Draft Release of Short-Term Prisoners on Licence (Amendment of Requisite Period) Order 2002

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Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I thank the Minister for his introduction. I share many of the concerns of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and shall try not to be repetitive. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the measure was part of a structured plan or a knee-jerk reaction. That is the nub of the matter. None of us wants overcrowded prisons, which cannot work. On the other hand, we need a strategy.

It seems that there is a desperation to tackle the crisis in our prisons. One asks whether the problem is one of insufficient investment in prisons, inappropriate settings for juveniles and people who have mental health problems or inappropriate sentencing. I should like to see the whole picture. What is our aim? In principle, I have no problem with the extension of the scheme because, with a properly planned approach and sufficient investment in the community, it offers a great deal. However, we must question the motivation, because we want to ensure that adequate resources are put into the scheme to make it a success.

We are talking about extending 60 days in the community to 90 days. Lengthening the time makes the surveillance and support that much more important. Not only is there the possible loss of access to training facilities in the prison, but it is a long time to be without support programmes in the community.

We all accept that subsequent reoffending is not as frequent while the tag is in place, but I am very disappointed that I cannot get statistics about it. I hope that the Minister may be able to help me with that. When I asked parliamentary questions in an effort to get some idea of the track record of various prisoners—for example, how many have been in young offenders institutions before they move on—I kept getting the answer that the statistics were not held centrally. I accept that I may not be asking my parliamentary questions in the proper way. However, although many people have concerns and would like to see the overall picture, my perhaps rather simplistic questions have not really got to the core of the matter. How much reoffending is there? There should be tracking of individuals through the different institutions. Unfortunately, many almost spend a life

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in various prison institutions—certainly until some age of maturity.

I, too, have a series of questions, and the Minister may want to reply to some in writing because they relate to the current situation, not the new one. I am not sure what the current monitoring involves. Is it just keeping an eye on any response on the tag, or is anything attached to that? How much supervision is there? I am aware that short-term prisoners do not get probation support if their sentences last less than 12 months. In the new proposals for custody plus, which I welcome, there is a proposal to provide probation support for those serving sentences lasting less than 12 months. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify that. I should like that measure to be tied to the one that we are discussing today, to ensure an overall strategy and cohesion.

The Minister will know what my next question is. The prediction for custody plus is that there will need to be another 3,000 to 4,000 probation officers. If we are to include that in the programme as well, with extra probation support, where are the resources? What is the time horizon? We shall not find probation officers out on the street; it will take quite a long time to bring them on stream. I am very committed to an effective probation service in this country, and it is vital to get that investment right.

A prisoner released with a tag will have a fixed home address. I imagine that that is almost inevitably the home address from whence the offender came. I do not know how much work has been done on that, and I should like the Minister to address it. If after a very short time someone, especially a young person in a set community, is returned to a place where it was difficult to keep away from crime there might be difficulties. There should be research into the background, and there should be not just a fixed address, but something that will really be supportive. Once the tags are removed, what guarantee is there of permanent accommodation? Will there be more homeless young people with difficult problems?

I emphasise that the approach is holistic. The probation service, the social workers, and organisations such as the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders need resources because we all want the rate of reoffending cut. I commend the Government for the emphasis that they have put on early investment in pre-school years, which I think is at the core. That will take time to work through. No one says that everything will work instantly, but personally, I do not see the overall strategy. It looks reactive, but there are tremendous opportunities to include those important support mechanisms and save young people.

10.18 am

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Taylor. I have a couple of nuts-and-bolts points. The first concerns the tests of suitability and eligibility. I realise that certain prisoners are excluded from home detention curfew. Nevertheless, I should like to know how the criteria in those cases are measured. What considerations do those who measure them take into account? I presume

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that one is behaviour in prison, but are other matters considered to determine who is a suitable and eligible prisoner to have the opportunity of spending a final part of his sentence on electronic curfew at his home address?

The second matter is the actual tagging. Who monitors the tagging? Is it the police, the prison authorities or both? We are aware, from what has been said during the debate, that there has been a small of number of breaches of curfew. Can the Minister assure us that he is entirely satisfied that the curfews and tagging are being correctly and adequately monitored? That is in the public interest as well as of interest to the Committee. I should like the Minister to address those small nuts-and-bolts matters when he winds up.

10.20 am

Hilary Benn: I welcome the spirit in which the hon. Members for Beaconsfield, for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) and for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) have contributed. This has been a brief, almost perfectly formed and extremely constructive exchange of views.

I welcome most the extent to which there is consensus on both sides of the Committee in understanding the nature of the challenge. This country is not alone in having to grapple with this problem. Last week, I met the Deputy Justice Minister of the Russian Federation, who has responsibility for the matter. That country has taken some steps to reduce its prison population, and I asked him whether the media and political parties in the Duma had given him a hard time over that. He said that no, there was a broad and emerging consensus—rather different from the position that pertained in that country in the past. I genuinely welcome such consensus because this is a big problem, with which we are all trying to deal. I am grateful that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield does not propose to divide the Committee.

First, it might help if I give the Committee the latest prison population figures. Today's figure is 72,477, which is slightly down. The figure for people in police cells is 221, which is a little lower than it was about a month ago. Speaking from memory, I think that on 25 October, the total number in police cells was 364. We have seen a very sharp rise in the prison population this year, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and during the past decade it has risen from a little more than 40,000 to its current level of more than 72,000. Although there has, interestingly, been greater use of community penalties in sentencing, that rise has resulted from greater use of custody as a disposal and the increased length of custodial sentences, and the share of fines in court disposals has declined. That is the background against which we are trying to deal with the challenge.

I shall try as quickly as possible to respond to the points raised. In answer to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, I shall make inquiries to try to identify how many of those being released under HDC might be released part way through a course. I do not know whether I can find that out, but I expect that prisons, recognising that this provision is being introduced, will be making planning arrangements to ensure that that

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does not happen. The only other point that I can make on that is that because of this measure there are fewer people in prison, which frees up space—by which I mean time for prison officers to do more work with the remaining prisoners. There is a balance to be struck, and the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the importance of work done with prisoners through offending behaviour programmes. He will be aware of the much wider range of such programmes, and drug treatment, available in prisons now than in the past.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the range of offences. I know that we have published figures on that before, and I will gladly write to him with the latest information.

Mr. Grieve: There is a related matter, which I should perhaps have raised earlier. The Minister has said that 600 people will be released initially under the scheme, but what happens thereafter? Can he suggest what the weekly level will be? He has helpfully provided figures on how many are being released under the HDC scheme, but can he tell the Committee how many more will be released per week once the initial block of 600 has gone?

Hilary Benn: Rather than invent a figure off the top of my head, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on that. The weekly releases tend to move up and down a little, and we monitor the trends carefully. In the end, the number of releases depends on the sum total of the assessments made by prison governors. That answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon.

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