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20 July 2006 : Column 476

has grown by more than 500,000 crimes a year. So much for this Government being tough on crime.

The Government’s record on the punishment, rehabilitation and supervision of offenders is equally catastrophic. Our prisons are full to bursting, which is, after all, why we are here today to discuss this issue. Offenders have little chance of rehabilitation, and dangerous criminals are released early. Some 70 per cent. of young males are now reconvicted within two years of release—up from 56 per cent. Since 1998, more than 200 offenders on supervision have been convicted of murder. Those facts are direct results of Government policy. They have consistently failed to create enough prison places, instead choosing to release offenders early, thereby putting the lives of innocent citizens at risk.

Now the Home Secretary says that he will build more prisons, which we of course welcome. Will those extra places be enough—over and above the ongoing growth in the prison population—to accommodate the tougher sentences and guidelines that he is proposing today? When will those sentencing measures come into force? When will the new prisons be built and when will the 8,000 extra prison places be ready for use? I understand from press coverage that it will take five years to get these extra places on stream. What will happen meanwhile? Will there be more early releases of would-be murderers? Will there be more ridiculously light sentences for rapists and paedophiles? If, as he says, he is going to release other people, can he give us more details on who they will be?

Because the Government failed to spend money on prisons in the past, they have had to rely more and more on non-custodial sentences, and the record is truly dreadful. A massive 88 per cent. of young offenders on the Government’s flagship intensive supervision and surveillance programme, supposedly the toughest alternative to prison, reoffended within 12 months.

The Home Secretary mentioned the concerns about drug treatment orders. Roughly 70 per cent. of offenders do not complete their orders, while 80 per cent. are reconvicted within two years. What is he going to do about the failing intensive supervision and surveillance programme and about the failure of drug treatment orders? Will he seriously consider our proposals for a tough residential treatment option for drugs users—ideally instead of prison, but even after prison? Drug addiction is probably the largest component in the increase in recidivism over the past several years.

I welcome the proposal to accelerate the processes in magistrates and other courts. From memory, I think that the time taken by magistrates courts has increased in the past five years by two working weeks, with the increase in Crown courts about double that. In both cases, the extra time is the result of the burdens, regulations and complex legislation that the Government have laid on the courts. It is time that that problem was put right.

As the Home Secretary just said, we are not starting from year zero. The Government have had nine years in office, during which time they have been long on promises but short on delivery. The simple truth is that
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we have heard all of this before. I enjoyed the headline in today’s edition of the right hon. Gentleman’s favourite daily read, The Sun. It cries out, “Blair Axes Soft Sentences”. I enjoyed that almost as much as last year’s version—“I’ll Change Law to Curb Thugs”—or the one of the year before—“Blair’s Plan to End the Anarchy on Our Streets”. Similar headlines appeared in the several preceding years, but what has happened? The problem has got worse, not better. So here we are again, facing the same problems, but with a different Labour Home Secretary claiming to have the solutions. The right hon. Gentleman talks a good story, but so did his three predecessors.

I am sorry that the Leader of the House has left the Chamber, as he started the Labour tradition of talking tough on crime. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) refined the art—boy, did he talk tough on crime. So did the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), and the tabloids loved them. If speeches caught criminals, we would have swept the streets clean of lawlessness by now. Those three former Home Secretaries are the ones who presided over the disaster that we are witnessing today, because talk was all that they had to offer. Let us hope that, from this Home Secretary, we will get action, not words.

John Reid: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the kind words with which he welcomed my statement and for his support for some of the proposals in it. He asked whether we would consider other measures that he has looked at, and I can tell him that I am open-minded and always prepared to consider any measure that will protect the public better.

I fear that the right hon. Gentleman probably wrote parts of his speech before he heard my statement. [Hon. Members: “No.”] I said specifically that this was not a question of being tougher or softer, but of being smarter and better at protecting the public. I am interested in the objective effect of what we do, rather than in the talk, tough or otherwise, that surrounds it. He invited me to draw a comparison between his tough talk and some of the Opposition’s actions, and I shall do so towards the end of my response to his remarks.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that many members of the Parole Board have experience of being a victim in their normal lives. Not all of them do, however, and we want to ensure that all members have that perspective. That is why we want make that true of every new member.

