Previous Section Index Home Page

19 Feb 2008 : Column 18WH—continued

19 Feb 2008 : Column 19WH

Meg Hillier: There is nothing to prevent the police from doing that now. I shall move on, before concluding, to some of the other issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised about reviewing the situation.

It is worth highlighting why the new system benefits people. The old system clearly had problems. The account holder can now go to their bank knowing that the information will be, or should be, filtered through to the police, where appropriate. Financial institutions now have a single point of contact in each force, which is key. I met with the single points of contact for different forces and other organisations in the country at the end of last year.

Andrew Selous: Why does the Minister think that, despite the 745 people—not individual transactions—who had money stolen from their cards, not one bank or credit card company contacted the single point of contact in Bedfordshire police?

Meg Hillier: I do not know the answer to that. We need to look at why that happens and whether it is a regular occurrence. Later, I shall touch on how the Home Office wants to review the current situation.

The single points of contact will develop expertise. In the past, when cases were reported to police station front desks, it was not always clear whom they should be reported to. That was certainly a problem in cases involving complicated transactions involving several frauds in different locations, some of which might have taken place outside the local force’s area or even abroad. It could get very complicated for local police forces. Single points of contact will develop expertise and allow intelligence to be shared between different points of contact with others in the local police force and with the national fraud reporting centre. That will help to build up a pattern of intelligence. That means that resources can be targeted at the most important cases in which there are the highest number of victims or the most serious incidents.

The other benefit of the new system is that the police do not have to wait for correspondence from the financial institution while they assess whether the report concerns a genuine fraud. The police have an important duty, as do the financial institutions, to ensure that a fraud that is reported is indeed a fraud. I was perplexed by the comments from the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green about how the financial institutions check out fraud. It is important for the banks to have a process, but that is not for the Government to determine. The banks must ensure that they investigate, otherwise fraudsters will have—excuse the phrase, Miss Begg—a blank cheque to claim fraud on their accounts. They would have their money reimbursed, if we were to pursue to the end the hon. Lady’s approach.

Lynne Featherstone: The point that I was trying to make is that it is becoming more difficult for people to secure reimbursement, because banks are introducing more investigation. No one says that the banks should not investigate, because they must, but the number of cases referred to the Financial Ombudsman Service is increasing. I should have thought that the Government would be interested to learn about that and concerned about the extension in the time taken to investigate.

Meg Hillier: I welcome the hon. Lady’s clarification.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch asked how the national fraud reporting centre will work in practice,
19 Feb 2008 : Column 20WH
and I hope that I just answered some of that question. The centre will bring together the pattern of intelligence, just as in each local force, officers and lay professionals gather and analyse the data and intelligence to see the patterns of crime in an area. Similarly, the national fraud reporting centre will make such determinations, provide the data and intelligence to local forces and see whether there is a pattern throughout the country and internationally. It is worth stressing that the crime is international, as the figures that I have stated demonstrate. Therefore, intelligence gathering must be undertaken centrally. It would be an enormous burden on an individual force to try to tackle the issues internationally.

James Brokenshire: I want to clarify with the Minister one specific point: how the current situation, with reports effectively going to financial institutions, will interrelate with the NFRC. If that information is not channelled from the financial institution to the NFRC, it will receive not a full but a partial picture. It will not receive the intelligence and patterns of criminal behaviour that the Minister has addressed in her comments.

Meg Hillier: The financial and banking industries have been very positive about the establishment of the NFRC. I cannot see any reason why they would not want to participate, and it is not the impression that we have been given. They are very keen on, and supportive of, the centre’s establishment.

James Brokenshire: rose—

Meg Hillier: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must conclude my comments.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of fraud as a policing priority. It clearly competes with other serious and organised crime for policing priority, but the Home Office is consulting on a measurement framework to determine whether we can establish the levels of investigation and success. I stress again how seriously the Government take the issue. We have put in money to set up the mechanisms that I have outlined to ensure that there are better procedures not only to tackle fraud but to examine how we measure it.

The hon. Members for Hornsey and Wood Green and for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) have raised a couple of points. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington raised an individual case anonymously, but it is difficult to comment on an individual bank’s approach to fraud investigation. Financial institutions must take operational issues into account, but that is not the subject of this debate.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green has mentioned fraud that is growing through remote channels, which is a concern. There are several technical solutions to such fraud, including hand-held readers, and the Government are working closely with financial institutions to encourage the take-up of such initiatives by banks and the public. In the long term, I am responsible for the Home Office’s and the Government’s approach to identity cards, and we are at the early stages of investigating how that technology might benefit customers and financial institutions in that situation.

