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Prisoners (Early Release)

4.30 pm

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of the early release of prisoners. The essence of my argument is simple: all forms of early release—whether on licence, probation or parole, whether due to the end of tagging or the end of the probation service itself—should end.

Before I start, it is only fair to say that I do not entirely blame the Government for our situation today. As the Minister will know, early release has been around for many years. It started off as a means of offering an incentive to prisoners to reform themselves while in custody, but it seems gradually to have become the norm. The percentage served of a sentence has become lower and lower during the past few years.

I do not intend to waste time debating who is responsible for the current system, and I hope that the Minister will not do so either. However, it is important to recognise that the current system is an abject failure and that the sentences given in courts are completely meaningless and bear no relationship whatever to the time that the offender will serve. As a result, the general public have rightly lost confidence in our system of justice.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I agree with every word that he has uttered. Survey after survey of residents in my constituency demonstrates time and again that 95 per cent.—if not more—of local residents want prisoners to serve their full time in prison.

David T.C. Davies : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comment.

Things are about to get much worse under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, a briefing on which stated:

Until now, prisoners have been automatically released halfway through their sentences only if they were serving up to four years. Under the terms of the 2003 Act, prisoners serving more than four years will be "released automatically on licence" halfway through the sentence.

Let me give an example of what the combination of early release and tagging means when a sentence is passed. A prisoner sentenced to three months will spend just one month in custody; a 12-month sentence will result in just three months in custody. Somebody sentenced to two years for a crime will spend just seven and a half months in jail, while somebody sentenced to four years' imprisonment will spend just one year and seven and a half months inside. As the Minister knows, four-year sentences are not handed out lightly; usually, they are given only for the most serious offences. If the public knew that when a judge said four years he actually meant just over one and a half years, there would be an outcry.
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Written answers to questions that I have tabled on life sentences show that the term is totally meaningless. In 2004, somebody served 2.3 years on a life sentence; in 2003, somebody on a life sentence was released after just 14 months.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart) : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the likely reason for those releases is that they resulted from successful appeals and so on? We need to look at the average time served for life sentences, rather than at those very unusual cases.

David T.C. Davies : When the Minister winds up, perhaps she will tell us the average time for a life sentence and comment on the case in which a convicted rapist on a life sentence was released after a short period. That was reported in The Sunday Telegraph this week.

My proposals will bring honesty back into the sentencing process by ensuring that every sentence is served in full. They need not necessarily mean longer prison sentences, because if a judge feels that somebody's crime merits seven months in prison they would currently have to sentence them to two years' imprisonment.

My proposals would allow the judge to make a decision about what they think would be an appropriate time for someone to spend in prison and to state clearly and openly what that sentence will be. That will give the public the confidence that when they read about a sentence being passed they know that that sentence will be served. They will not be deliberately misled, as currently happens.

I have heard two major arguments against my proposals. The first is that prisoner behaviour would deteriorate if early release was ended. Even if that were true, it would still not be an argument for releasing prisoners earlier. Such an argument effectively says that these people are so bad that the best we can do is to let them loose on the general public instead of keeping them under lock and key because that will make life easier for the prison system. That is nothing more than a form of appeasement.

I do not accept that ending early release would necessarily automatically lead to a decline in prisoner behaviour. It is possible to maintain incentives for good behaviour by giving more or less access to privileges such as Sky television, PlayStation and the other recreational facilities with which our prisons are increasingly being filled. It should also be expected that where offences are committed by people in prison, the offender should be charged, brought back to court and, if convicted, should have extra time added to their sentence.

Incidentally, to go off at a tangent, I shall discuss something in relation to people who are either under supervision in prison or outside under the supervision of the probation service, which is a bit of an oxymoron. On the subject of tagging, according to the Minister there have been nearly

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Yet, when I asked the Minister on 28 February how many of the 700 people who had damaged their tags had been recalled to prison she was unable to say because the information was not available centrally.

The second argument against my general proposal is cost. I would be the first to accept that if all forms of early release were ended, there would, in the short term, be a need for more prisons to be built and that that would impact on cost. Speaking as a Conservative supporter of low taxation, I can honestly say that I would not mind in the least paying a little more in taxation if it meant that I could walk the streets of London at night without peering over my shoulder every minute wondering whether I am about to be attacked or mugged.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. May I draw his attention to early-day motion 1064, which I tabled in November last year? It, too, called for prisoners to serve their sentences in full and I tabled it after making a discovery in a written answer by the Minister. It stated that

Those crimes included four killings and 134 assaults on police officers.

