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19 Feb 2008 : Column 31WH—continued

It is calling for a debate about what is the most effective use of our money.

I attended a presentation by Professor George Hosking at which he showed that intervention in a child’s life had the greatest effect from nought to three years old. He superimposed on that profile the spending by the state on children’s upbringing. The biggest payment that we make as a state is when children are 15, 16 or 17 and the smallest payment is when they are aged from nought to three. Yet the greatest intervention that we could make is at nought to three. We ought to think about whether we should make changes. I say to the Minister that it is important to work across Government to get the right solutions.

I have been speaking for quite a while because I am the only Back Bencher who wants to make a full speech, but I will come to my conclusions now. Another great connection that Labour made with voters in 1997 was through the promise of being “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. We have certainly been tough on crime in terms of more and longer prison sentences. That seems to be Lord Woolf’s conclusion as well. We have been tough on some of the societal causes of crime, for example, cutting worklessness, rough sleeping and poverty. But my connection with my public in my Stafford constituency tells me that other causes of crime have been under-addressed. People often mention a loss of discipline, a decline in standards of behaviour in public and binge drinking.

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For me, discipline starts with good parenting and upbringing. Upholding decent standards of behaviour calls for a genuine zero tolerance of annoying public crimes such as damage to property, graffiti, litter, public disorder and antisocial behaviour. Tackling binge drinking requires determination to stop supermarkets selling alcohol below cost price.

I want accommodation, health care and help getting a job to be available to people at risk of offending before they commit an offence. I want those who wish to face up to their drugs and alcohol misuse helped to overcome their addiction before they embark on a rash of acquisitive crimes to feed their habit. Sometimes, people commit such crimes precisely to access one or more of those supports because they cannot get them soon enough as law-abiding citizens. That is wrong. As I have said, a cross-Government approach is required to achieve such outcomes.

It is the responsibility of Back-Bench and Opposition Members of Parliament, as elected representatives of the British people, to exert pressure on the Government to take the right actions, facilitate the passing of the laws that are needed and scrutinise the resultant use of funding and other resources to make sure that the taxpayer gets best value. Above all, it is our responsibility to bring about safer communities and a safer Britain.

11.39 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, Miss Begg, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing it. The hon. Gentleman has a long history, in his career in the House, of raising issues of this kind and speaking with a great deal of intelligence and commitment on matters associated with criminal justice. He and I, and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), are veterans of too many criminal justice Bills for our own good. Nevertheless, we have frequently had the opportunity to debate such issues.

The hon. Gentleman is right to look at sentencing in the context of what happens beforehand. I was pleased that he paid tribute to a large number of the participants in the process, including the police. Sentences cannot be imposed until a criminal is before a court, and my view has always been that the greatest deterrent to crime is the expectation of being caught, but sadly that has not been the case for far too long.

The hon. Gentleman was also right when he said that we have not paid enough attention—the Government have certainly not done so—to the causes of crime, particularly the elements that he described, and parenting is a large component of that. I do not want to be misunderstood in suggesting that there is an hereditary component to crime, and I am certainly not talking about a genetic predisposition; I am talking about a behavioural element, because there is undoubtedly learned behaviour from parents and peer groups. If that disjunction can be cracked, intervention at an early age is more likely to reduce people’s potential to find themselves in a life of crime. That is not universally the case, and some parents have done everything that might be expected of them, but still find their children in trouble with the law. I do not want my suggestion to be considered an absolute, but the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that we have not yet sufficiently considered the idea.

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Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman may recall that in 1997, I introduced a private Member’s measure on underage drinking and confiscation of alcohol, which is now much talked about and much used—probably the most used law in the land, apart from traffic regulations. Is he aware that the legislation tried to ensure that when removing alcohol from young people, police officers would always tell the parents and involve them so that they could take control action with their youngsters? That provision has not been widely used until now, but does he welcome the fact that at last the Home Secretary has woken up to it, and is telling the police to use that facility?

Mr. Heath: I certainly welcome that, but I also recognise the practical problems for a single officer or pair of officers on the beat in towns such as Frome in my constituency on a Friday evening. I have been out on patrol with the police, and there are many underage drinkers on the streets in Frome on Friday nights. Dealing with them is a problem, and my question is: why do parents not ask why a 13 or 14-year-old is not at home well past midnight, and why, when they finally return, they are legless? That returns to the point made by the hon. Member for Stafford about parenting and the expected norms in exercising a little parental control. However, that is a slight diversion from what we are discussing: sentencing policy.

I am pleased that among his bouquets, the hon. Gentleman handed one to the lay magistracy, because we often do not recognise its extraordinarily difficult and unpaid job, and the value that it adds to society.

What should we look for in sentencing? My starting point throughout my forays into home affairs and justice matters is to ask whether it is effective in reducing crime. That is the whole point of a criminal justice system. If it does not reduce offending, it is not doing its job effectively. Secondly, we are entitled to expect some consistency throughout the country and in relation to specific crimes, so that there is an underlying feeling about the justice of the outcome for any specific disposal. Thirdly, we must allow discretion. It is not for Parliament or the Government to prescribe in minute detail the outcome of a court case. There is no point in wise people sitting in judgment if they cannot take account of the evidence before them and the circumstances of the crime in question. Such discretion is an important part of the principles of justice.

