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11 Dec 2006 : Column 618

David T.C. Davies: I have no idea—the hon. Lady will have to ask my right hon. Friend. The last time that I hugged a hoodie was when I put my arms around one on the police parliamentary scheme, holding him until an officer came and put cuffs on him. That is the only time that they should receive a hug of any sort.

Mr. Llwyd rose—

David T.C. Davies: Of course, I shall give way to my hon. Friend from Wales.

Mr. Llwyd: I think that this is a thoroughly bad Bill, but I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about clause 25. One of the faults of the system is that we fail to rehabilitate people who serve custodial sentences. If the provision enables young people to be allowed out for training so that they can re-enter the mainstream when they come out, that is a good thing, preventing them from becoming recidivists.

David T.C. Davies: The hon. Gentleman has far more legal experience than me. As a practising barrister, he will know that young people are already allowed out, as they can be released on temporary licence to undertake work in the community. However, clause 25 will put into a children’s home people who have been sentenced to detention—and, in this day and age, they are not given such a sentence for nothing. I have given the issue a good airing, and I sincerely hope that those two clauses are not included in the Bill on Third Reading. I shall certainly attempt to address the matter again on Report.

Turning to the Bill overall, I commend the Carter report, which is well written. It is certainly much better than the usual literary behemoths that come crashing through our letter boxes every day, as it is clear, concise and readable. It is short, sharp and to the point, which is very good stuff indeed. I cannot be quite as complimentary about its content. In fairness, Carter provided some useful information, but he ignored a great deal of important evidence, and that failing clouded some of his conclusions. He began by stating as a given fact that people are now serving longer sentences. I do not accept that at all. People are given longer sentences in court than they receive in other European countries, but they do not serve them. The sentences that they serve bear hardly any relation to the ones that we read about in the newspapers. For all their talk of being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, the Government have extended the availability of early release. Previously, people were allowed out halfway through their sentence if they were sentenced to less than four years, but now everyone on a fixed sentence is let out automatically, whether or not they have been well behaved.

The Government have extended tagging, which has been a disaster. Does the Minister know, for example, that many people refuse to allow the tagging authorities entry to their home, and are not recalled to prison? In some cases, it takes up to eight days to find people so that they can be tagged. Not content with that, the Government have brought the same principle to bear on community service. We may read that someone receives 160 hours of community service, but that is not what they serve. If they turn up a few times
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and paint the walls that they have been told to paint, the probation service goes back to the court and says, “They are doing very well, so we would like the sentence to be reduced.” Once again, the public are led up the garden path, as they are not told what sentences people really serve.

Carter went on to state that more people go to prison in the UK than anywhere else in Europe. The Home Secretary made quite a good defence, as he pointed out that in a comparison of crimes that attract sentences, Britain is much more lenient than most other European countries. Unfortunately, however, we have more criminals. Carter did not state that of the 80,000 people in prison, 11,000 are foreign nationals, so they should not be included in the results. Of those 80,000 people, 20,000 have been recalled to prison, either while serving a community sentence or after committing further crimes on early release. If they have been given that many chances, what else can we do? There are 6,000 lifers, which is a pleasant surprise, as since 2000, the Government have released 53 people who were sentenced to life imprisonment. Some 13,000 people are on remand and are deemed to dangerous to walk the streets, so they certainly should not be included in the 80,000 total.

That leaves about 30,000 people whom judges choose to send to prison. If we compare that record with that of the rest of Europe, we do not appear to be harsh at all. In their response to the Carter report, the Government say that only serious, dangerous and persistent offenders should go to prison. Does the Minister consider council tax protestors to be serious, dangerous and persistent offenders? Personally, I would not mind living next door to a council tax protestor, yet when such a crime is committed against them, the Government seem to think that prison is a deterrent that works, and are happy for council tax protestors to be locked up.

The hon. Member for Batley and Spen said that prison is an expensive option. I am not a statistician or a probation officer, but the evidence in the reports does not suggest that that is the case. The Library notes state that a 5 per cent. reduction in crime will lead to a £1.7 billion saving. A Home Office report estimates the cost to society as £60 billion. We can extrapolate a cost to society of about £34 billion, and agree that the cost of crime to Britain is £34 billion to £60 billion a year on Government figures. We spend about £3.5 billion a year on prisons. Carter, like many people, says that if we imprison 85,000 more of the most persistent offenders, we could reduce crime by up to 50 per cent. If we double the prison population, we can reduce crime by 50 per cent. If we spend an extra £3.5 billion on prison, the net saving to society is £17 billion to £30 billion, depending on which set of Home Office figures we want to believe. Either way, it is a bargain. Build more prisons—they are a bargain. At £20,000 to £30,000 a place, let us get as many people in as we can, and we will save ourselves billions and billions of pounds.

Mike Wood: Is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that we double the number of prison places?

