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4.45 pm

There is a second element to the problem. What is the effect of releasing prisoners—I mean the ones who should be in prison, rather than the ones who should not—into the care of the probation service? The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is right to draw attention to the deficiencies that exist at present. The probation service is under-resourced and overstretched, just as the Prison Service is. It struggles to cope with its current work load, and it will certainly struggle with the additional burden that the proposals being considered today will impose on it.

Mr. Hogg: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a consequential problem is that the probation service is no longer able to supervise community service orders? As a result, the public have lost trust in them, and want custodial penalties to be imposed instead. The greater the burden loaded on to the probation service, therefore, the less attractive to the public the CSO option will become.

Mr. Heath: Again I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, as he has touched on a very important point. Both elements of the National Offender Management Service are overstretched at present. As a result, prisons do not do the job in terms of rehabilitation and deterrence that people fondly imagine that they do, and the probation service is unable to provide a satisfactory alternative that enjoys the public confidence.

I am full of admiration for the work that probation officers do, but I recognise the constraints under which they work. Those constraints are extreme, and they are getting worse. The Government have hugely underestimated what is needed to provide an adequate service. Even if the probation service had sufficient resources to do the job that the Government expect it to do, the problem of how to manage offenders in the system would remain. That management task will be made immeasurably more difficult by the proposals that we are considering at present. The complexities presented by the movement of prisoners out of the prison estate, or their recall back into it, will be made much worse by the announcement that the Justice Secretary slipped out in a ministerial
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statement yesterday. In that statement, he made it clear that he is effectively abandoning the National Offender Management Service IT system that was supposed to provide the co-ordination between the prison and probation services.

The NOMS system was supposed to track movements around the prison estate and ensure that absurdities such as prisoners getting lost or ending up in the wrong place would not overtake the probation service as well. The Justice Secretary has decided, however, that the original IT specifications were much too ambitious, were escalating beyond his Department’s control and could no longer be afforded. He has therefore determined that the system will work only in prisons and that it will not extend to the probation service.

The Justice Secretary did not in the first instance ask the probation service what it needed to fulfil its task. In fact, it needs a very sophisticated IT system, because in some ways, probation work is more difficult than prison work. For example, prison staff can at least hope that a prisoner’s location—that is, his or her cell—is known, whereas probation officers cannot know as much about their charges. As a result, we have an inadequate system that will not now be improved. When NOMS was set up, we were given a set of high expectations that have been shown to be entirely imaginary, and I fear that we will end up with a system that is grossly under-resourced.

I regret that the Secretary of State was not able to make a verbal statement to the House on these matters, as I suspect that many people will not have read his written statement. Even if they have read it, I doubt that they will have understood it. I heard the right hon. Gentleman speak on the radio last night about his proposals, and he was finding it very difficult to answer some simple questions about how NOMS would develop. If he gets the opportunity to speak again—and the time constraints under which we are working mean that our expectations on that front must remain limited—I hope that he will set out how he intends to put right the difficulties that he has created by his decisions.

We are right to question the Government’s judgment on this issue, not on the basis of reducing the prison population—they are right about that—but in respect of how they are choosing to do it, the lack of resources they are prepared to put into it and in the arbitrary nature of many of the proposals before us today.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) focused on new clause 29, and I will carefully consider the points that he made. However, I do not want to see circumstances in which IPPs are artificially extended beyond the normal tariff for an offence simply in order to address the points that he made. I fully understand his point about the lack of opportunities within the prison system to satisfy the Parole Board and others of suitability for release and the need to arrange such matters much more satisfactorily. I am not sure that knocking the provision out would help that process; it may indeed hinder it. That is why I shall consider carefully before advising my hon. Friends on which way to vote if the hon. and learned Gentleman divides the House on the matter. However, I agree with the principle that he set out. We
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have a chaotic system that is dishonest in its treatment of offenders and the public reaction to that. We should and must do very much better in future.

Mr. Hogg: I support strongly what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said about the difficulties of sentencing in the criminal courts. I entirely agree that sentencing is one of the most difficult tasks of the trial judge, and it has become enormously more complicated in recent years. That makes the process on which we are embarking today thoroughly undesirable, because these amendments, which we are having to discuss in a sharply compressed period, make very substantial changes. They should not have been tabled on Report. For a start, they place Mr. Speaker in an impossible position, in that a variety of difficult issues are grouped together in such a way that the House cannot seriously discuss them. As they were tabled on Report and not in Committee, they have not been the subject of extensive external consultation—at least, not of which I am aware—or, put differently, the result of any such consultation has not come to the attention of right hon. and hon. Members.

Mr. Gummer: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is precisely on such subjects that the House should have the most extensive debate, because they affect people in the courts and in the carrying out of the laws that we pass in this House?

