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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Community Order (Review by Specified Courts in Liverpool and Salford) Order 2006




 
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Third Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman:

Mr. Greg Pope

†Austin, John (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
†Brennan, Kevin (Cardiff, West) (Lab)
†Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)
†Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
†Heath, Mr. David (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
†Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
†Irranca-Davies, Huw (Ogmore) (Lab)
†Khan, Mr. Sadiq (Tooting) (Lab)
†Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
†MacShane, Mr. Denis (Rotherham) (Lab)
Meacher, Mr. Michael (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab)
†Penrose, John (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
†Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs)
†Stuart, Mr. Graham (Beverley and Holderness) (Con)
Stunell, Andrew (Hazel Grove) (LD)
Taylor, Mr. Ian (Esher and Walton) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Dr John Benger, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee


 
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Thursday 2 March 2006

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

Draft Community Order (Review by Specified Courts in Liverpool and Salford) Order 2006

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Draft Community Order (Review by Specified Courts in Liverpool and Salford) Order 2006

It is a pleasure to be serving under your Chairmanship today, Mr. Pope, especially as you will have the delight of attending for the whole sitting—unlike last time, when you could not attend any of the proceedings because we dealt with matters so speedily and efficiently, and did not have the joy of your Chairmanship.

The draft order was laid before Parliament on 19 January 2006. Section 178 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides for courts to be given power to review community orders periodically. The draft order will bring the section into force exclusively for the north Liverpool community justice centre and the Salford community justice initiative.

North Liverpool and Salford are two of the initiatives under the Government’s community justice programme. The community justice centre in north Liverpool houses a multi-jurisdictional courtroom alongside on-site services, such as for victim support, and a citizens advice bureau. It combines punishment with help, and deals robustly and speedily with offenders while also addressing the underlying causes of offending. It is responsive to local needs and concerns, providing a range of services to the wider community. In Salford, the community justice initiative tests the approach pioneered at north Liverpool within a mainstream magistrates court

One of the key elements of community justice is strong judicial leadership and oversight. It enables the community justice courts to oversee progress on community orders, and I believe that it will be a valuable tool in furthering the success of community justice. In Liverpool, His Honour Justice Fletcher already exercises this oversight on a non-statutory basis.

I shall give an example that will assist the Committee to understand why we are moving this order today. Judge Fletcher sentenced an offender to go to Liverpool prison. He then wrote to him personally, offering him support from the community justice centre’s variety of in-house services. The offender accepted and, upon release, benefited from a package of support, including from Liverpool Housing Trust,
 
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the drugs intervention programme, and from a voluntary community mentor to assist a successful resettlement in the local community. That can only be a good thing, and I am sure that all members of the Committee would want to see it furthered elsewhere. Extending that approach to community orders will help to ensure that there is a higher rate of compliance and reduce re-offending.

The implementation of the order for the community justice projects will be evaluated to help inform decisions on whether it will be beneficial to allow wider implementation of periodic community order reviews. It will enable the judge at north Liverpool and Salford to review cases after the community order has been imposed. Article 2 will empower the court to provide for a review, either at the time of making the order, and/or when amending a community order, for removal or inclusion of provisions. A community order may provide for periodic review at specific intervals, may require the offender to attend each review hearing, and may provide for a report on the offender’s progress in complying with the order to be made available to the court before each review.

The benefits include the ability to support and monitor offenders during sentencing, to prevent re-offending, to re-assess the effectiveness of a community order, and vary it if required, and to refer offenders to other services if appropriate. There will also be enhanced opportunities for offenders to comply with their community order and to amend the order at review hearings.

The continued interest of the judge or magistrate will have a positive effect on offenders, some of whom may never have experienced someone actually taking an interest in their lives, activities and overall well-being. It will encourage accountability on the part of the offender, which will help to produce greater levels of compliance. It also sends out a message to the community that community orders are not a soft option and that the judiciary will strictly scrutinise the review and put the onus to comply on the offender.

