Draft Release of Short-Term Prisoners on Licence (Amendment of Requisite Period) Order 2003

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Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I, too, welcome the Minister to the Committee. It is good to see him here. I appreciate his opening comments and the fact that he has provided us with full information, which will be helpful.

As I walked into the Room, I had a sense of déjà vu, because it was only on Thursday 21 November that hon. Members were considering extending HDC to 90 days. Now, only a short time later, we are considering an extension to 135 days. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield and broadly support the principles involved. It must be a good thing to have the probation service and the Prison Service working closely together to rehabilitate offenders. I have some reservations, however. We asked a lot of questions last time and received reassurances about the physical processes of electronic tagging, but the services that are attached to the rehabilitation and the outcome are important.

It is clear that there is not much reoffending during the tagging period, but I am also interested in whether there are any published statistics about subsequent reoffending rates. I asked that question last time we debated HDC and was told that it was not possible to have the data. It is vital that the information is collected. The difficulty is that it is not collected centrally. We need to follow a sample of prisoners over a long period to acquire genuine information on the long-term effects. It is important to discover whether HDC is merely a convenient completion of the prison sentence or whether it has long-term effects on reoffending.

In Committee last time the then Minister, now the Minister of State, Department for International Development, said:

    ''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.''—[Official Report, Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 21 November 2002; c. 4.]

I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. We need monitoring. We need to know whether there has genuinely been a greater movement into employment or training, and we also need to know about the outcomes. Even if that involves individual case studies, it would be a useful contribution to the overall debate.

I have concerns about the motivation behind increasing the length of time because we do not have hard evidence that that is helping rehabilitation. We all know that the prison population is rising, and statistics show that it is increasing faster than the number of people who are put on home detention curfew. Although we are not addressing the problem of overcrowding today, we must recognise that that has to be considered in the context of an overall strategy. Can the Minister reassure me that there is an overall strategy for prison provision? Perhaps we should be considering sentencing policy in the first place. Has sentencing been wrong, or is it suddenly a good idea to handle it in such a way? Approaching the matter in a reactive way, rather than setting out with good use of community sentences, does not give confidence to the public.

There is scope for making good use of electronic tagging. If I could be sure that we had all the probation officers that we needed and all the support in the community, I would give the measure my wholehearted support. Generally, however, I support the principles involved.

9.12 am

Paul Goggins: I appreciate the warm welcome given to the principles of the scheme. It is encouraging to hear that the objective of rehabilitation is shared throughout the House. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield asked about the scheme as it relates to prison overcrowding. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) made similar comments.

It is important to emphasise that the Government have not been slack in making extra prison places available over recent years. Since April 1996, we have provided an additional 18,700 places, with 2,000 additional places last year and 960 this year. That is a considerable increase. The scheme is not an attempt to ignore the need for additional prison places. Those places have been made available. None the less, the scheme is an important part of the overall provision for prisoners.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield asked about constructive activity, and his comments were echoed by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. Approximately two thirds of those who are on home detention curfew are engaged either in work or in actively seeking work. Indeed, 30 per cent. of those on home detention curfew are in full-time work. Those substantial figures should encourage us, because they show that people on HDC are not just sitting at home watching television but reintegrating into society in substantial numbers.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield asked whether the phased change would disrupt current prisoner programmes. The new extended period of four and a half months will undergo a phased introduction, but disruption will be kept to an absolute minimum. It is important that that phased change happens in an ordered way, because the probation service will have to pick up a considerable amount of additional work, and it cannot be overloaded. The introduction of the changes must therefore be managed. Once the transitional phase is over, however, all prison placements will be properly planned, and programmes will not be disrupted by the availability of the extra one and a half months.

In answer to additional questions from the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, I agree that we need carefully to research the scheme's impact not only in the short term but in the long term to ensure that we maintain low rates for reoffending and the revocation of licences. We must establish what trends are developing, and I assure the hon. Lady we shall continue to do so. As trends emerge, we may need to amend the scheme further.

Finally, the hon. Lady mentioned the availability of support in the probation service. The scheme relies very much on the capacity of the service. It may interest her to know that the combined number of probation officers and probation support officers operating in the service in 1997 was 9,068. By the end of 2005–06, it will be 14,042. By any measure, that is a substantial increase in the capacity of the probation service, and it will enable the scheme to develop further and to become a robust part of the range of measures that we need to ensure that we no longer think entirely in terms of custody versus community. Rather, we must think more about how we combine custody and community to provide an effective response.

Mr. Grieve: The Minister mentioned that the figure for probation officers was about 2,000. That is presumably an estimate that takes into account further recruitment. Given the changes that are likely in the next few months, will he tell us how the figure stands now?

Paul Goggins: The current total is 11,072, which comprises 7,506 probation officers and 3,566 probation support officers.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose at seventeen minutes past Nine o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Illsley, Mr. Eric (Chairman)
Ainger, Mr.
Brooke, Mrs.
Buck, Ms
Clappison, Mr.
Cohen, Harry
Fisher, Mr.
Francois, Mr.
Gardiner, Mr.
Goggins, Paul
Grieve, Mr.
Truswell, Mr.
Vis, Dr.

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