Draft Community Order (Review by Specified Courts) Order 2007

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Mr. Hanson: I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that the National Offender Management Service has given its full agreement to the proposals in the order.
Mr. Burrowes: I am grateful for that assurance; I would not wish to distinguish between support in principle for the order, which I am sure is shared across the services, but the pressures on the probation service need to be put in context. When the implementation effects of the order are reviewed, careful account needs to be taken of the impact on the probation service.
The Court Service is also concerned about practical matters. Has there been a proper assessment of the impact on courts? Listings are often full, and breach courts in particular carry a heavy work load. Is there a clear understanding of the impact that the measure will have on those courts?
The is also an issue concerning those who will be responsible for the review of community orders. Does the Minister anticipate that reviews will be conducted personally, by the magistrate who passed the original sentence or one of their benchmen, or will another magistrate do it? The burden might fall on lay magistrates. Professional magistrates or district judges might be preferred when it comes to undertaking reviews, which may be of concern to lay magistrates, who may end up feeling that they are not at the forefront of the implementation of new measures.
The order might have an impact on the criminal defence service. The explanatory memorandum indicates that some cases
“may qualify for legal aid subject to the”
interests of justice test. Given that legal aid is restricted to cases in which the restriction of liberty is foremost, it would be interesting if the Minister gave examples of when such cases will arise. In what circumstances will cases involving community penalties attract legal aid? Will the duty solicitor arrangements be amended to enable duty solicitors to take account of the reviews? Has there been an appropriate assessment of the impact and costs of such an amendment?
Article 4(6) deals with cases in which the matter would need to be adjourned to deal with community order non-compliance. The question is whether that might itself make legal aid appropriate, and whether it would be appropriate in practice for there to be early disclosure of reports not only to the magistrates but to the previously assigned defence solicitors, so that to avoid any unnecessary adjournments, applications for legal aid could be made to ensure that progress with that case was made quickly.
In conclusion, the real issue is about ensuring that the community orders work properly in order to give the public confidence and to ensure that offenders are rehabilitated. It is, however, important to take full account of resource allocation and the impact throughout the criminal justice system. When the reviews are more widely implemented, they may expose problems with the early implementation of requirements on alcohol treatment and curfew orders. The Government must be properly equipped to tackle them and to ensure that, when the prison population is rising, the urgent need to make community orders effective is met.
2.51 pm
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate mentioned lay magistrates, and I suppose that in the interests of openness, I should declare that my wife is a lay magistrate. Evaluation was mentioned, and I hope that the Minister will cover it. I hope that the evaluation will take into account the views of lay magistrates in the Liverpool experiment especially, which would cover the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the place of the lay magistracy in the system, and whether they feel that they are being displaced by professional district judges. I hope that they do not feel that way.
I am disappointed that the full evaluation is not available and will not be until October. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I thought that the point of extending the range of pilots was that there were not enough cases going through the system in Liverpool and Salford alone to provide evidence to conclude accurately whether that form of review worked. I thought that that was the main reason why the pilots needed to be extended. If that is true, it may indicate bad planning by the Government on the number of courts needed to evaluate the project, but nothing more. I should not read anything more sinister into the situation. Certainly, at this stage I should not follow the hon. Gentleman’s lead when he talked about a postcode lottery. The project is still part of a pilot whose aim is to work out whether that particular way of operating works.
The Liverpool court follows a very interesting community restorative justice approach, in which offenders pay back to the whole community by getting engaged in a local project such as helping to clear out a canal. I would like such an approach to be extended and developed further, and to bring the community into the choice of penalties, which would be a way of reconnecting the public with the criminal justice system. Is that approach intended to be used in all the courts in the proposal?
The Liverpool court deals with the review process first, by using a mentoring system. In appropriate cases the offender is allocated a mentor, who helps to get them through the community order. That might have an impact on the success rate of the community order, which is a separate matter from the review process itself.