David T.C. Davies: Yes, that is exactly what I am doing, based on page 15 of Carter’s report, which states:

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That is what I am suggesting. We could easily identify them because the police know who they are.

Mr. Llwyd: May I direct the hon. Gentleman’s attention to what Carter concluded in 2003 in the “Managing Offenders, Reducing Crime” strategy unit paper? He stated that

David T.C. Davies: I am sorry, but that is not what Carter says on page 15, which I am looking at. I suggest the hon. Gentleman looks at the third paragraph of chapter 3, which states that if we can imprison the 100,000 persistent offenders, we will reduce crime—Carter says “dramatically”, but his earlier comments imply a reduction of 50 per cent. That makes my original point: Carter ignores some of the evidence in his own report.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that the only way to stop prolific offenders reoffending is to incapacitate them by locking them up for the rest of their natural lives? Does he not accept that a longer-term solution entails some measure of rehabilitation to reduce the number of prolific offenders and to avoid the revolving-door process whereby they go to jail but the moment they are back on the streets they reoffend?

David T.C. Davies: I am not quite as bad as I sound. I do accept those points, and I am glad that the hon. Lady has given me a chance to revert to my eminently reasonable self. Although I strongly believe in everything that I have said, we need to take a look at prisons. Let us start by examining the reoffending rates.

We are constantly told that roughly 60 per cent. of people leaving prison and 53 per cent. on community sentences will reoffend within two years. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen pointed out that 70 per cent. of people on short sentences will reoffend. Although that figure is not quoted in the report, we all accept that people going into prison for short sentences are far more likely to reoffend. There is no argument about that. Unfortunately, the conclusion of Carter and the Government seems to be that our response should be not to send people to prison at all.

People on short sentences are usually moved around a little at the start. If they are likely to be released halfway through their sentence, and if they are to be in prison for only six months, the authorities take the view that there is not much they can do with them, so they will keep them quiet and make their cells as comfortable as possible—I am all in favour of that, by the way—but they will not give them the education and the vocational skills which we all agree they need. I have two prisons in my constituency, which I have been visiting for about eight years as a Member of the Assembly.

I am the first to accept—you see, I do have a social conscience—that many of those who find themselves in
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prison are people whom we would recognise from school as the ones who spent their time behind the bike sheds smoking cigarettes, while the rest of us were doing some work. They are always quite pleasant when one goes into the prison. They have usually been dealt a few bad hands—they often come from broken homes, got in with the wrong crowd and into drugs.

There is much that can be done to help such people, but we will not help them by putting them in a comfortable cell with a PlayStation and a colour television for six months and then chucking them straight back on the streets again. We must first give them vocational skills, and secondly give them the skills and the impetus to go out and find work for eight hours a day.

Longer prison sentences work. None of the speakers in the debate have pointed out that people serving four years or more in prison have a reoffending rate of about 30 per cent., which is almost twice as good as the probation service’s figure of 53 per cent., and those serving 10 years or more have an even lower reoffending rate of about 10 per cent., although I accept that many of those are people who committed a one-off murder and cannot necessarily be included in the figures.

The point is still a fair one: statistics show that the longer someone serves in prison, the less likely they are to reoffend. Part of the reason for that is that if they are in prison for a few years, the prison authorities will try to work with them and put them on the anger management courses, the drug treatment courses and the education courses that they need in order to try and tackle the habits that got them into prison in the first place.

Because Carter has not addressed any of these aspects, the conclusions that he has reached are, if not fundamentally flawed, slightly erroneous. He is saying that we can solve all problems by bringing in the private sector to deal with the probation service. I am a Conservative, as the House might have guessed, and a fairly traditional one. I will not say that we need to protect the public sector at all costs. I will not say that we need to protect the probation service at all costs, because I know some of the cases in which it has been involved and in which there has been a horrendous lack of supervision of people in its charge.

One of the most shocking cases that I have dealt with over the past few years was that of a man called Craig Sweeney, who was a paedophile. He raped a child under the age of 10, for which he was sentenced to a wholly inadequate term in prison, which I think was about six years. He was then let out of prison into the care of the probation service and, while he was still in a probation hostel, he went out and committed an identical crime on another child. It was only by the grace of God that he was found in a car with that child before some worse disaster befell her. He has been given another sentence, incidentally, which means that he could be out of prison in less than six years, which says a lot about the justice system in this country.

Mr. Llwyd: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

David T.C. Davies: I will clarify my remarks. Sweeney could be out in six years; he could serve a maximum of 12. Either way, he will be out far too early, but that is
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not the point that I am making. When the case first arose, everyone said that the probation service had failed yet again. I went to see the local probation service about the matter. What they said was interesting, and the Minister will have to address the point if he wants to make his case. They said, “We didn’t want this person out. We had him in our care, but we accept that there are people being released from prison who shouldn’t be released to us.”

