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The upsides of using restorative justice include, first, that it is victim-centred; the needs of victims are addressed and victims have a say in how the process should be
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carried out, so it empowers them rather than leaving them on the sidelines. Secondly, it is possible to hold group sessions—for example, in antisocial behaviour cases. Thirdly, it can involve all the interested parties and improve communication between different parts of the community. Fourthly, it can address long-standing complaints within communities as well as specific incidents.

There are downsides, however, some of which we can address. In a police performance culture, restorative justice does not count as detection. The Government have recently begun to get a grip on that problem by releasing the police from over-prescriptive targets on detection. That is welcome, but, as with other community punishments and diversions from court, it is important that the community, the police and the criminal justice system all feel that restorative justice brings as positive a result as a court sentence would have achieved.

A second downside is that it takes the police as long to resolve a restorative justice case as to prepare a full file for court. A third is that too few police officers are trained to facilitate restorative justice, which requires experience and skill to make it work in the victim’s favour. However, training is available to those who want to pursue that outlet. Mark Riley referred me to Inspector Tony Walker of Thames Valley police, who trained him, so I sought out Inspector Walker and spoke to him about restorative justice. I am told that Thames Valley police is probably the best police force in the country at developing restorative justice as a solution. When I spoke to Inspector Walker yesterday, he was extremely enthusiastic about it as a general solution that ought to be widely available in criminal cases. He reports that through his use of restorative justice, there have been immense reductions in repeat and serial offending as well as reductions in crime in a problem area.

There should be well-defined practices for offenders to apologise to victims and to hear what effect their crimes have had on their victims, and perhaps to pay compensation or do unpaid work for their victims. However, it should be clear which cases are suitable for that approach, and care should be taken to prevent its use where it would be dangerous or counter-productive. There should also be sufficient training of police officers and other facilitators to remove lack of capacity as an excuse for not using restorative justice. When restorative justice is the right solution, it ought to count as a successful conclusion to a case.

Conditional cautions do not involve going to court to get a sentence. The Government place great store in conditional cautioning as a vehicle to achieve greater use of restorative justice. It will become universally available to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in April after a period of trialling, including in Staffordshire. Police in Staffordshire who have experience of conditional cautioning speak positively about it. Will the Minister explain the Government’s intentions regarding conditional cautioning from April onwards, when it becomes widely available? How much does she anticipate it will be used? Looking back at the pilots and trials, what assessment has been made of its success to date, and what success is predicted for the future?

I recently asked the Minister about conditional cautioning in a written question. In her reply, she stated that the

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That sounds quite worrying, and it does not make much sense. If a conditional caution means that the police and the CPS have agreed that if a certain course of action has been taken, a caution will follow, non-compliance does not apply because there will be no caution if the required work is not carried out. I am not sure what the phrase means, so I would be grateful if the Minister will clarify that point.

Conditional cautioning is quick and cuts out court sentencing altogether. I am content with that as long as the scheme meets other important public policy and sentencing objectives. Crucially, if that method of disposal is used regularly, there must be accountability about how it is used, so that there is no abuse. Statistics must be collected and published to ensure transparency.

Although the debate is about sentencing, I have been talking about ways of keeping sentencing out of the hands of judges, which some people will think is good and others will think is bad. Before I discuss courts’ sentencing powers, I shall say a little more about court diversion and other ways of resolving cases. There are methods that meet all the aims of sentencing policy and wider public protection, but which are quick and cut out the need for court proceedings; for example, drivers who are caught exceeding the speed limit may, in defined circumstances, pay to go on a speed awareness course and avoid fines and points on their driving licences—as can drivers who are caught driving without due care and attention. Such schemes have led me to consider where similar practices could be used.

I recently asked some parliamentary questions about military training, which is given both to armed forces personnel and to members of the public by way of outreach work by the military. In reply to one of my written questions, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), told me that there is a military corrective training centre at Colchester that

There is also an outreach programme to help vulnerable young people outside the military, and young people could join the cadet forces that operate widely in the UK.

I know from my experiences of cadet forces in Staffordshire that they are run on a shoestring. I regularly visit the military base at Stafford, where the Army cadets train, and I am the honorary president of the Penkridge air cadets, so I regularly visit their training centre too. I have seen the brilliant work that is done with youngsters to give them discipline, a sense of purpose, recognised qualifications and Duke of Edinburgh awards. As a result of their training, some young people have the ambition of joining our armed forces, and they are well placed to be recruited because of the skills and qualifications that they have acquired.

Cadet force instructors are incredible people. Some of them volunteer completely, giving all their time for free, while others receive payment for some of their work, but do miles more than they are paid to do. We could not ask our overstretched military forces to do more with their money and pay for the kind of training courses that I am talking about, so we need to consider how we could fund such a solution. I am interested in that as a way of diverting people from a life of crime
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and certainly from an appearance in court. If by training people and putting them straight, the military gained a new way of recruiting suitable armed forces personnel, that would be an added bonus.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) recently told me in a written answer:

Therefore, this is not an out-of-field suggestion; it is under consideration. For some non-violent, antisocial offences, offenders could choose to go on training courses run by the military rather than going to court for sentencing. Such a scheme would apply mostly to young offenders, but need not be exclusively for young people.