Secondly, in tackling the breach of orders, the Liverpool court has its own dedicated security force from the local police, unlike many magistrates courts where a private security firm carries out court security. The personnel of private security firms are not police constables, so they are not in a position to execute an order of the court in respect of people who breach their orders. A big advantage of the Liverpool court is that its own dedicated police force can very quickly execute orders against people who breach orders, which in itself might affect the success rate, independently of any other aspect of review.
How do the Government see the pilot? If they think it is about extending the number of areas that follow the initial way of doing things and the idea is to have as many examples of that as possible, it makes sense for them all to do the same thing because if they are not, one cannot tell whether that particular way of doing things has worked. They must all be comparable. That is one possibility, in which case the extra elements should be employed in all the courts, including the Salford court.
However, the Government may want to compare the full-scale approach of the Liverpool court with the more minimal approach to reviewing community orders, in which case at least some, although not all, of the extra courts being given this power should follow the Liverpool route. All the extra elements in the Liverpool way of doing things have resource implications, as they all cost money.
I was disappointed that the only costs mentioned in the explanatory memorandum were what were thought to be the very low costs in respect of the criminal defence service. If there is to be a proper evaluation of the Liverpool community justice centre approach, at least some of the courts that are being brought on line under this order should get more resources so that they can follow the same full-scale approach. If they do not, we will not be able to evaluate the Liverpool experiment. I hope it is a success, and is seen to be so, and can therefore be rolled out in the rest of the country.
I have no objections to the order and I wish the experiment well but I want the Government to be clearer about precisely how they will carry out the evaluations.
3 pm
Mr. Hanson: I am grateful for the speeches by the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate and for Cambridge. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate is aware that there are a number of pressures on the criminal justice system at the moment. He rightly mentioned that we have a considerable prison-related pressure at the moment and we are looking to develop further uses of community penalties. The development of the models that we have from the two pilots and the extension of those pilots to the 11 new courts are a way in which we can in the long run provide a better way of managing community penalties which will result in fewer breaches and fewer people being recalled to prison. That should help alleviate the prison population pressures, but it is also a holistic approach to looking at the offender and his particular needs.
I accept from both hon. Members that there is concern about the evaluation process to date. I have already said, openly and honestly, that in my eight weeks in this post, and having agreed to table this order several weeks ago, I wanted to have the evaluations completed, published and before the Committee today. After tabling the order there were difficulties in producing the evaluations to a standard that the Committee and the House would expect. I have therefore decided to publish them later but I have told the Committee, openly and honestly, that the evaluation at a parochial level has been very positive. If either hon. Gentleman wished to talk to anybody involved in these schemes they would hear nothing but positive feedback for them.
I give the commitment again today that the evaluation process, which has taken longer than initially planned, will be produced and reported on formally, and I will lay a copy of the report of the evaluation in the House of Commons by October 2007. The Committee can hold me to that by means of parliamentary questions and other mechanisms if it so wishes. The evaluations have concluded to date, so it is difficult to add to the points that were mentioned about involving magistrates. My understanding is that the magistrates have been involved. They have been consulted. They have given their feedback and their views will be taken into account in the final evaluation and conclusions.
This is an innovative and complex proposal, but I am confident that the success to date has been proved. I need to have a formal standard evaluation document produced so that I can table it. At this stage, regrettably, we are not in a position to table that document.
The hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned the differences between Liverpool and Salford. There are qualitative differences in the way in which Liverpool and Salford operate. Salford is developing a community justice approach within a traditional magistrates court and the 11 extensions that I have announced as part of the project today, in Bradford, Birmingham, Devon and Cornwall, Hull, Leicester, Merthyr Tydfil, Middlesbrough, Nottingham and London, will be on the Salford model rather than on the Liverpool model. But it is an organic process. We will evaluate, monitor and look at how we can develop the schemes and operation still further.