Does my hon. Friend agree that those crimes and the victims of crimes they created were unnecessary? The agencies had done their job; the police had caught the criminals and the courts had sentenced them. It was only because of this nonsensical system that those thousands of victims of crime have had to suffer unnecessarily.

David T.C. Davies : I could not agree more with my hon. Friend's comments. He might be pleased to know that I was the second signatory of his early-day motion, and that it brought the whole matter to my attention.

If we ended early release, it is debatable whether the overall costs to the public would increase in the longer term. Currently, 20 crimes are committed for every one that secures a conviction. We spend vast sums investigating crimes, bringing prosecutions, and offering legal aid, court time and all the rest of it to people who have committed offences while on early release, as my hon. Friend said. We also spend millions of pounds on the probation service and on schemes such as tagging, which currently costs about £30 million a year. I think that the Minister will tell us that there will shortly be a reduction because of a change in contracts. Regardless of that, all of that is money that would be saved by ending early release.

More importantly, others would be deterred from committing crimes if they knew that a conviction would lead to a fixed spell in prison. In any case, many crimes are committed by people who should be in prison. In the long term, there could be a significant cost saving.

This is the important question on cost: how much are people's lives worth? It has been the proud boast of the probation service—it is a pity that nobody from the service is in the audience to listen to this—that only 0.6 per cent. of prisoners whom they classed as dangerous and were let out on early release were convicted of the
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most dangerous offences, such as rape, murder and arson, while they were in the care of the probation service; the service has been saying that on the radio. However, that figure does not include those who committed a crime while out on early release, but who were not convicted of a crime until after their period on supervision ended. Also of course, it often takes quite some time to bring the most serious offences to court, so it is very likely that a period of supervision will have ended by the time such a crime is brought before the courts.

Those who commit less serious crimes—I use that term guardedly—such as muggings and house burglaries are also not included in the probation service figure. So far as I can see—perhaps the Minister will clarify this—it does not include those who are not classed as dangerous by the probation service, but who in any case go on to commit violent crimes while on early   release. Using this measurement, the killers of Mary-Ann Leneghan were in fact a success story for the probation service, because although they carried out their crimes while under some form of supervision, they were not convicted until after that supervision ended.

Fiona Mactaggart : The hon. Gentleman is wrong on that point. What happened to Mary-Ann Leneghan was an outrage. I absolutely stand by the probation service figure—although, in fact, it is 0.4 per cent. The hon. Gentleman has a reasonable argument, but he must use his facts accurately in making it.

David T.C. Davies : The Minister says that I am wrong. Of course what happened to Mary-Ann Leneghan was an outrage; nobody disputes that, and I am certainly not saying otherwise. However, the Minister has not stated that anything I just said was factually incorrect.

Fiona Mactaggart : The hon. Gentleman suggested that the delay between the period of supervision and a case coming to court meant that serious further offences would not be treated as serious further offences in the probation figures. Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that they absolutely are.

David T.C. Davies : Well, let me tell the Minister that the probation service is going around saying that only 0.6 per cent. of the people that it deals with are convicted of serious crimes while under its supervision.

Fiona Mactaggart rose—

David T.C. Davies : I will give way in a moment. The point I am making on that probation service statistic is that if it covers conviction rather than crimes committed within the supervisory period, the killers of Mary-Ann Leneghan would not be counted in the 0.6 per cent.

Fiona Mactaggart : Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that the figure—it is 0.4 per cent. but I do not want to quibble about it—includes all serious further offences committed while people were under probation supervision. Therefore, the killers of Mary-Ann Leneghan would be included.

David T.C. Davies : I am grateful for that clarification. Therefore, the probation service would be well advised
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to make it clearer that it is talking about crimes committed rather than crimes of which people are convicted.

Philip Davies : Does my hon. Friend agree that any crime committed under these circumstances is too many? I draw his attention to a recent case in my constituency. A convicted murderer, Stephen Ayre, was released on licence from prison back into my constituency and was recently convicted again of abducting and raping a young boy. Such crimes are completely unnecessary and would not be committed if people were locked up to serve their sentence in full; in this case, if a life sentence meant life. Does my hon. Friend agree that any such crime is more than enough? It does not matter whether the figure is 0.4 per cent. or 0.6 per cent. as any crime is one too many.

David T.C. Davies : My hon. Friend makes an important point. Basically, the probation service has admitted that 79 people while under its supervision committed the most serious forms of crime, such as rape, murder, arson and armed robbery, leaving behind a trail of ruined lives, such as those of the victim my hon. Friend just mentioned, and they did this while they could and should have been in prison.