Nor need we stop at the military as providers of suitable training courses, such as the one that I just described. In Staffordshire, for example, the fire and rescue service runs a young firefighters training course. Those identified to take the course are young people in danger of social exclusion and those whose behaviour shows them to be in danger of becoming involved in crime.

Can we not consider whether more providers are ready and willing to take part in schemes that have the backing and recognition of law? Could public sector bodies develop appropriate courses? Might there be private sector offers as well? Third-sector providers such as Rainer and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders are already involved with similar projects.

Those are my suggestions for taking the weight of sentencing off the court, but when we come to community sentencing itself, we must look at how we can make the process speedier. Beyond the early disposal of cases without a court hearing at all, existing community sentences ought to be adapted—adjusted by Parliament—to make possible a sentence that specifies attendance on training courses, such as the ones that I described, as a whole or a part of the court disposal. That would be in addition to the more than 6 million hours of unpaid work that are already carried out in the community each year.

On that work, it is time that we settled whether payback is the brand for all reparation work that is ordered by the courts and carried out by offenders for the victims and the community more widely. We ought to ensure that there is much more labelling of the public property that is repaired or paid for by offenders as a result of such orders, and of community projects that have been completed by offenders undertaking unpaid work at the order of a court. In that way, the public would see constant reminders, as they went about their everyday business, that people had been caught, punished through the courts and made to do work to pay back the community for what they did. That would help us to inform and educate the public about crimes being detected and successfully prosecuted, and community sentences
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being served as a result. The public would then have a sense of the criminal justice system working for them, and punishment would be successfully allied with payback.

One important aim of reducing reoffending is making people pay for what they have done wrong, but I appreciate that the National Offender Management Service has developed seven pathways for reducing reoffending. To remind hon. Members of the full list, NOMS deals with accommodation; education, training and employment; health; drugs and alcohol; finance, benefits and debt; children and families; and attitudes, thinking and behaviour. All are clearly important, and all require the speedy responses that I mentioned earlier.

Alongside thinking about how we can quickly deliver a community sentence at the end of the process, I would like to deal with speeding up the procedures to get to the end of the process. That links up with my argument about keeping to a minimum the period between the offence and the sentence. It is important that we continue to encourage initiatives that are already taking place.

The first and most obvious initiative is to free the police from unnecessary burdens of bureaucracy to allow them more time on the front line to do the work that we need them to do, of reassuring the public, catching criminals and keeping the peace. The Flanagan review, which has just been made public, makes important recommendations about cutting police “blue tape”. I am pleased to say that Staffordshire is actually pushing the Home Office to let it be at the forefront of implementing Flanagan recommendations to cut bureaucracy and free police to do the quality policing that the public want from them. That initiative would speed up the whole process.

The second initiative, which has already begun but needs to be recognised and encouraged, is the excellent practice of co-locating police and prosecutors, thereby getting much earlier and more accurate decisions on the right charges and the right cases to take forward for prosecution. Allied to the successful co-operation between the police and the prosecution has been the development of low-bureaucracy court files for the most straightforward cases. Again, that takes away some of the excuses for unnecessary delays and the resulting adjournments in proceedings.

There have been several experiments with specialist courts such as those for drugs and domestic violence cases, and there has even been talk of courts for mental health cases. As long as we assess the effectiveness of each, and as long as they do not divert resources that would be more effectively used for the mainstream business of courts, there is a lot to be said for developing expertise in each of those areas to speed up court proceedings.

Another initiative that my friends in the Staffordshire police are enthusiastic about, having now witnessed it, is the virtual court. The police officer and the accused can remain at the police station. They are in touch with the court by a video link, and the whole process is got out of the way and dealt with without moving outside the custody suite in the police station.

Those are procedures that we are already developing and adapting in this country to speed up the process. They should be welcomed and encouraged to take greater hold. If we speed up the process, and ultimately get effective community sentence orders from the court,
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it is important to ensure that those orders are then carried out effectively. There is no point in Members of Parliament such as me suggesting additional and refined sentencing powers if the existing ones are not already being used, where appropriate. I take that lesson from last month’s report by the National Audit Office, which states:

Why is that? What is wrong? Why are people given powers to operate and then not able to use them? The NAO finds that community orders are effective, that they offer benefits over other court sentences and that they can reduce reconviction rates. Contrary to popular belief, most sentences are completed—94 per cent., according to the NAO report, although, to be absolutely open and complete, it states that 94 per cent. are completed, breached or revoked.

