Fourth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 21 November 2002
[Mr. David Taylor in the Chair]
Draft Release of Short-Term Prisoners on
Licence (Amendment of Requisite Period)
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Release of Short-Term Prisoners on Licence (Amendment of Requisite Period) Order 2002.
The purpose of the order is to lengthen the maximum curfew period spent by prisoners released on home detention curfew on electronic tag from 60 to 90 days.
At present, prisoners serving sentences of between three months and less than four years may be released on HDC for up to 60 days before their normal release date, subject to their serving one quarter of their sentence in custody. That means that the full 60-day period applies to all prisoners sentenced to periods of eight months or more. The effect of the order will be to increase that maximum to 90 days, still subject to prisoners serving a quarter of the sentence period in custody. In practice, the full 90-day period will apply to all prisoners serving sentences of one year or more.
The Home Secretary announced in February this year the Government's intention to increase the curfew period but, before moving ahead with the proposal, wanted to properly assess the impact of the presumptive HDC scheme launched in May. Perhaps it will reassure the Committee if I say that the Prison Service has an overriding duty to protect the public. No prisoner can be placed on HDC without first passing a risk assessment.
Under ordinary HDC, the legislation includes a statutory list of exclusions, including those convicted of violent and sex offences. Offenders required to register under the Sex Offenders Act 1997 are not eligible for home detention curfew. In the case of presumptive HDC, drug dealers and those convicted of sexual or violent offences are also excluded.
Since the scheme began in January 1999, more than 60,000 people have been released on HDC and 90 per cent. of those have successfully completed the curfew period without any problems. Less than 3 per cent. of curfewees are reported to reoffend while on curfew. HDC is also cost-effective, freeing up funds of about £37 million a year for use in other work with prisoners. The Home Secretary has statutory powers to recall any curfewee who breaches his curfew conditions or presents a risk of serious harm. Any offending by a curfewee is also a breach of their licence and can lead to a recall to prison.
Where HDC is supervised by the probation service—that applies to young offenders and those serving 12 months or more—it provides a valuable
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tool for probation officers in influencing the behaviour of former prisoners. It can be used to keep offenders out of trouble when they are most likely to get into trouble. HDC requires curfewees to develop self-discipline, so it can bring order to disordered lives.
In light of the experience of the scheme, including the presumptive scheme, which are both working, we feel that now is the right time to increase the curfew period.
Finally, I should like to say a word about the population pressures on our prisons, of which all Committee members will be well aware. Although not its primary purpose when first introduced, HDC plays an important role in managing the prison population by reducing overcrowding at the same time as improving the resettlement and rehabilitation opportunities available for less serious offenders. Already 2,500 people who would otherwise be filling prison places are serving the last part of their sentence on HDC. We expect that the extension of the curfew period will release about 600 further prison places, the equivalent of a medium-sized prison. In all cases, releases will take place only after an assessment of the risks, including the likelihood of the prisoner concluding HDC successfully. No prisoner is released when he or she is assessed as posing a risk to public safety.
In conclusion, HDC has been very successful in providing prisoners with a smoother and more effective reintegration into the community. It has enabled prisoners to be released early, while still subject to restrictions on their liberty. Increasing the curfew period will allow them to make the transition over a longer period and will help them to resume employment or training earlier.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I welcome the Minister and the comments that he has made. I do not intend to divide the Committee on the order, but I do have some concerns. It is not that I do not welcome attempts to reduce the prison population. The consensus is that it would be sensible—if, for example, we choose to implement the Halliday proposals—to ensure that alternative provision is made for short-term prisoners, in particular, to be rehabilitated and punished within the community. I am concerned, however, about the driving force behind the order. I want to know whether it is part of a structured plan to alter the way in which sentences are served or whether it is an emergency response to the major population crisis that the Prison Service faces.
I was able to get hold of the latest figures yesterday. They show that the total prison population on 15 November was 72,502. If we include those being held in police cells, the figure is 72,709. There are now 207 prisoners being held in police cells because the Prison Service has reached saturation point; otherwise, they would not be held there. That is a feature of the current crisis. In addition, the current figures show that 19.6 per cent. of the prison population share two to a cell designed for one person. Some 22.2 per cent. of the total prison population are held in what are
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described as overcrowded conditions. That includes prisoners doubled, those held three to a cell designed for two and any prisoners overcrowded in dormitories and larger cells. The average rate of doubling for the year to the end of October was 20.1 per cent.