I am speaking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, who is unable to put this order before the Committee because she is unwell, so I am afraid that the Committee has to deal with a lesser being. Giving the powers in the order to north Liverpool and Salford will allow us to test rigorously their capabilities and to develop systems to manage them which will benefit all criminal courts in future. On that basis, I invite the Committee to approve the order.

2.36 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): As we have heard from the Minister, the order allows community justice centres, when making community orders as provided under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, to provide for individual community orders to be reviewed periodically by either of the two established centres.

Although we welcome and support the principle of community justice centres and the general concept of extending the periodic reviews, we feel it appropriate
 
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to question to what extent they have been effective in practice and whether those powers should be extended under the order. Furthermore, we would seek answers from the Minister as to whether they are cost effective. It would have been most appropriate to have discussed the order in the context of an evaluation on the success or failure and the cost to the taxpayer of the two community justice centres.

In July 2005, I asked for those figures, and was told that between 9 December 2004 and 12 July 2005, 350 cases were heard and £2.95 million spent up to the end of June. That was hardly a full evaluation. My hon. Friends the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) have visited the Liverpool centre and I spoke to them on their visit. Yes, they were impressed with the concept of the centre—helping to administer justice—but they agreed that an evaluation of the two centres was required, and certainly before consolidating powers.

A recent report by the National Audit Office calculated that £173 million of taxpayers money was wasted last year in magistrates hearings that could not proceed. Those community justice centres must not fall into the same trap as magistrates courts. If they do, we need to know. Their ability to plan attendances must be used expeditiously.

Furthermore, in December 2005, why did the Government commission a report on community justice centres in north Liverpool, yet fail to publish it? Particularly as regards the timing of the Committee, why do I hear that the report is not to be published until December of this year? We have heard also that Justice Fletcher has been speaking recently about the centre, and in a recent speech—last week I think—said the following:

    “The pilot is as I am sure you can imagine under very close scrutiny by the Government Departments responsible for it. Three in all. Thus we are constantly being evaluated and assessed as to effectiveness in reducing crime and raising confidence in the criminal justice system. A full audit of cost effectiveness will also be carried out to assess the net cost taking into account the saving in all areas of social policy but happily this is not within my field of expertise nor indeed is it a part of my remit.”

The Minister will obviously appreciate that it is within the remit and something that we as parliamentarians should be looking at and dealing with.

In November of last year, the Minister received a written question from the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) asking about plans to establish a community justice centre in Wales. The hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice) responded on 15 November that both community justice centres in Liverpool and Salford were to be evaluated to determine aspects that can be applied elsewhere, and that there will be no further community centres until the evaluation has taken place at the end of 2006. Wise words perhaps, so why do we sit here debating an order that gives community justice centres further powers when we do not fully appreciate how effective those centres actually are?

In conclusion, we support the principle of the community justice centres and what they are attempting to do, and we do not have a conceptual problem with the order. We are strongly in favour of
 
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improving access to justice, but the Government need to be more transparent about how the system is working in practice—it seems that a lot of evaluation has been going on in that area—and how cost-effective it is for the taxpayer.

2.40 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope, having failed to do so in the second sitting of the Criminal Defence Service Bill. As the Minister said, we concluded our business rather earlier than we had expected.

There are two things in the order that I welcome. The first is the power under section 178 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. There were few parts of that Act, which I took through Committee and Report, that I agreed with, but this was one of them. It is therefore nice finally to see it implemented. The second is the concept of community justice centres, which I support strongly. It is a waste of time to argue authorship of such ideas, which appear in different areas simultaneously. The experience in New York is part of the genesis of the order. We have been talking for some time about the concept of neighbourhood courts, and the Government have obviously been thinking in the same terms and have brought forward these proposals, which we welcome hugely.

