Fourth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 22 May 2003
[Mr. Eric Illsley 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 (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Draft Release of Short-Term Prisoners on Licence (Amendment of Requisite Period) Order 2003.
As you know, Mr. Illsley, this is my first time in Committee as a Minister, and I am delighted that it is under your chairmanship. I was sounded out about my membership of this Committee two weeks ago, so I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) for playing the role that I would have played. It will always be my intention in Committee to listen as well as to explain the Government's position and to provide as much information as possible. With the assistance of our very able officials, I shall endeavour to do that today.
The purpose of the order is to lengthen the maximum curfew period spent by prisoners released on home detention curfew on electronic tag from three months to four and a half months. Home detention curfew offers eligible prisoners the opportunity to spend the final part of their sentences on curfew at their home addresses or at another approved address. During the curfew period, which is usually between 7 pm and 7 am, they are electronically monitored by means of a tagging device and may not leave their homes. The monitoring equipment is extremely reliable. A tag cannot be removed without damaging it, and it has tamper-proof mechanisms that operate in such a way that all damage is reported immediately to the tagging contractors. Those who breach the curfew are recalled to spend the remaining custodial period of their sentences in prison.
At present, prisoners serving sentences of between three months and less than four years may be released on HDC for up to three months before normal release date. All prisoners, however, must serve at least one quarter of their sentences in custody. Prisoners serving 12 months or more can receive the full three-month period on HDC under the present provisions. Those serving less than 12 months receive shorter periods of home detention. For example, someone sentenced to six months would have six weeks and someone sentenced to 10 months would have two and a half months on HDC.
The effect of the order will be to increase the maximum of three months to four and a half months, while leaving in place the requirement to serve a quarter of the sentence in custody. In practice, there will be no change for someone who is serving 12 months or less, and the full four-and-a-half-month period will apply only to prisoners who are serving sentences of 18 months or more.
It might help if I give some examples. A prisoner serving eight months will still receive two months' HDC. Prisoners serving a sentence of 14 months will, in future, serve three and a half months in custody and three and a half months on HDC. Those serving sentences of 18 months will serve four and a half months in custody and four and a half months on HDC. Finally, those serving a sentence of two years will serve seven and a half months in custody and four and a half months on HDC.
Although the order will not increase the size of the pool of prisoners who are eligible for consideration under the scheme, those released following the normal eligibility and risk assessment processes, which are extremely important, will be released for longer, so adding to the numbers on HDC at any time.
I emphasise that the prison service has an overriding duty to protect the public. No prisoner is placed on HDC without being subject to a risk assessment.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I welcome the Minister to the Committee, and I am grateful for what he said before he began his explanation. Will he help the Committee to understand how the system is working by saying what percentage of people breach the terms of their HDC?
Paul Goggins: The specific answer is that around 6 per cent. have had their licences revoked and been returned to custody since the HDC scheme began in January 1999. Overall, about 90 per cent. have been on home detention without any difficulty whatever and have seen the period through without any problem. The Home Secretary has statutory powers to recall anyone who breaches his curfew condition. Offending by a prisoner on HDC is an automatic breach of the licence and can lead to a recall to prison.
The HDC scheme has already been a success in providing prisoners with a smoother and more effective reintegration back into the community. Since its introduction in 1999 the scheme has enabled 70,000 prisoners to rejoin society earlier, although they of course remain subject to the restrictions placed on their liberty. As a recent innovation, HDC has already achieved an impressive track record, as I said in response to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). Around 90 per cent. of those released on HDC have completed their curfew periods without any problems. Fewer than 2 per cent. of those released have offended during their time on HDC.
When HDC is supervised by the probation service, which is the case for all juvenile offenders and those adult offenders who have been subject to a sentence of 12 months or more, it provides probation officers with a valuable tool to influence the behaviour of former prisoners. HDC can help to keep offenders out of trouble during the crucial early weeks following release, which is when offenders are often most likely to get into trouble. HDC requires those on curfew to develop a self-discipline and can therefore bring order to what would otherwise be a chaotic lifestyle. Research shows that governors are assessing risk very well indeed and release prisoners only when they consider the risk to the public, and the risk of a breach, to be low.