On human rights, I said that we would look at how legislation is misrepresented or misinterpreted, and at how it is administered. From even a brief survey, it is plain to me that human rights and other legislation can lead to misunderstanding. For example, the way that the Data Protection Act 1998 was applied led to problems in the pursuit of Huntley, while misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the human rights and other legislation were at the root of the release of Rice, who went on to murder Naomi Bryant.

We need to be prepared to make available practical facilities to counter the myths about human rights when they are misused or misrepresented in such a way
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that people feel that they must take a particular course of action. That is the rebalancing that I am trying to achieve.

The Leader of the Opposition has proposed to solve the problem of the European convention on human rights not by amending or getting rid of it, but by introducing yet another Bill of Rights. That is the last thing that we need——a Bill of Rights that could contradict the ECHR. Anyway, that proposal was just another gimmick, like his views on antisocial behaviour, and did not last 24 hours, far less the tenures of three successive Home Secretaries.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) mentioned the discussions that have taken place between the Lord Chancellor, the Attorney-General and myself on sentencing. The truth is that we have reached agreement on this matter. For instance, judges have no discretion when it comes to the mandatory 30 per cent. reduction in sentences that a guilty plea earns. That reduction applies irrespective of the circumstances in which a person is caught: even someone who is caught in flagrante will get that sentence reduction through pleading guilty. We are sometimes accused of taking discretion away from judges, but in this case we are giving it back to them.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about prison places. He likes to have it both ways: if we do not put people in prison, we are accused of being soft, but if we do, the complaint is that our prisons are bursting. I want to put the following on the record. There are now 19,000 more people in prison, many of them serious, violent or sexual offenders, than was ever the case under the previous Conservative Government. Moreover, sentences are much longer than they used to be under that Government. Of course we must look carefully at who is in prison but, when it comes to putting people behind bars, I am afraid that the Conservatives give us only the usual tough talk and soft-centred voting.

I thought that sentencing might come up today, so I have brought with me the Conservative voting record on the tough measures that we have introduced. The early removals scheme allows foreign national prisoners to be deported halfway through their sentences, but the Conservatives voted against it. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced tougher sentences for murder and for sexual and violent offences, and for persistent offenders, but the Conservatives voted against them. We brought in indeterminate sentences for people who have committed a serious sexual or violent offence, but the Conservatives voted against them. We introduced the new five-year minimal custodial sentence for unauthorised possession of a firearm, but the Conservatives voted against it. I could go through the whole list, but it is clear that, as ever, the Opposition talk tough but vote soft. The overall 35 per cent. reduction in crime since we took over from the Conservatives is a mark of this Government’s effectiveness.

We do not claim that our performance is perfect, and that is why we review and upgrade it continually. However, it is a damn sight better than what we inherited from the previous Government.

Several hon. Members rose—

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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I ask hon. Members to restrict themselves to one supplementary question that elicits a brief reply? In that way, more may succeed in catching my eye.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I welcome much of what my right hon. Friend said. If we want to be smarter, rather than simply tougher, we must recognise that our prisons are full and hold many of the wrong people, and that the prison regime offers precious little chance that prisoners can be rehabilitated and brought back into stable jobs and family life when they leave. My right hon. Friend must have secured a significant amount of new money: how will he use it to transform the prison regime, so that it places a much bigger emphasis on work and a disciplined working day, and on returning people to working life after they leave prison?