I do not have the latest figures for the entire prison system, but I do have the July figures. They show that at Dorchester in Dorset, for example, the level of occupation was 169 per cent.; at Blantyre House in Kent, it was 154 per cent.; and at Norwich it was 140 per cent. At that time, probably only one or two prisons had 100 per cent. occupancy. The vast majority were well above their occupancy levels—some, as I have just shown, spectacularly so. That gave rise to concerns that serious problems would result from continuous overcrowding. Those concerns were expressed at the time of the disturbances in Lincoln prison. Such concerns, if nothing else, are one of the reasons why I do not propose to divide the Committee by opposing the order.
May I explain why I have anxieties about what is being done? During my numerous visits to prisons, the point has been made that the Prison Service seeks to deliver a structured programme for prisoners, within the period of their imprisonment. I am sure that the same thing has been said to the Minister. From the time that prisoners come in—with the exception of very short-term prisoners for whom little can be done—the Prison Service attempts to develop a package that will create opportunities during their period in custody for them to acquire skills and educational qualifications and to address their offending to ensure that they do not offend in future, if possible.
All those programmes are tailored to the length of the sentence that the prisoner is serving. This sudden change—albeit not in the sense that it was not forecast, because it was proposed as long ago as February—will result in the immediate release of some 600 prisoners. To what extent will that interfere with the courses that they were supposed to be undergoing while in prison? Although reoffending while tagged and on curfew has been shown to be relatively insignificant in percentage terms, the whole programme of imprisonment and rehabilitation is designed with the long-term objective of preventing reoffending. Releasing somebody in custody when he is part way through a programme to address reoffending suggests that this is an ad hoc solution taken in response to overcrowding. That may not be in the prisoner's, or society's, best interests.
Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I am curious about the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Does he have any information on the exact nature of the training that he believes people will miss out on if they are released earlier, and does he accept that there may be other ways of delivering it?
Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Of course it is possible to deliver such programmes outside, as well as inside, the custodial environment. I hope that the Minister can tell me—if not today, in writing—how many prisoners are being released, or will be released as a result of the order, while they are part way through work or rehabilitation programmes.
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The point was well made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) that it is likely that prisoners serving very short sentences do not do very much while they are in prison, and my anxieties do not centre on that. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that such structured programmes are designed to cover people serving up to four years' imprisonment, albeit excluding certain categories of offenders. Four years' imprisonment is not a short sentence, and I would expect programmes to be made available in the course of it. If they were not, it would be a matter of considerable disquiet to me as prisons spokesman for my party. In my experience of visiting prisons, many such programmes are available, especially for those serving medium-term sentences such as those of up to four years. Of course they vary in quality, but some of those that I have seen are very good. How many people will be released part way through their rehabilitation programmes?
My next question for the Minister is, again, one that he may not be able to answer today. It would be useful to know—and the public are entitled to know—the range of offences for which such early releases are taking place. No offences that get one into prison these days are minor, but they vary in seriousness. I hope that the Home Office will be able to supply statistics showing exactly the type of offences that have been committed by a person who is being released in this way.
What, in reality, happens to such people on release? We know that they will be tagged, but tagging on its own is only a mechanism of control. Admittedly it requires a degree of self-discipline, because the prisoner could break the tag and face the consequences. Irrespective of the fact that someone may lead such a chaotic lifestyle that they cannot regulate any aspect of their private life, the relatively short period for which they will be tagged—although up to 90 days is longer than previously—might encourage them to continue with the tag rather than break it. What happens to such people when they are tagged? What programmes are offered to them through the probation service or otherwise to help them continue with rehabilitation or work programmes, which they undoubtedly need? The success of this or any other scheme in our penal system depends on reducing the reoffending rate during the famous two-year period after the end of sentence. I wait to be convinced that the programmes contribute to that. We would have a reason for enthusiastically endorsing them if they were shown to do so, but we need some solid comparative study of what works in reducing reoffending rates during the two-year period. In itself, simply knowing what the person is doing during the period that he has the tag and the curfew, does not meet public anxiety about or objection to such schemes.
I do not necessarily expect the Minister to respond to all those thoughts and questions this morning and, as I said, I shall not oppose the measure. Quite apart from anything else, I am convinced that if the present level of prison overcrowding continues, there will be the potential for serious disorder problems in prisons—Lincoln appeared to be a manifestation—
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and that is in no one's interest. Therefore, I hope that the selection of those released is being done skilfully and in a way that guarantees as much as possible that the public are not exposed to any risk. Above all, I am not confident that the measure is anything other than an emergency response to dramatic overcrowding which, as the Minister will agree, was not foreseen at the end of last year. Mr. Narey himself admitted that as of the end of December last year he thought that the prison population was stable. It then started to rocket over the Christmas and new year period into 2002.
The issues are important. I shall be very grateful if the Minister would answer as many of those points as possible; otherwise, I shall pursue them through parliamentary questions.