We want to see community sentencing work more effectively. It is an important part of the penal system and must deal effectively with recidivism. I think that community sentencing has that capacity. It is also important, however, to ensure that it secures the confidence of the general public, and the more we can link the penalty with the area, location and community in which a crime is committed, the more likely it is that such confidence will be established. For all of those reasons, I will support having these courts in Liverpool and Salford.

The only questions that I have are the following. First, the order deals directly with the two specified courts only. We hope that there will be more such courts around the country following evaluation, and that a class of court will be established on which the power in question can be conferred. I invite the Minister to agree that it may be better in due course to have such a class of court identified than to have a separate order for each court. There is no reason why the power should not be extended to magistrates courts in our towns and villages—the old-fashioned community justice centres that serve local communities across the country. They are sadly diminishing in number and receding from the public that they serve, but they are nevertheless important.

One technical point is: what happens when a person falling within the scheme of the courts moves to a different location? As I understand the order, there is no capacity for the process of review to be undertaken by a court in another location. In other words, if a person moves out of north Liverpool or Salford, their sentencing regime effectively comes to an end. I am not sure what will happen in that situation. Will some form of dialogue be established between the sentencing
 
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magistrates or judge and the offender to negotiate a future position, or will there be an automatic process whereby the person leaves the jurisdiction of the court? Will the Minister explain what will happen to an offender who is no longer within the jurisdictional location of one of the courts to which the order applies? With that exception, I support the order.

I am conscious that a Division may be called at any moment in the Standing Committee next door, of which I am a member, so if I have to leave precipitately, I hope that the Committee will understand that it is only because I am required to vote.

2.46 pm

Bridget Prentice: I welcome the Opposition’s support for the proposal, albeit with one or two questions attached. First, I say to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that I very much welcome his support for section 178, the point of which is to give us the kind of flexibility that the order displays. I hope that he appreciates my saying the name of his constituency correctly. I have managed to mispronounce it for heaven knows how many years.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the point of bringing about community justice as we are doing in Liverpool and Salford is to get the support of the community. I understand that those two places were chosen because community activity there pressed for such centres in their locality.

The hon. Gentleman asked what happens if an offender moves. Offenders cannot be reviewed in any other court; they would be subject to community orders. People who are offenders often do move as they may be part of a transient population. They would have to be managed by people in the new area to which they move. We may have to look at that more carefully to ensure that they still get the kind of support given by Judge Fletcher and the communities in Liverpool and Salford.

Mr. Heath: This is a serious issue because the original sentence at a community justice centre will be predicated on the sort of support that the Minister suggested. Therefore, the appropriate sentence in another place might be completely different. I am not
 
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sure that there is a mechanism for re-sentencing in those conditions. Some thought needs to be given to exactly how the offender management programme will continue once the person involved is no longer within the immediate locality.

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Although the offender will be managed by the probation manager in the new area, I will ask the Minister of State to write to the hon. Gentleman in more detail about how that works in practice.

In response to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), I can tell him that a cost-benefit analysis will be carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the results will be available in two or three months’ time, probably in early summer. A separate qualitative evaluation is also being conducted which will examine matters such as the impact on victims and witnesses as well as on the community as a whole. That is being done by an independent research company and the results for Liverpool will be available in December. The results for Salford will not be available until early 2007.

In response to the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the lecture that Judge Fletcher gave to his former university, Liverpool, I can tell him that Liverpool issued an erroneous press release saying that the lecture would be the first report of his findings. That was a misreport of what he was, in fact, about to say. Liverpool university withdrew the press release but, not surprisingly for some corners of the press, the Liverpool Echo reported the misreport, which may be why the hon. Gentleman unfortunately got the wrong idea of what Judge Fletcher was saying in that instance. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a full evaluation will be made available.

Given that the community justice centres have been in operation for only just over a year, we need to give them detailed consideration. When those evaluations are made, I hope that they will be made available to the hon. Gentleman and other Members of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the Draft Community Order (Review by Specified Courts in Liverpool and Salford) Order 2006.

Committee rose at nine minutes to Three o’clock.

                                                                                           
 
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