John Reid: I take my right hon. Friend’s point that protection and punishment have to be accompanied by rehabilitation not only because that is good for the individual offender or prisoner, but because that contributes to the protection of society by a reduction in reoffending. That is why I am pleased that, last year, 79,000 prisoners—I think that was the figure—were involved in some form of qualification and skill enhancement. I want that to be advanced. The extension of places and the release of pressure on the prison system itself, which in its most fundamental aspects is intended to reduce the potential for overcrowding, always extends the possibility of carrying out such skills enhancement. I saw an element of that when I was in Wandsworth prison, where some of the skills that will be necessary to prepare for the Olympics in London—for example, plastering and bricklaying—are being introduced, in partnership with private sector firms in the building industry, which will employ offenders when they are released. That is the way forward.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement, although I saw from my early edition of The Sun that others had received versions of it even before we had in the House.

Much of the Home Secretary’s statement is arguably too little. Quite a lot of it is too late. None the less, significant parts of it are welcome. I welcome, for example, the almost surprising rhetoric that he has displayed today about prisons. He has recognised, I think for the first time, that there are people in our prisons who should not be there, including vulnerable women and those who need treatment for mental health conditions. Rather than announcing new multi-million pound budgets for investing in bricks and mortar for new prisons, does he not think it would be worth investing that money in bricks and mortar for new secure mental health treatment centres, where those offenders could be more adequately housed, dealt with and rehabilitated? Equally, there is a strong case to invest far more in visible and rigorous public punishment sentences in the community. He will be aware that, in 2004, for example, over 50,000 lesser offenders served no more than an average of eight weeks in prison. Surely it would be better to have them
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punished and rehabilitated for the benefit of our communities, rather than them spending a few stopover weeks in prison.

The Home Secretary should be mindful that the Home Office’s own research 10 years ago or so showed that, if we wanted to reduce the overall level of crime by 1 per cent., we would need to increase prison capacity by 25 per cent. That statistic itself shows that there are limits to how much the Government can build itself out of the present prison overcrowding crisis.

I am relieved to see that the Home Secretary and other members of the Government appear to have resiled from the early tub-thumping rhetoric against the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights, and that that approach has apparently been abandoned in favour of a more intelligent emphasis on the training and support needed for officials who have to interpret the Act. Next time there is a controversy over an issue as important as human rights, could he and his colleagues refrain from jumping on the media bandwagon and arrive earlier at the correct conclusion that he has appeared to arrive at today?

On sentencing, we agree, of course, that we need to give judges more discretion in setting the deductions for guilty pleas and in removing the automatic halving of the period of custody before release can be considered. I note, however, that those welcome moves merely undo rules that were introduced by the Government in legislation passed only a few years ago. I also welcome in principle the idea that Parole Board decisions on serious offences should be unanimous, although I suspect that in practice—I would like some clarification on this—that happens most of the time any way.

Can the Home Secretary explain why he has not gone further? Surely one of the greatest problems is that so many of the sentences handed down simply do not do what they say and that is one of the main reasons why public confidence in our sentencing system has been severely eroded. Life sentences, for example, do not mean life. Does he agree that public confidence would be considerably strengthened if a life sentence really meant life and applied to those cases where the courts judge that the offender should remain in custody for the remainder of his or her life?

John Reid: Again, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman, despite the burden of his remarks, seems to find much with which he can agree in what I have said today. I am always gratified to see that that is the case on both Opposition Benches.

It is true that we should be spending more on health. From memory, the health budget has gone from £33 billion to £95 billion or thereabouts, including increases in mental health spending, so a considerable amount of money is already going into that sector, but the point about making sure that there are, in substance and in perception, sufficient prison places is this. It is the sine qua non for three things. The first is to ensure that those serious offenders who should be in prison for a long period for public protection purposes and for other reasons are kept there. Secondly, if we are to discriminate, in the proper sense, in order to relieve our prisons of the burdens of those who should not be there, it is important that the public believe that we are
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doing that for legitimate reasons and not just because we are short of prison places. Thirdly, I do not believe that the public will accept community service as a legitimate means of serving and repaying the community unless, again, they believe that it is being done for reasons other than a shortage of prison places. In short, more prison places is the sine qua non. It is the basic requirement for protecting the public better, ensuring that those who are in prison are the people who should be in prison and ensuring that there is a legitimacy to alternatives other than prison.