Some of the schemes in Middlesbrough, Nottingham, Devon and Cornwall and Bradford are now up and running. Additional resources of some £1 million have been put in place to help establish those schemes and get them on their feet. We will monitor those schemes in due course and look at how we can develop the evaluation for the longer term and potential further expansion. For me and for the Government, this is about preventing reoffending. It is about looking at the difficulties that people on community sentences face, to see whether we can help them through that period, so that at the end of it they have completed their sentence in a positive way with the support of the court and have looked at any holistic issues, such as drug and alcohol problems or even attendance. I hope that that will be of benefit. I hope that Opposition Members can accept those comments in the spirit in which they are made.
The question of probation resources was mentioned. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate referred to yesterday’s report from the chief inspector of the probation services. I will not hide from the fact that some comments in that report raised some potential difficulties down the line about how prison pressures and other pressures are impacting on the probation service. Over the 10 years that my party has been in government, resources to the probation service have increased by 70 per cent. I accept that the prison population has risen, causing an ongoing impact on probation services. I am confident, as is the National Offender Management Service, with the support it has given to the pilots and to the order, that it can cope with that demand and ensure that there are the proper resources to meet the needs of the probation service on the issues before the Committee.
I repeat that one of the key things, although it can be resource-intensive, is supporting people through the court assessment process. That can save resources in the long run by preventing people from breaching probation, returning to prison and serving sentences with all the inherent difficulties that that creates for prison populations. Most importantly, it could prevent the potential damage to the individual’s long-term ability to avoid reoffending. All of this is ultimately about trying to ensure that people in my constituency, Cambridge and Enfield, Southgate do not face crime from people who have been in the system and then reoffend.
The National Offender Management Service was mentioned and I want to confirm again that it is fully supportive of the community justice programme team. Indeed, we have given a small amount of funding to the probation service to cover additional costs in those areas. When the evaluation takes place in due course, we will be able to look at the difficulties that may be experienced with probation resources and that should be taken into account before we have any wider roll-out.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate mentioned the complex and difficult issue of what happens when an offence is committed in one area but the offender lives in another. I would like to reflect on that and respond to him in writing after the Committee. I hope that it will not force him to oppose the order. It is a complex issue that we are grappling with as part of the evaluation process that we are going through. I will write to him about the detail when we have reflected on it. It is an issue that we are aware of. We have discussed it internally and are coming to conclusions. However, with respect to the Committee, I do not wish to commit to a particular policy when we have not yet considered it because of a number of issues. The hon. Gentleman also asked why it is taking so long to get to where we are, which the hon. Member for Cambridge also touched on.
The power has so far been given only to community justice courts, and on the basis of the evaluation, we will be taking decisions in due course on whether we want to add to it. As hon. Members will know, there are resource implications to do with the review process and probation reports, and the extension to Crown courts and other courts will depend on available resources. We must look at how we can work that through in due course.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate asked whether offenders have access to representation and legal aid. The reviews under section 178 are not hearings. Offenders will not normally have legal representation in them, because they are reviews of an existing sentence before the court. If an offender appears before a review and his progress is satisfactory, that will be a matter for general discussion. If, however, the performance is unsatisfactory, the court will adjourn the review to allow breach proceedings to commence. At that stage, individuals before the court will be able to instruct a solicitor, and if they qualify for legal aid they will be able to make an application accordingly. The review is a process that will, I hope, lead to satisfactory reviews that show an interest by the court in the progress of the offender. If the offender finds themselves in difficulty, legal representation is to be included.
I have touched on this point before, but I should like to clarify the matter. Both hon. Gentlemen reflected on whether magistrates felt that the new system was a threat to them. Magistrates are fully involved in the new projects, and have been involved in the evaluation, and I will certainly be happy to meet any organisations representing magistrates to obtain their views if they feel unhappy about progress to date.
If there are further points, I shall happily try to clarify them, but I hope that there is general support from the Committee and I commend the order to it.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Community Order (Review by Specified Courts) Order 2007.
Committee rose at ten minutes past Three o’clock.
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