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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Release of Short-Term Prisoners on Licence (Repeal of Age Restriction) Order 2003

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First Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

Monday 23 June 2003

[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Draft Release of Short-Term Prisoners
on Licence (Repeal of Age Restriction) Order 2003

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Release of Short-Term Prisoners on Licence (Repeal of Age Restriction)
    Order 2003.

The purpose of the order is to extend the home detention curfew scheme to offenders aged under 18 who are serving sentences of detention under section 91 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. Although it is not expected that the change will affect a large number of individuals, it will remove an anomaly in the current provisions and might assist in the resettlement of certain juvenile offenders.

The home detention curfew scheme was introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and has been in operation for adults throughout England and Wales since January 1999. Under the scheme, prisoners serving sentences of three months or more, but fewer than four years, who are not subject to any of the statutory exclusions and who pass a risk assessment may be released early under an electronically monitored curfew. Prisoners must be curfewed for a minimum of nine hours a day, although most curfews run overnight for 12 hours—from 7 pm to 7 am.

Parliament recently approved a separate order, the release of Short-Term Prisoners on Licence (Amendment of Requisite Period) Order 2003, that, from 14 July, will extend the period of HDC to a maximum of four and a half months. The length of HDC depends to some extent on sentence length and is subject to a minimum of a quarter of the sentence being served in custody.

Section 91 of the 2000 Act relates to offenders aged under 18 who have been convicted of certain serious offences. That covers a range of offences, including those that attract sentences of 14 years or more in the case of an adult, indecent assault and, in the case of 15 to 17-year-olds, causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs. A juvenile convicted on indictment of any of those offences is liable to be sentenced for up to the adult maximum for the offence, although in practice the Crown court will always take account of the age of the offender when passing sentence.

When the home detention scheme was first introduced, the power to release on licence was limited to short-term prisoners aged 18 or over, with a power enabling the Secretary of State to repeal the age restriction by an order subject to affirmative resolution. Short-term prisoners include those sentenced to detention under section 91 of the 2000

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Act. Under-18s were originally excluded from the scheme, principally because at the time electronic monitoring was less well established in relation to juveniles and there was some still general anxiety about its use with young offenders. The Government therefore decided to await the evaluation of the pilots of curfew orders with electronic monitoring for juveniles aged 10 to 15, which was introduced by the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. Since then, the pilots have been judged a success and that disposal has been made available throughout England and Wales.

The use of electronic monitoring for under-18s is becoming increasingly widespread. In addition to the curfew order, juveniles may now be tagged on bail, and as part of a supervision order or community rehabilitation order. In May 2002, electronic monitoring was introduced as part of the early release scheme under the detention and training order. The detention and training order, which is governed by a separate set of legislative provisions to section 91 of the 2000 Act, is the main custodial sentence for under-18s and is served partly in custody and partly in the community. Offenders serving sentences of eight months or more who meet the eligibility criteria are released one or two months early on an electronic tag.

Current litigation, to which I cannot refer in detail because the case is still proceeding, has highlighted the fact that, despite those developments, offenders aged under 18 who are serving sentences under section 91 remain ineligible for HDC, although they become eligible once they turn 18. That is a clear anomaly, so the Government have decided that it is appropriate to extend HDC to the under-18 age group.

Juveniles will be subject to the same eligibility criteria as adults. Certain statutory exclusions will apply, for example, to sex offenders subject to the registration requirements of the Sex Offenders Act 1997. Those individuals cannot be considered for HDC regardless of their behaviour in custody. Offenders who are serving sentences for certain other serious offences will be presumed unsuitable for release unless there are exceptional circumstances. Those offences include manslaughter, attempted murder, possession of a firearm with intent, possession of an offensive weapon, serious explosives offences, child cruelty and all racially aggravated offences. That will also apply to prisoners with a history of sexual offending.

Furthermore, no offender will be released unless a risk assessment has been fully completed and appropriate supervision plans are in place. As with all cases of HDC, if the curfew is breached after release, swift action will be taken. Offenders who breach the curfew will be recalled to spend the remaining part of their custodial period in custody.

Given the nature of the offending to which section 91 applies, it is unlikely that many juveniles will be granted HDC, but it is appropriate that they should be eligible for consideration. HDC is proving successful and can be a valuable tool in influencing offenders' behaviour in the early weeks following release, particularly as regards the development of self-discipline and an ordered lifestyle. HDC could

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enable juveniles to return to their families sooner and to resume education or training, thereby helping them to make a smoother and more effective transition to the community and to rebuild their lives.