The hon. Gentleman raised human rights. I do not think that it is tub thumping to say that the public are utterly bewildered by some sentences. He himself talked about that in his last comments. The public are utterly bewildered. There are two reasons for that: first, the misrepresentation of human rights and, secondly, the judgments on the European convention on human rights by the European Court. I mentioned one of them earlier—the Chahal judgment. That is outrageously at odds with what we believe to be the correct balance of human rights as expressed in the Human Rights Act and as understood by everyone in this Chamber: the balance of the individual versus the community. That is why we oppose that. It is not a matter of tub thumping. It is a matter of saying that there are substantial problems; there are problems that we must look at not only in legislation but as regards interpretation, misrepresentation and maladministration.

The hon. Gentleman made a quip about being on television. As far as I can make out, he has a season ticket to the television studios. I have hardly been in them in the past seven weeks, but I have not needed to be because I have had the vicarious thrill of experiencing what they are like by watching him.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Stafford has a prison that I visit regularly. I agree with my right hon. Friend that too many prisoners there cannot read and write, have mental illnesses or a dependency on alcohol or drugs. I am pleased to hear that he will try to find alternative outcomes for such individuals.

My question is about those serious offenders who serve long sentences. Did I hear my right hon. Friend say that the Parole Board will seek out the views of the specific victims of that offender’s behaviour before they make the decision on parole? When he makes the decisions about changing the sentences that they serve, will he bear in mind the effect on prison discipline, because prison officers already do difficult work for us, in challenging circumstances, and those changes will have an effect on the work that they do?

John Reid: Yes, I will bear that in mind. Most people looking at some of the decisions that have been taken believe that it is necessary to restore public confidence in parole decisions. I have the highest admiration for the people who work on parole boards and the commitment, professionalism and dedication that they show. We can improve confidence by doing three things.

First, we should assure ourselves that all new members have experience of what it is like to be a
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victim either directly or, if they do not have personal experience of that, indirectly from assisting victims. Secondly, we should make sure that in serious cases, involving violent or sexual offences for instance, there is an expression of the victim’s voice, not as a member of the parole board but to supplement the experience of the parole board. There is no reason why that cannot be done—for instance, by legal representation and, if necessary in serious cases, legal representation in consultation with the family. If there is to be an oral hearing and the offender is allowed to put his case for release, it is not obvious to me why those who have suffered as a result of the offence should not have the right to some representation, at least on their behalf if not directly.

Thirdly, we should require unanimity. In many cases at present there is unanimity, but it should be a requirement in cases of serious and violent offences. Those three things together will restore the balance.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The public do indeed need to be protected from those who commit serious, violent and sexual offences, but those are not the type of offences that tend to be committed by women. The Home Secretary touched on that when he referred to vulnerable women in prison. Can he give us an assurance that he is not planning for more women to go to prison, but is planning for a sentencing system under which, wherever appropriate, women serve their sentences as close as possible to home and preferably in the company of their children?

John Reid: We want to act in a humane way. The Government have done more on domestic violence than any predecessor Government. I cannot predict the statistics. Some vulnerable women are involved in a cycle and end up in prison; if they go out, they up in prison again. We want to address that in a sensible and smart as well as efficient fashion, from the point of view of protection of the public as well as from the point of view of the individual.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s proposals to change the sentencing guidelines. I know that my constituents whose three-year-old daughter was assaulted by Craig Sweeney will particularly welcome the fact that there will no longer be an automatic cut of a third of the sentence for a guilty plea or automatic consideration for parole after serving half the sentence. They have campaigned for that. I pay tribute to the dignified way in which they have dealt with that family tragedy.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that these changes to the sentencing guidelines should be aimed at the most dangerous offenders and those who are the greatest risk to the public?

John Reid: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. I made my views known about that sentence at the time. I am glad that we now have widespread agreement that the points that she mentions ought to be addressed when looking at sentencing.

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