Mr. Hogg: Absolutely. When we deal with sentencing it is very important that we consult with interests outside this House, not least those who are responsible for the imposition of sentences, so that we may hear the professional view of the likely consequences of our actions as legislators. I am against the process on which we are embarking, and I hope that the other place treats this group of amendments with gravity and does not hesitate to send it back to this House for further consideration.

That said, I have only three points to make, because—as others have said—there is no way in which we can subject the individual amendments to proper consideration today.

On new clause 26, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough is right to say that it is bizarre that we will allow credit to be given for time when the person is asleep against the period that the court thinks he should be serving in prison. The statutory requirements in the relevant sentencing legislation are quite plain: sentences of imprisonment must be imposed only when they are absolutely necessary. It is absurd to dilute that requirement by saying that if the person is asleep at the material time, they are entitled to have that taken into account when a reduction of the period of imprisonment is considered. It is absurd.

John Bercow: Is not that the concept of unconscious remission?

Mr. Hogg: That is one of the better descriptions of it that I have heard. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who always has a felicitous choice of phrase.

I strongly suspect that I might not be entirely in agreement with all my right hon. and hon. Friends on new clause 29. I hasten to say that that causes me no
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disquiet. I am referring to sentences of indeterminate imprisonment, or imprisonment for public protection. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough is entirely right to say that those who are serving IPPs at the termination of the tariff period are the most difficult group of prisoners to manage.

IPPs are inherently unjust, because they do not give any kind of certainty about the term that a person should serve. I am well aware of the rationale behind such sentences, which is that they are for the protection of the public, in that a person will not be released until the responsible authorities think that they are safe to release, but it is difficult to judge when a person is safe to release. In the current climate, I suspect that many of the relevant authorities are guarding their back, and are not releasing people because of the uncertainty that necessarily arises. A lot of people are serving, or are likely to serve, terms of imprisonment that are excessive, given what they have done.

Mr. Garnier: I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend about the defensive decisions that—

Mr. Straw: Face the Chamber.

Mr. Garnier: It is good of the Justice Secretary even to condescend to come into the Chamber, let alone to interrupt me when I was addressing the Chair. May I say what a pleasure it is to see the Secretary of State? As I was saying, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) is entirely right that the Parole Board is making increasingly defensive decisions, particularly on the occasions on which it simply does not have the opportunity to examine the applicant for the licence release in life sentences. The problem with IPPs is that the individual concerned cannot even get in front of an examiner to persuade them that he is fit to be released.

Mr. Hogg: Yes. That is a slightly different point, but it is an important one. Partly because of overcrowding— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I must say to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) that that is not the way we should behave in the House.

Mr. Garnier: I apologise, but I think that the Secretary of State understood precisely what I was about.

Mr. Hogg: May I just follow up what my hon. and learned Friend said with regard to courses? There is a serious issue to address. Because of overcrowding and strained resources, many prisoners who have been given an IPP are not able to get on, or to complete, the training course that would enable them to be considered for release. In the prison system, unless individuals have gone through the training period, the question of their release at the end of the notional period cannot arise. That is a serious injustice, and it has actually taken place. It has given rise to decisions by the divisional court with regard to prisoners who have not had such training periods. If IPPs are to continue—and I have serious doubts about whether they should—they should be imposed only for those offences that can truly be categorised as serious.

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In the past, the classes of offence have been set out in schedules. The problem is that within the class there are many offences that sound serious but which, in truth, in a particular case are not serious. The only way in which one can determine whether an offence is truly serious in a particular case is with reference to the notional term of imprisonment imposed as the tariff. For that reason, I find the two-year notional term—the minimum term—far too low. That sentence can be imposed in respect of fairly minor offences, and I do not want to see someone who is convicted of a fairly minor offence facing an IPP. If I have to contemplate the system at all, I would want to drive up the threshold so that only those people who have committed serious offences are subject to an IPP.

5 pm

The last point that I want to make, which was made in part by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough, relates to the probation service. Any of us who practise in the criminal courts—I have practised for many years in the criminal courts and I still do; I make no attempt to conceal that—know well that many prisoners should not, in general terms, be in prison. One of the reasons for that is that the public have no real confidence in the alternatives. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) would probably never have any confidence in the alternatives, but that is by the bye.

The public need to have confidence in the alternatives, particularly in what I used to refer to as community service orders. They have no confidence now partly because community service orders are not seen to be sufficiently vigorous, and partly because in many cases they are not enforced at all, so there is no proper compliance. One of the reasons for that is that the probation service is grossly overwhelmed. It has too many people to supervise.

One of the consequences of some of the amendments in this grouping is that the probation service will be even more overwhelmed. The bizarre effect of that will be that it is unable to perform what it needs to perform in respect of people ordered to serve a community sentence order, there will be yet less public confidence in community service orders, and there will be greater public demand for people to be sent to prison for periods of custody.