Having set out the reasoning for this minor change to the HDC provisions, I commend the order to the Committee.

4.37 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike, and I reassure the Minister that it will not take long to deal with the order. Broadly speaking, I have no reason to do nothing other than welcome it, particularly given his satisfaction with the way in which the tagging scheme has worked to date for over-18s, and his comments on its use for under-18s in a number of more limited circumstances, such as bail and detention and training orders.

However, I should like clarification on a number of matters. I suspect that it is no coincidence that the number of orders that we have seen in the last few months in relation to extending the release of short-term prisoners on licence for tagging purposes has coincided with a serious crisis in the prison population. It would be useful if the Minister could say how that crisis has applied to the juvenile estate and give the current figures for it, so that the Committee can understand the current state of overcrowding in young offender institutions. I take it from what he said that the number of those granted HDC will be limited, but presumably there is a Home Office estimate of how many young persons are likely to be released under the provisions and what impact that might have on the population of young offender institutions. It would be helpful if the Committee could have that information. I seem to remember the previous Under-Secretary providing us with similar information three or four months ago when we considered a similar order relating to adults who were in prison for short periods.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give further reassurance about the help that will be provided to those who are released for tagging. He already knows my view, which I suspect he shares, that tagging alone is not a panacea. It must be accompanied by rehabilitation programmes and assistance that are provided outside custody.

There is an additional problem. When young offender institutions are not hideously overcrowded, they perhaps try more than adult prisons to provide phased programmes intended to train young offenders, to rehabilitate them and to try to ensure that they do not commit further offences on their release. I do not want to stress that aspect too much, because we must face the fact that the reoffending rate for young offenders is catastrophically high and remains so, despite the many efforts of this and previous Governments to address it. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that planned programmes are essential if one is to achieve success—a point that I am sure has been brought home to the Minister, as it has to me when I have visited young offender institutions. To what extent will the release of short-term prisoners on licence for tagging interfere with planned

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programmes for those in young offender institutions? I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the Committee that that will not happen but, if it does, it will suggest that this is crisis management and a reaction to the massive overcrowding in young offender institutions and not long-term planning.

I broadly welcome the intentions behind the provisions in the order. I merely hope that they work.

4.41 pm

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike.

I also welcome the evaluation, and the fact that the curfew orders on 10 to 15-year-olds mean that heed has been taken of it. That provides a contrast to one of our earlier discussions.

It is important to be clear about the rationale behind the proposal, which is to be welcomed. It would be more welcome, however, if we were all clear about the reasons for it. I am aware of an impending court case involving alleged discrimination between a young person under 18 and an 18-year-old who might have committed the same offence, and it could be argued that this proposal is merely expedient and a question of tidying up. I hope, however, that the Minister will tell us that it is part of the overall policy and strategic framework.

Will the Minister reassure me that the Government are considering sentencing in its totality and that there is clarity and consistency in the overall policy? Members of the public become concerned when they see a sentence being given followed by a turnaround of the decision. They do not understand that. Being clear about the sentence in the first place would have more merit.

There seems to be a dichotomy between different parts of the criminal justice system and the general public, who are calling for longer and longer sentences. There are huge problems of overcrowded prisons and not very meaningful or useful attempts at rehabilitation. No children should be in prison settings, and I would certainly welcome the proposal as part of a wider move if we were no longer the capital of Europe in terms of the very large number of children in prison that we have.

I agree with the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that we need to know how many juveniles are involved. It would be very reassuring if we could be convinced that the regulations are part of an overall package that would allow us to have a coherent and credible criminal justice system.

I should like to echo the points that have been made about appropriate supervision after release. If somebody is in the middle of a course of education, that must be given prime importance, and it is vital for there to be continuity. Given that we are told that so few people are involved, would this not be an ideal opportunity to provide, in association with the voluntary sector, for each young person so released to have an individual mentor for a pilot period? That would be a brave, strong step. Does the Minister agree that that could offer a positive experience?

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I am concerned about the amount of support that will be provided. I visited Bullwood Hall some time ago, and had a long conversation with a young woman. She was slightly older than those whom we are considering, but her points were relevant.

 
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