The Minister will have to explain to us how the private sector dealing with such people will be any more effective than the not very effective efforts of the public sector. I support the principle of enabling all sorts of other providers to come in. We heard earlier about the military personnel offering courses. There is a good scheme in Wales called Outreach which is also run by the military, more for people who are going down that road than for ex-offenders. There is a great deal of expertise out there in the private sector.

With regard to religious providers, we should be careful that they will not try to impose their view of society on others. Many of the religious organisations in my constituency that work with drug offenders do a tremendous job. I pay particular tribute to the Teen Challenge organisation in south Wales, but there are people out there who are not so benign. We must be careful of that.

The overall question is whether the Government’s proposals will lead to a reduction in crime or to a reduction in costs. I have nothing against reducing costs. On that basis it would be possible to support the Bill, hopefully without clauses 24 and 25, but I fear that unless we get serious about ensuring, first, that people serve the sentences that they are given by a judge and, secondly, that while they are in prison they get all the help they need to get off drugs and to get the vocational skills that they require in order to find gainful employment in the outside world, the Bill will do nothing whatsoever to reduce crime. The best we can do is to give it a slightly half-hearted welcome.

6.9 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): Apart from the first part of the speech of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), whom I shall not follow down some of the roads that he travelled, the debate has concentrated on only two or three clauses—the clauses dealing with probation. In the nearly three years since the Carter report was produced, this is the first time that we have debated the matter on the Floor of the House, although there have been a number of Adjournment debates. Throughout the debates and statements since Carter, the contentious issue has been contestability—although we have occasionally had discussions about other matters such as what on earth we were doing appointing on some inflated salary regional offender managers who did not, and still do not, have any regions to manage.

Opposition Front Benchers have clearly stated that they are perfectly happy with privatisation, their only concern being who is providing the service and whether it is provided nationally or locally. I wish that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) had been as clear at the probation officers’ conference a few weeks ago, when he made every effort to fudge the
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issue and not to clarify where the Tories stand. We have been told time and again that this is not about privatisation, and we heard that again today. Nevertheless, however Ministers try to dress it up, there is no doubt that the Bill allows for the privatisation, at some point in the future, of any part of the probation service. Clause 3 states:

It is not just about bringing in the voluntary sector or what is done about providing accommodation, drugs rehabilitation, education or all the other things that are part of dealing with reoffending. Those of us who oppose this are painted as dinosaurs who do not want anything to change. It has been falsely suggested that we object to the idea of the voluntary sector being involved in some rehabilitation work with offenders. We are not saying that there is no place for the voluntary sector, but we question the opening up of the core work of the probation service to privatisation. Nothing in the Bill would prevent any part of the work of the probation service from being privatised at some point.

We are told that change is necessary because performance is not good enough, reoffending rates are too high, and not enough work is going to the voluntary sector. As my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) said, it does not help the debate when Ministers put the worst possible gloss on reoffending rates by taking the highest figure that can be found—the 66 per cent. that applies to people coming out of prison—and try to portray it as representing the performance of the whole service. Most people who have been supervised by the probation service have lower reoffending rates, particularly if one takes out offences that they committed before the probation order came into effect. Such juggling of the figures does not improve confidence in these proposals. It is easy to say that the reoffending rate is too high, but I have yet to hear from Ministers any suggestion of what they think might be achievable. The targets for the national probation service no longer include reoffending rates. The regulatory impact assessment says that

However, it does not say why the Bill will lead to a such a reduction, what is the evidence that the proposed structural changes are necessary to reduce reoffending, or what the alternatives are.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s work as chair of the criminal justice unions parliamentary group in considering this issue, in which he has a long track record of involvement. The Bill allows for extra resettlement providers, who are essential in reducing reoffending. He says that he is not against the voluntary sector being involved. We want to extend its involvement, which is currently limited and decreased when we took away the target.

Mr. Gerrard: I thank the Minister for his comments. As with the reoffending figures, we must be sure that we are comparing like with like. Before 2001, there was a specific target whereby the probation service was asked to spend 7 per cent. of its revenue on voluntary organisations. The Home Office removed that target
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when the national probation service came into being after the reorganisation in 2001. Another change took place in 2001, when the national probation service’s budget was top-sliced so that money could be used directly by central Government on skills training and on accommodation through the “Supporting People” agenda, which has done excellent work. Since property management was taken to the national level, there has been a pretty poor record in respect of some privatisation of some properties.

Given the probation service’s increasing budget, there is plenty of capacity to expand some of the work that the voluntary sector does through drug rehabilitation projects, resettlement projects and education. I have no problem with that, and I have not spoken to anyone in the probation service who has any problem with the idea that there should be greater co-operation and partnership with the not-for-profit sector. However, these proposals go far beyond that. My hon. Friend the Minister will recall that a couple of weeks ago he wrote a letter to the general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers in which he said that he wants to improve the performance of the whole service and that the public sector cannot do everything on its own. He went on to make this important point:

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