The report revealed a particular weakness in the use of one component of a community order: alcohol treatment. Given the concerns that members of the public have about how much of today’s offending behaviour is fuelled by alcohol consumption, such a weakness is particularly inappropriate. The report says that the availability of the alcohol treatment component varies greatly across the country, and it identifies responsibilities not just in the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office but in the Department of Health and, at the local level, for primary care trusts and the deliverers of health services. NHS involvement means that Justice Ministers need to work conscientiously and as hard as they can across Government to ensure that the funding and facilities are in place to make alcohol treatment available everywhere.

The final area that I wish to cover is parenting. I have learned in a lifetime of experiences, and as a lawyer who dealt with divorce cases, family dispute cases and public law cases involving children being taken away from their parents, that the first three years of everybody’s life is the most crucial in determining how they will perform and behave throughout the rest of their life. One of the many experts whom I have heard speak said that we learn up to half of all that we ever learn, however long we live, in the first three years of life.

Many people spout on about how schools and education can solve a lot of the problems of children who might be growing up with identified weaknesses. However, the starting age for school is five, reception classes are offered at four and a child may be able to get into a nursery at three, so nobody is near a school in the vital years from nought to three. Who are the vital educators during those years? The parents. That is so blindingly obvious, yet some parents do not understand how important they are. I want to look at ways of reducing offending behaviour by starting at the right point—at year zero—with every new citizen.

Of course, this is a debate about sentencing, and we have an option called a parenting order, but that would be aimed at the parents of a youth—perhaps a teenager—who has offended. I am sure that those orders can sometimes be useful at that stage, but there needs to be rigorous enforcement of attendance and participation by parents. It is at that stage that we might find that the absence of parents or their inability to take part is the reason that we have a problem in society. Nevertheless, where parenting orders are used, we need to be as
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rigorous as possible in getting a whole-family approach to tackling the offending behaviour of the person who has been in trouble with the law.

Parenting orders represent an intervention some way down the line, after the offending behaviour by the child has become established. I have been attracted to the work of an international charity called Wave. A report co-written by Professor George Hosking in 2005 draws a number of conclusions about how a public health approach to crime prevention in those first three years of children’s lives could lead to a great reduction in violent behaviour and offending in later life.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing an important matter to the House in a balanced, eloquent manner. However, does he share my concern that over the past few decades, as the state has become more involved in parenting—for instance, it has prevented the loving chastisement of children by pulling them up or slapping them on the back of the leg when they are doing wrong—we have seen the growth not only of bad behaviour and crime among youngsters as they grow up, but of violent crime?

Mr. Kidney: No, not really. Of course, I share all the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned—that is the point of my mentioning parenting in a debate about court sentencing—but the use of violence by a parent to reinforce discipline reflects completely the wrong attitude. Violence between a parent and a child is a sign of failure and of pushing the child away from the parent, instead of their being drawn in and loved and cared for. I do not share his analysis of what the right solution to the problem is, although I agree that there is a problem. I should like to expand a little on that to show what I mean.

I have more time than I thought, so I should like to say a little more about the 2005 Wave report, which concluded, among other things, that serious violence in England and Wales is rising and that that trend can be reversed by effective early interventions focusing on the period from pregnancy to the age of three. Another conclusion of the report, which is the result of nine years’ research—this is not something that has been considered lightly—is that the propensity to violence is developed primarily from wrong treatment before the age of three.

We should explain to every parent how important those first three years are, to equip them with the skills and the outside support that they feel that they need, entirely through their choice. However, the danger is the nanny state, which was the point that the hon. Gentleman was drawing me towards. I understand that it is for each parent to do their job and carry out their responsibilities, but as a society it is our job to make them appreciate what their role is and give them support when they feel that they need it. It is entirely for them to choose whether they need it or not. However, if parents fail in their job, when their children end up in the court system we must hold them to account as well as their children. That is the incentive for them to pay attention when we give them such messages.

In my constituency, I have been promoting for Staffordshire a universal parenting support service that is available to all parents. Universality is important. We should not try to stigmatise bad parents, because that
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would simply drive them away from us. We need to say that every parent reaches a point when they need somebody to turn to and there is nothing wrong with people turning to help that is already available for them. That is what I would like to achieve. However, that does not mean adding some new agency of the state. In my constituency, health visitors, midwives, general practitioners’ practice nurses, churches and organisations such as Home-Start already exist: it is about branding them, drawing them together and offering support. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) is doing similar creative work in Nottingham, trying to make it the early intervention city, precisely on the same reasoning that I am using. That is a very important way forward.

There are some recommendations at the end of the Wave report, based on research and hard evidence from around the world, about some of the responses that we ought to consider applying as a matter of course in this country: a course called “Roots of empathy”, drawn from successful practice in Canada, prepares parents-to-be while they are still schoolchildren; a British charity, Parents in Partnership Parent Infant Network, prepares parents-to-be during the first pregnancy; in the United States of America, the Nurse-Family Partnership supports first-time parents from pregnancy onwards; and there is also an internationally known approach called the “circle of security”, which is a group-based parent intervention programme to increase sensitivity between parents and children. All those ideas already exist. The Wave report says simply:

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