak briefly on double jeopardy and then on trial by jury. It would be completely intolerable if the murderer of a child was acquitted and subsequently DNA evidence became available. My community could not support that and nor could I. I do not understand the principle involved. If somebody commits a heinous crime and evidence—especially DNA evidence—crops up later, why should that person get away with their crime? Why should not the state have a second bite at that cherry?

If such people are acquitted, it is because they have lied to the court. Why should people be allowed to benefit from lying to the court? My constituents cannot understand that and nor can I. If people have lied to the court and new and compelling evidence has been uncovered, we should have a second chance to hear the case.No one should benefit from lies. No one should escape the consequences of their crime.

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The proposals on trial by jury are not a complete assault on the jury system. The provision is small but positive and deals with lengthy and complex issues. They may involve intimidation of jurors, terrorism cases, gangsterism or organised crime. If juries are intimidated, it is right and proper that cases should not fall by the wayside or be affected by such actions.

Finally, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the reasoned and reasonable way in which he introduced the Bill to the House. I wish him and his team every success in steering the Bill to a successful conclusion.

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