It is worth highlighting the protective measures that individuals can also take. We in the House are responsible for reminding all parties and the public of what can be done. I urge the public to look out for attachments on
19 Feb 2008 : Column 21WH
cash machines—if something looks fishy, do not use it. If a credit card is taken out of one’s sight, especially abroad, it is a risk, and it is always best to keep one’s credit card in view. One simple measure is for people to advise their bank when they travel abroad legitimately, because it helps the bank to build up patterns of behaviour—including the interesting patterns that the hon. Lady has dangled before us, but about which she did not go into detail—to ensure that it is the customer’s behaviour, not the fraudster’s. Using only locked and secure websites is also important. People frequently give out information online to anything that looks legitimate, but it is important that they are aware of the security issue, as the hon. Lady has rightly said.

Andrew Selous: Will the Minister give way one last time?

Meg Hillier: One last time.

Andrew Selous: Will the Minister ask either the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, or the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) to write to me about the assessment process that the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing promised would be in place in his written answer on 2 July 2007?

Meg Hillier: Absolutely. I am happy to do so. I shall ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to examine the lack of reporting in the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised. During my hon. Friend’s normal discussions with the banking industry, the matter would probably come up, but I shall ensure that he is aware of the particular case that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing stated in his written answer that we are keeping the situation under review, and we continuously assess the effectiveness of the arrangements. The process is continuous, so there will not be a big-bang moment, but this debate has been useful in highlighting some of the issues arising from the new reporting system. I stress that it is still, none the less, an improvement on what went before, and we are trying to streamline reporting and information gathering. With that intelligence and data, the police and the financial institutions will be better able to protect the public, who are the big victims.

My right hon. Friend has a steering group, comprising law enforcement agencies and banks, which meets regularly, and I shall ask him to put the issue on the agenda at his next meeting. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue with me today.

19 Feb 2008 : Column 22WH

Sentencing Policy

10.57 am

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you chairing our proceedings today, Miss Begg. This is an important debate about the sentencing options available to our criminal courts, and I am glad that we shall be under your watchful eye as you take care of us with your usual compassion and attention to detail. I am also pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister will listen to today’s contributions and respond to the debate. She is conscientious and diligent in carrying out her ministerial duties, and she will want to take close account of what is said. I hope that she will be able to respond positively to some of my points.

About 1.3 million adults are sentenced each year in the courts of England and Wales. In addition, children and young people appear before the courts, and about 120,000 court disposals were reported in 2006-07 involving them. Overall, since 1997, the number of crimes, including violent crime, is down, and last year, the number of deaths that the police reported as homicides was down to an eight-year low. The debate presents us with an opportunity not only to consider what to do for the future, but to pay tribute to those who work so diligently and with such commitment to serve the public through their work in, and for, the criminal justice system.

I very much support the police in their work. They play a pivotal role at every stage, from keeping the peace, through detecting crime, apprehending offenders, securing the evidence for convictions, enforcing bail conditions and taking part in the management of offenders subject to restrictions post-sentence, to playing their part to the full in multi-agency work, which includes persistent and prolific-offender programmes, such as the one I have visited four times in Stafford, and assessments of public protection and risk.

In addition to the police, the Crown Prosecution Service works conscientiously to secure fair trials, convictions of the guilty and advice to courts on appropriate sentences. Working with the police and agencies such as Victim Support, it ensures that victims feel as involved in the process as they want to be and that the system places them and their interests at its heart. At least, that is the ambition. The last time we had Question Time to the Solicitor-General, I asked him whether he was yet satisfied that the CPS consistently achieves that aim. I hope that we will continue to give attention principally to the interests of victims in the criminal justice system.

To carry on with my praise for those involved in the system, professional and lay judges bear heavy responsibility for decisions on guilt and innocence, bail and sentences, with a barrage of ill-informed criticism awaiting them when a decision is wrong or, with the benefit of hindsight, shown to be inadequate. Prison staff have a tough job keeping dangerous and violent people safely under lock and key and having an eye for vulnerable individuals who are not coping with imprisonment. They work tirelessly to improve the prospects of those leaving prison, so that they leave free from drug or alcohol misuse and with educational skills that they lacked on entry, and which will, we hope, assist them to be supported after release, especially in such crucial matters as housing, work and relationships.