John Bercow: May I put it to my right hon. and learned Friend that the problem with some community service orders is not merely that they are, as he rightly puts it, insufficiently rigorous, but that they are insufficiently rehabilitative in their character? Does he agree that one of the problems that bedevils in particular our young offender institutions is that there are about 12,000 young people in them, the great majority of whom go into them uneducated, untrained, unqualified, unemployed and unwell, and come out uneducated, unqualified, untrained, unemployed and unwell?

Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend is entirely right. One of the great tragedies of the whole penal system is that an extraordinarily high proportion of prisoners are
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educationally or otherwise inadequate. One of the purposes—not the only purpose—of prison is to rehabilitate, by providing basic training in this and that. That is largely frustrated by overcrowding. Although I am a strong proponent of education and training in prison, it must be acknowledged that it is not being provided. My hon. Friend is right when he says that rehabilitative programmes, which would be extraordinarily useful, are not being incorporated in community service orders.

I return to my general theme. I am extremely uneasy that we should be contemplating such a raft of very serious changes on Report, without proper discussion, without a Committee stage and without external consultation. This is precisely the sort of thing that the House should not be doing. I would be very surprised if the higher judiciary and others did not say in due course, when these matters come to the Court of Appeal, that this place has been failing in its duty.

Mr. Hanson: I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, for our interesting but short debate within the time available before the programme motion kicks in .

A number of points have been made, many of which go wider than the amendments, but which are obviously still related to them. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) have contributed in their usual helpful way to some of the issues.

There has been some consultation on the changes proposed by my noble Friend Lord Carter, for which we are legislating today. The previous Lord Chancellor, the noble Lord Falconer, commissioned Lord Carter to consider the whole question of prison population and pressure issues in May 2007. Between then and my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor producing the report on 5 December, Lord Carter engaged in significant consultation with the judiciary, with interested parties, with the Prison Service and the National Offender Management Service, and with my right hon. Friend and me.

The package of measures, which the legislative proposals before the House today deal with in part, was about not just some of the measures relating to IPPs, bail credits and sentencing in the amendments and new clauses, but a much wider set of proposals that cover some of the points raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. They will be aware that Lord Carter has not just dealt with the new clauses before us today but has announced recommendations, which we have accepted, to build additional prison capacity, so that by the end of 2012-13 we will have some 96,000 net places in the prison system in England and Wales, three titan prisons of 2,500 in London, the midlands and the north-west and emergency accommodation in Norfolk, for example, at the RAF base at Coltishall.

We will consider the possibility of a prison ship following Lord Carter’s recommendations, and, importantly, in reply to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, we will
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consider improving and extending community-based sentences, and tackling some of the confidence issues in those sentences. Under the youth provision orders in the earlier clauses of the Bill, we are looking at increasing confidence in such sentences by putting together a generic youth order that deals with drug and alcohol treatment, learning and the matters that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) mentioned in his helpful interventions. So the Carter package considers a range of measures, including new build and those before the House today.

I will reflect on the matters that have been raised today, but I want to make a couple of particular points. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough referred to bail credit and said that it was not like for like with the potential for remand in prison, because the loss of liberty was not the same as having time for credit on curfew at home. As I said in my opening remarks, the offender gets credit for only half the time spent on curfew, rather than the full time. We recognise that there is a difference between remand and curfew, but it is important to ensure that individuals can maintain their life. It is important that we consider the use of sentences in the community on curfew before potential sentencing in full.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough and I must have an honest disagreement about IPPs. I thought he would welcome our proposals. In Committee and elsewhere we recognised that the provisions, however well meaning they were in the past, do not serve a proper purpose now, for the very reasons that he mentioned, including the availability of courses and prisoners’ ability to be helpfully trained to come to terms with some of the offending behaviour that has led them to be sentenced in the first place. We need to address that properly; it is an important measure to bring before the House. The hon. and learned Gentleman has argued that we look at the issue through different ends of the telescope, but the Government’s end of the telescope—a minimum period for IPPs—allows for planning and proper investment, for offending behaviour to be addressed and for the assessment to be made. That is why I support the minimum tariff that we proposed in the amendments.

Mr. Garnier: There are 3,100 prisoners on IPPs; the proposal will have absolutely no bearing on them. How will the Government deal with the sclerosis that they are suffering from in the rehabilitation and release-from-IPP system?

Mr. Hanson: I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will know that we have put in extra resources to provide courses so that those who are now at minimum tariff or post-minimum tariff get the support to ensure that they get through the courses required to assess their suitability for release. If the proposals are passed by both Houses, that will have an impact of well over 1,000 places in respect of IPP. It is important that we introduce the measure.

The hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned concerns about those who do not meet the tariff threshold. In the legislation and elsewhere, a number of measures such as violent offender orders, sex offender orders and the multi-agency public protection arrangements framework, will look at the impact of individuals who do not meet the tariff threshold proposed in the Bill.

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