Frankly, if British Rail or one of the rail companies had allowed 79 people to be seriously injured or killed on its railway lines, we would quite rightly demand that billions be spent putting the problem right. However, we seem quite happy to allow a situation in which 79 people go around committing the most atrocious crimes, and we are not prepared to do anything very much about it. Either way, for the probation service to present that as a success is an exercise in mendacity that renders those presenting the statistic as being unfit for their positions, frankly.

To sum up, our justice system should contain four major elements. It should, of course, contain the element of rehabilitation of offenders, and involve giving them the opportunity to address their behavioural problems, get off drugs, gain qualifications and generally improve their outlook on life. That, of course, cannot be done in a matter of months; it takes time for the most serious offenders. Rehabilitation is just about the only part of the justice system to which we give credence at the moment. We have lost all sight of deterrence. Prison sentences should be long enough to make people think twice before they commit a crime. At present, criminals view prison sentences as no more than a minor inconvenience, and I sometimes think that the Treasury views them as a rather more major inconvenience. We seem to have forgotten the concept of justice for the victims and punishment of the transgressor. That may sound a little old fashioned but, to be honest, the moment that one loses sight of that concept, people lose sight of the justice system and start taking the law into their own hands.

Most important of all is the protection of the public. Mary-Ann Leneghan, Marian Bates, John Monckton and Robert Symons are just a few of the many people whose lives were needlessly ended by prisoners on early release, and who leave behind grief-stricken loved ones whose own lives will never recover. We owe it to those
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innocent victims to learn from the mistakes of the past, for which all of us, as legislators, are to some extent responsible if we do not address the problem. That is why I make one simple appeal to the Minister; end all forms of early release and make Britain a safer place in which to live.

4.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart) : I am glad that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) raised this matter, because I share his view that it is very serious. Indeed, I share his view that there is an absolute obligation on the state to protect the public. I also share his perturbation that figures of 0.6 or 0.4 per cent. for serious further offences committed could be regarded as a success; they are not a success. We have started with the matters on which we share a view, but now let us focus on facts and evidence.

The first fact that I should like to bring before the House is that we are less likely to be victims of crime now than at any time in the past 20 years; that is an important thing to know. The second fact is that offenders actually spend longer in prison than they used to. The third fact is that the only change, in terms of reduction of sentences, is the introduction of the home detention curfew to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I, too, am concerned about some of the ways in which that scheme works, and I will address the matter in a moment.

We agree that public protection is the first duty of the prison service. That is one reason I am very proud that for nearly a decade now there have been no category A escapes; we are actually increasing the security of our prisons. We should feel good about that. Also, it is important that we make sure that we protect the public by reducing reoffending. That is absolutely at the heart of our five-year strategy. The hon. Gentleman claims that rehabilitation is all that we are concerned about, but he is quite wrong; the first thing that we are concerned about is public protection, and that is one of the reasons for our focus on escapes. The second thing that we are concerned about is reducing reoffending. There are two ways that we do that: partly by the way in which we reduce the likelihood of an individual's reoffending, and partly by ensuring appropriate sentences and sentencing behaviour for the prisoners who are most likely to offend and those who are most dangerous.

Let me first turn to the home detention curfew scheme. The hon. Gentleman claimed that the fact that we did not collect figures on how we deal with breaches suggested that we did not deal with them; he is wrong about that. The scheme is devised for suitable low-risk offenders. Release under the scheme can provide opportunities for successful resettlement by enabling offenders to resume employment or training earlier. It can be one of the first steps in helping offenders to lead a law-abiding life by enabling them to take responsibility for their lives and support themselves and their family.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that for some people there has been a failure in doing that. We need to ensure that we have better systems in place to identify those who are at the greatest risk. Shortly after we introduced the scheme, we identified a series of offences that
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automatically makes people unsuitable for it. I could read the list, but I see that the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene.

David T.C. Davies : I was talking about written questions that the Minister herself answered. She agrees that there have been 700 cases of people damaging their tags, but she cannot say how many, if any, have gone back into custody. Does she not think that she should know the answer to that question?

Fiona Mactaggart : I cannot answer that question without excessive public expenditure because of the places where those two pieces of information are kept, but the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear what we are doing about recalls and bringing people back to prison. If I can be honest, I think that he misunderstands some aspects of how our system works. He does not know enough about how effectively we are using recall to prison and how it is making a substantial difference. It is part of ensuring that people serve a longer part of their sentence.