19 Feb 2008 : Column 23WH

In the community, probation staff do phenomenal work with offenders. The risks are obvious given that there can hardly be 24-hour supervision, which is no doubt why so many probation officers give 110 per cent. effort to their work, routinely going beyond the call of duty, patiently working with offenders when others might feel like giving up on them, and securing benefits for the community at large by reducing offending, supervising payback and educating the public about sentencing.

Then there is the Youth Justice Board and the many youth offending teams up and down the country, which perform so valiantly as they seek to divert children and young people from what might otherwise become a life of crime. Given the prolific nature of some offending, they are truly in the forefront of efforts to protect the public. As someone who took part in the many parliamentary debates about the creation of the National Offender Management Service, I know only too well that many other organisations contribute a huge amount to the work that goes on to reduce offending, to give effect to court sentences and to support victims of crime—organisations such as Victim Support, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and Rainer. No doubt there are many other groups and organisations that I have omitted to praise. I acknowledge the fantastic work that they all do, and I mean them no discourtesy by not naming them individually.

I turn to the situation in our prisons and to imprisonment as a sentence. In my view, and I think that of most people, prisons should be reserved for dangerous and violent offenders. The public demand protection from dangerous people and severe punishment for people who commit heinous crimes. Prisons are full, partly because sentences are longer. Indeterminate sentences keep very dangerous offenders in prison longer, and those who breach their licence conditions after early release are much more likely to be returned to prison. That ought to give the public some reassurance that prison provides the right deterrent and punishment for dangerous people.

However, the near doubling of the prison population in the past decade has created enormous pressures—not just financial cost to the state and the need to build more prisons, but the early release of prisoners and subtle pressure on sentencers. Faced with a case that is borderline but for which prison may be the right sentence, courts are given the message that there are no places in prison. We should consider ways to keep out of prison people who are not dangerous and who should be dealt with by community sentences. For non-violent women, imprisonment should be avoided when possible, for all the reasons that the Corston review recently set out. We should do much more to keep children out of prisons and comply with the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. In addition to working hard to keep women and children out of prison, we should provide alternatives to prison for people who do not pay fines, those with learning difficulties and those with a mental illness. Drugs and alcohol fuel crime, and there should be earlier access to health care outside prison.

I wish to focus primarily on community sentences and other community solutions. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 helpfully sets out the purposes of sentencing
19 Feb 2008 : Column 24WH
in most cases. They are fivefold: punishment, reduction of crime, reform and rehabilitation of offenders, protection of the public and reparation by offenders to persons affected by their crimes. I enumerate them, but as I recall from the debates on the Act—I was closely involved in every stage of its parliamentary proceedings—the five were not intended to be in sequence. Each was to be weighed against the others by the sentencing court.

How are we doing on the five purposes? Lord Woolf was asked that question by the Select Committee on Home Affairs when he gave evidence to it on 17 April 2007. He said:

He indicated the difficulty of reforming and rehabilitating prisoners when prisons are overcrowded and there is pressure on staff to deliver the courses needed. He believes that reparation solutions are underdeveloped and that we are not protecting the public sufficiently if we do not prevent reoffending effectively. I shall develop his arguments and suggest that there are ways in which we can do better.

The aims of sentencing are best met when the period that elapses between the crime and the disposal is as short as possible. That is true especially when the offender is young, but it holds good for many crimes, irrespective of the offender’s age. The public understand that argument and expect the Government, Parliament and the criminal justice system to make criminal cases shorter. Back in 1997, in the heady days of winning my first election to Parliament, I found that that message really resonated with the public. I remember Labour’s five pledges on the little pledge card that we used to give out to people. One was to halve the time that it took to bring young offenders to court for their sentences. That resonated with the public because they understood the importance of keeping the distance between offence and sentence as short as possible. When only a little time elapses between the commission of the offence and the offender facing up to the consequences of it, the connection between wrongdoing and payback is strong for both the offender and the victim. That is why, in appropriate cases, fixed penalty notices and restorative justice can be so powerful. The former is self-explanatory, but I shall say more about the latter.

There is now well-defined practice and law for restorative justice in cases involving children and young persons. A restorative justice order can even be made in a court. For adults, the position is less clear and the powerful tool of restorative justice does not play the role that it should in our criminal justice system. In Staffordshire, Chief Inspector Mark Riley has applied restorative justice solutions since 1994, and he is positive about their benefits. He told me:

Next Section Index Home Page