Fourthly, we should seek more transparency, which returns us to the argument we often have in this place about honesty in sentencing. We should describe sentences in a way that everyone inside and outside the courts understands, so that they are not dismayed by the realisation that when we say someone will serve 20 years in prison, they are released after five or six years, and that a 20-year sentence is not in fact a 20-year sentence, or that a life sentence is not for life. We need honesty in sentencing, and that can be achieved in the way in which we describe sentences, rather than by any major change in the nature of sentences. Finally, we must have centrality in sentencing from the victims’ point of view, and their concerns must be put before the court, understood by the court and, if possible, addressed by the court.

For many years we have concentrated far too much on custodial sentences as the only “proper” sentences that work. Custodial sentences undoubtedly have a part
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to play, and are the only effective sentence for protecting the public from a dangerous criminal who is likely to reoffend, so it is essential that such sentences play a part in our penal process. However, the hon. Gentleman was right in saying that they are often used when they are not the best disposal, although his argument that because more people are breaking their licences and being returned to prison, the public should be reassured that prison is working was rather difficult to understand in logical terms. I suggest that it may do the opposite.

Why are our prisons so overcrowded? Why do they so often fail in their primary duty of rehabilitation, re-education and the reduction of recidivism? They contain far too many people with mental health problems who should be in secure mental health units. They contain far too many people with drug and alcohol dependency issues that should be treated rather than simply reinforced, as, sadly, they often are in the prison estate. Far too many women are in prison. Baroness Corston’s report clearly shows that women who do not represent a danger to the public are often imprisoned inappropriately for lower level offences. There are certainly too many children in our prisons. There are better ways of dealing with children, and there is ample evidence that prison does not work in reducing offending in children. The reverse is the case.

Too many people are serving short-term sentences when all the evidence is that such sentences are almost certain to result in a reoffending individual. Why on earth do we spend enormous amounts of public money on putting people into prison for a very short time when they can have no opportunity for education or rehabilitation, and when they reoffend almost immediately after being released? Some of the figures show that reoffending rates exceed 90 per cent., and that includes only those who are caught. The system simply does not work in its primary purpose, so why do we spend enormous amounts of money on pursuing a policy that does not work?

Mr. Kidney: The hon. Gentleman asks an important question: why do sentencers send people to prison for short periods even though they know that it will not help to reduce reoffending? What is his answer? My answer is that it is because until recently there has been lack of confidence in community alternatives, although the trend is beginning to change. My contribution is about trying to create even more confidence in the community sentence alternative.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I was just about to mention that issue. There are better possibilities for effective community sentences, but the problem is that until recently the Government have appeared not to believe in such proposals and the public do not believe in them either. We need to establish in the public mind the fact that community sentencing can be rigorous and effective and do the job as well, or better, than a custodial sentence. To do that we need to re-examine the way in which we deal with community sentencing.

There are some high-intensity schemes with prolific offenders that operate in the community. Such schemes cost a lot of money and are not undemanding in terms of resources, but it has been shown that they can reduce offending among a notoriously difficult group of offenders. In Bristol, a scheme has been operating for some time with, interestingly, the police as the prime movers, although they work with other agencies. I used to be the chairman
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of Avon and Somerset police authority and am impressed by what the force has been doing. I would like to see more such schemes, but I recognise that there needs to be a large resource for them to work effectively. There will, of course, be failures; we are talking about prolific offenders who have been to prison and come out. We should deal with a comparator that makes sense in terms of the general public, but nevertheless such schemes have been shown to be more effective than simply a lock-them-up-and-forget-about-them approach.

What would make community sentencing more acceptable in terms of public perception? The hon. Gentleman mentioned some points in relation to that. Immediacy is important, as is propinquity to the offence and the community that is affected because that means there is a relationship between the offence and the offended community or individual. Visibility is also important. We must make community sentencing more visible so that the public realise that it is not a soft touch, but a way of directly making amends for the crime in the community in which it has been committed. If we put those factors together, there is likely to be greater public acceptability. The restorative element, whether within a formal community sentence or outside it, is extraordinarily important and we should find ways to incorporate it so the person who is arrested for graffiti is seen to clean up the graffiti that he or she created. The restorative element is important for establishing public confidence and there are many examples of that kind.

The hon. Gentleman is right: it is often most difficult for the offender to come to terms with the restorative element. When an offender has to come face to face with the victim and say how sorry they are, they realise how much their action has affected that individual.

The worst argument for community sentencing is simply to say that it is needed because our prisons are full. I am worried about much of what has recently happened because there have been some quite arbitrary measures. Rather than having confidence that community sentencing is a better disposal, people have been saying, “Well, we haven’t got enough room in prisons so we will require our magistracy or judges to use community sentencing more”. I hope that will not be the case in future, but it worries me. The Lord Chancellor has set up a review of sentencing, on the basis of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which will consider the relationship between sentencing and penal provision. The Lord Chancellor appears to have pre-empted that review in his speech last week in America—I think it was at George Washington university—where he appeared to say, “Well, we want to go the way of the American model where in some states there is a direct relationship between cell availability and sentencing policy”. I question that approach. It may work in Minnesota or Michigan—it is a state beginning with M, but I cannot remember which one—but it will not work for us. Such a policy is not right in principle either, because if somebody is a threat to the community, they should be in prison; if they are not a threat, we should consider the alternatives and ensure that they work effectively.