Research on the operation of the scheme during the first 16 months was published in June 2001. It showed that 9 per cent. of prisoners released on HDC reoffended in the first six months after release compared with 40 per cent. of prisoners released without HDC. That is a marked difference and emphasises the accuracy of the risk assessments that governors perform.
In view of the continued success of the scheme, the Government consider that the time is right to lengthen the curfew period further. Carefully assessed, suitable prisoners will be able to return to their families and resume employment or training earlier in their sentences, thereby helping them to make a smoother and more effective transition from custody to a law-abiding life in the community. The social exclusion unit identified those factors in its report as important in reducing the risk of reoffending by ex-prisoners.
The change will have an effect on the prison population. Although that was not its primary purpose when first introduced, HDC continues to play an important part in helping to manage the prison population by reducing overcrowding at the same time as improving the resettlement and rehabilitation opportunities that are available for less serious offenders. Some 3,100 people who would otherwise be filling prison places are at present serving the last part of their sentences on HDC. The increase in the length of the curfew period will probably lead to about another 1,000 prison places becoming available by November this year, which is the equivalent of two medium-sized prisons.
In conclusion, HDC has been a highly successful resettlement tool that enables prisoners to rejoin their families and the community earlier in their sentence in a structured and carefully monitored way. The fact that such large numbers of prisoners have successfully completed their period on HDC without breaching it or reoffending shows that the risk assessment process that governors carry out is working very well. I assure the Committee that governors will continue to maintain that rigorous approach and will release prisoners on HDC only when it is safe to do so.
Mr. Grieve: Once again, I welcome the Minister to his responsibilities.
We share the Government's desire to ensure that, as far as possible, sentences can be served in the community, rather than in prison. There are many good reasons for that and the Minister has touched on some of them, including the fact that the successful management of a convicted person within the community makes it less likely that he will reoffend.
I am sure that the Minister will understand, however, that there are bound to be some anxieties about the proposal. That is not because of the extension of the length of time. The principles behind it are proper, but as he said there will always be public anxiety about whether it is being used as an effective tool to extend a successful programme or as a short-term—or response—measure to the problems of massive prison overcrowding that the Prison Service faces.
The key to that is for the Minister to reassure the Committee that home detention curfew is not just a process by which someone is sent home, tagged and, for a period, regulated, but that it can be seen as part of a planned programme of rehabilitation and retraining. The purpose of being out of prison is not simply to be at home, tagged and in the house between 7 pm and 7 am, but to be doing something constructive. The Minister pointed out that the probation service would be involved with all those who had more than 12 months to serve and all juveniles. I do not know whether the Minister has statistics on the current operation of the system, but it would be helpful to know to what extent those who are on home detention curfew are engaging in purposeful activities, other than being at home between 7 pm and 7 am.
Prisons are places to which we want to avoid sending people whenever possible, but a prison that is well managed and well run can deliver successful programmes for rehabilitating and retraining offenders. The other anxiety is whether the process by which the phased change takes place could interrupt any programmes that prisoners might be undergoing prior to their release. Will the process be part of a planned and comprehensive programme for the prisoner, aimed at his rehabilitation and reintegration into society, or will it simply be used to reduce the prison population? That temptation is bound to exist if the prisoner is unlikely to cause any trouble for the last part of his sentence while he is at home. Such prisoners are good candidates for release even if that interrupts various programmes that might otherwise be available to them.
The Minister reassured me about certain things that concerned me, for which I am grateful. I was aware of the low level of revocation of licences for those on home detention curfew. Therefore, the official Opposition will not be voting against the measure. However, although I appreciate that HDC may be an important tool in aiding rehabilitation of offenders, the public need further reassurance on some matters. I should be grateful if the Minister addresses them when he responds.