I said earlier that the only change was the home detention curfew scheme, but in fact another change is in purview. At present, some offenders who are on home detention curfew have no supervision—the hon. Gentleman referred to the short sentence offenders who are released without supervision. In future, under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, that will be wholly changed. Under custody plus, offenders who are sentenced to less than 12 months will be supervised on release and liable to recall. Until now, such offenders were not supervised or liable to recall if, for example, they breached some of the conditions that could be put on their case. Now we have a more active mechanism for managing such offenders in the community and ensuring that they return to prison.

Early release is not a new concept. Under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, prisoners who were serving a custodial sentence of 12 months or more, or less than four years, would be released at the halfway point of their sentence. If they were serving four years or more, they could apply for early release on parole at the halfway point of their sentence. They had to be released at the two thirds point and the assessment of their suitability for parole, as conducted by the parole board, depended on whether they could be safely managed in the community. All prisoners were on supervision until only the three-quarter point of their licence.

That was what we inherited we came into government in 1997. We believed that it failed to offer adequate safeguards to protect the public. It made no distinction between prisoners who presented a risk of harm and those who did not. Those serving a sentence of four years or more could be released at the halfway point, but they had to be released no later than the two-thirds point.

We are now implementing the provisions of the 2003 Act, which makes important changes. Anyone who has committed a serious sexual or violent offence is now liable to imprisonment for an indeterminate period. I do not have to hand the number of such sentences that have already been handed down, but I recall that it is more than 700 since April last year. There has been quite significant use of that sentence by the courts to protect
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the public. The provision underlines the Government's belief that dangerous and violent offenders should be let out of prison only if it is clear that they are no longer a risk to the public. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that fact. It is a significant change.

David T.C. Davies : I understand what the Minister is saying and we will have to see how the sentences are used. The fact remains that, according to what the Library told me, anyone on a determinate sentence will be eligible for automatic release halfway through. Can she answer this simple question: does she think it right that someone who is sentenced to four years or just under four years in prison may spend just one year and seven and a half months in custody? Does that sound like the sort of justice system in which the public can have confidence?

Fiona Mactaggart : What is important is that anyone who is serving a determinate sentence of 12 months or more will serve the first half in custody and the whole of the second half on probation supervision, during which time they will be liable to recall. They will not serve up to two thirds; they will serve the whole of the second half. That compares with the previous system in which the last quarter of the sentence was served without supervision and without conditions.

There are 679 offenders who have been sentenced to the indeterminate public protection sentence that I referred to. In addition, there is the extended public protection sentence, which is for other sexual and violent offenders whose offences are not so serious but who are considered to present a risk to the public. That requires them to undergo extended periods of probation supervision. Of those sentences 679 have been passed since April this year.

Those sentences are better sentencing and they are just one strand in delivering effective public protection. We are also committed to delivering better assessment of risk and better risk management using the offender assessment system, OASys, and other systems to identify risk.

It is shocking that we do not always successfully identify risk. It is horrific that people who have been offenders go on to offend again and that so far we have not sufficiently protected the public from them. That is why we must continue to improve our assessment of risk and the quality of reports to bodies such as the parole board to ensure that they are excellent in every case and to ensure that the risk to the public is the paramount issue considered by the parole board and any other releasing body before allowing people to be released into the community.

David T.C. Davies : The Minister is being very generous in giving way. The whole point is that the parole board does not have public confidence because it has been wrong so many times.

Fiona Mactaggart : I absolutely agree. We need a step change to ensure that we do improve. We are doing that, for example, by strengthening our multi-area public protection arrangements, which are helping to protect us from some of the most dangerous offenders and which involve collaboration between the police, the probation service and so on.
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The hon. Gentleman made a point about supervision not working and recall not working. I hope that he will be reassured, as I was, by finding out that in 1996 only 500 prisoners a year were recalled to prison. That does not suggest to me that the process was working terribly well. During the past year, 11,000 were recalled to prison. I might not be able to identify centrally how many of those were on home detention curfew, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that one in four people under probation supervision are now recalled to prison for breaches. Those breaches include breaking curfews, not turning up to appointments, failing to attend drug treatment, and so on. We are being more effective in ensuring that a sentence is a real sentence and that while part of it might be served under supervision in the community, under the 2003 Act, 100 per cent. of the sentence laid down by the court is served by the prisoner, part of it under supervision in the community and part of it in prison, and if there is breach when under supervision in the community the offender can be brought back.

The point that I share with the hon. Gentleman is the view that we must step up the quality of public protection. It is not acceptable—

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order.

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