Other disposals are below the level of formal court hearings, such as disposals at neighbourhood courts or at a peer group level. That sort of thing has been experimented with; for example, a restorative justice
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panel in Chard, Somerset, has worked well. Recidivism levels are well below those of a normal court dealing with the same sort of individual because there is a relationship between the offender, the offended against and the community. We need to consider such proposals, explore their effectiveness and see how far they can be expanded.

A further level below court, to which the hon. Gentleman referred and about which he is slightly more enthusiastic than I am, is that of summary measures taken by a police officer or prosecutor. I am worried about the proliferation of summary disposals that do not have the advantage of a court or judicial input. It is far too easy for a police officer or even a prosecutor to take an injudicious decision for the benefit of his or her records, rather than in the interests of justice. I am not saying that all such disposals are wrong—we all live in the world of fixed penalty tickets for parking and traffic offences—but I am worried that they are increasingly being used as an alternative to a proper judicial process. The same applies to processes that pre-empt the actual commission of an offence—the various forms of civil injunction to reduce criminal offending. I do not wish to sound too pompous, but the more we go down that road, the more we erode the principles of British justice. If such measures are effective, we need to consider them in terms of reducing crime, but we should be aware that we are putting the cart before the horse, or the sentence before the commission of an offence, which is a dubious approach.

[David Taylor in the Chair]

My last point is about the importance of diversionary availability, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I am not convinced that Colchester would welcome a lot of civil offenders or that cadet forces are the best place for people who have no interest in the armed forces, but simply need to be kept off the streets—putting a gun in their hands may not be the best way of teaching them to be better citizens. However, I accept that we should do a lot more in relation to youth provision, of which the cadet forces are an important part, and that we should provide alternative structures and diversions for young people so that they are interested in and engaged by something and are active. They need excellent role models to learn from and, to that extent, the hon. Gentleman is right.

We have a sentencing and a criminal justice system to protect the public and to reduce crime and re-offending. That is what our sentencing procedures should be about; not simply sounding tough, but being effective.

11.58 am

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) did, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) did in an intervention, I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on initiating the debate. Like the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, I want to recognise publicly the contribution that the hon. Gentleman has made to our debates on criminal justice. He brings huge experience to debates, both as a solicitor advocate in the courts in Staffordshire and more widely. What he says on this subject is always worth listening to, as it is on other matters. I hope that I do not embarrass him by saying so, but it is appropriate that, from time to
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time, those who have a particular knowledge about a subject have the opportunity to speak.

Mr. Kidney: I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman, but, to spare my blushes, when I praised judges I did so in the full knowledge that he himself is a part-time judge.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman has reached the next part of my virtual notes. I was about to declare an interest. I am a Crown court recorder and have had some good and bad experiences of the problems that our criminal justice system currently has in relation to sentences.

I spent last week sitting as a recorder in a court in London. Every time that I do that, I face the same problem—our prisons and community punishment system are overcrowded. We can see an overcrowded prison, but an overcrowded community punishment system is not so obvious. According to Government statistics, about 60 per cent. of our prisons are officially overcrowded. It is no longer controversial to say that our prisons are overcrowded. Last Friday, we reached a disgusting state of affairs in which nearly 82,000 people were being held in custody. Even the Operation Safeguard system had hit the ceiling. Some 400 people were in police or court cells as a consequence of the Government’s mismanagement of the present system, which prevented those who were sentenced or on remand from being housed in proper prisons.

That has a consequence. Unlike prison cells, police and court cells do not have the facilities to evaluate medically the people who are sent there. The point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the mentally ill and those who are affected by substance abuse is writ large when such people have to be detained overnight, or for several nights, in police cells. It is bad enough in a place such as Pentonville in which the medical staff are working their backs off just to stabilise the drug addicts in their care. They cannot hope to get them off drugs or make them better. All they can do is to stabilise them with a methadone scrip or some other form of medication to ensure that they do not die during the course of their custody.

I thought that the hon. Member for Stafford would mention the current state of affairs in relation to the ability of sentencers in Staffordshire to give the appropriate sentence. As I understand it, and the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong, magistrates in Stafford, and Staffordshire more widely, find it increasingly difficult to sentence offenders to community punishments because such courses are no longer available. Therefore, for those people for whom custody is not appropriate, the resources are no longer in place to sentence them, under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, to one of the community sentence options, such as unpaid work, or alcohol or drug rehabilitation—I think that there are 12 such options. I know, Mr. Taylor, that as a magistrate you will have some familiarity with that as well. As a consequence, magistrates in Stafford and Staffordshire now have to send inappropriate people into custody as opposed to dealing with them in the community. That adds to the terrible problem of overcrowding that the Government have created.

Mr. Taylor, if I have not finished by 12.15, will someone please shut me up?

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