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19 Feb 2008 : Column 37WH—continued

David Taylor (in the Chair): I shall certainly do that.
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Mr. Garnier: I want the Minister, who has been waiting patiently, to have an opportunity to respond to the points that have been made. In particular, I would like her to respond to the points made by the hon. Gentleman, even if she does not have time to respond to those made by the Opposition.

Since 1997, the criminal justice system has been going through a period of revolution. Unfortunately, we have seen more movement than productivity. That is beginning to manifest itself in the overcrowded prison estate and in the inability of justices of the peace to sentence appropriately. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said at the end of his remarks, sentencers’ discretion is being undermined on a daily basis. I am not suggesting that there is a malign motive. I do not believe that the Minister and her colleagues get up in the morning and say, “How can I further erode the judicial and sentencers’ discretion?” However, that erosion is the unintended consequence of the mismanagement of our criminal justice system.

The prison and probation services have been victims of the Government’s failed experiment in public sector reform through targets and central control. The Government confidently believed that central Government could hold unwieldy Departments to account using top-down targets. Civil servants would be rendered super-efficient, almost stakhanovite, with the aid of efficient modern IT systems. However, their confidence was misplaced. Officials have been burdened with too many targets. Monitoring has forced them to meet intermediate targets, leading to ineffective, demoralising box-ticking instead of productive and fulfilling work. The IT systems that are supposed to make the whole system function have invariably been late and over budget.

The Government rightly realised that the split between prison and probation is the root cause of failure, but their attempts to fix it have foundered. The first attempt was the National Offender Management Service, which was envisaged by Lord Carter as a new bureaucracy that would co-ordinate the prison and probation services. NOMS assigned a case officer—an offender manager—to follow the progress of each criminal from the time that they were sentenced until they were reintegrated into society. The officer was to use a state-of-the-art computer system, C-NOMIS. However, instead of drawing together prisons and probation, as Carter wanted, the Government created an inflated bureaucratic monster that sat above the Prison Service and probation service, did little to facilitate co-ordination, and sucked more than £1.5 billion a year—more than the budget of the national probation service—from the resources available for offender management. The computer system, C-NOMIS, was late and over budget, and the Ministry of Justice has now announced that a system that it previously described as

will not be rolled out to the probation service. As for NOMS, the Government have decided to merge the top management of the Prison Service, probation service and NOMS, effectively subsuming a slimmed-down NOMS into the Prison Service, but without integrating the delivery of the services on the ground.

Meanwhile, Ministers have continually interfered in the running of prisons. The former director general of
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the Prison Service and chief executive of NOMS, Martin Narey, said on Radio 4’s “Analysis” programme on 20 July 2006:

That, as a recent National Audit Office report has found, creates perverse incentives and outcomes, stifles innovation, and ultimately restricts the ability of the Ministry of Justice to deliver on its own service level agreement to reduce reoffending.

The Government’s approach suffers from two fundamental flaws: the chasm between prison and probation, which they have failed to bridge, and the lack of incentives for people within the system, which they have not attempted to address. In essence, reoffending has not been reduced because it has been nobody’s job to reduce it. That is why we have the problems that the hon. Members for Stafford and for Somerton and Frome mentioned in relation to the collapse of the sentencing system.

Time does not allow me to analyse what is going wrong with our prisons. Let me deal with the subject of community punishments, which is creaking in Stafford and Staffordshire, and, increasingly, elsewhere in the country. Magistrates deal with about 90 to 95 per cent. of all criminal cases. Although the Crown court deals with more serious offences, it deals with a smaller proportion of the offences brought to justice. It has often been said that the answer to the state of our prisons is to give up and to advocate the use of community punishments. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome highlighted the implied policy of the Secretary of State for Justice that, because of the prison overcrowding, the only thing that can be done is to send inappropriate people on community punishments. I do not think that he has gone that far, but he might yet. That would be as wrong as over-filling the prisons in the first place.

We reached a ludicrous stage last Thursday, when the Prison Service and the probation service met for a private conference in Leeds, at which the director general of the Prison Service, Mr. Wheatley, was having to advise prison governors during the tea break to go back to their telephones and ring their prisons to ensure that the overcrowded prison estate was emptied into the less crowded open prison estate. “If necessary, use your own transport,” he is alleged to have said. The Government have organised a grossly irresponsible set of affairs whereby the director general of the Prison Service is, as a consequence of prison overcrowding, requiring unsuitable people to be decanted out of the secure estate into the open estate.

I am no spokesman for the Prison Officers Association, but I am not surprised that on 18 February it issued a press release that stated:

Believe that or not, it is a fact that unsuitable people are now being pushed through to the open prison estate and, as a consequence, are not receiving the proper rehabilitation that they should have received within the closed estate if the sentencing planning system was operating in a correct manner. Just as the resources appear to have been mismanaged in the secure estate, so the resources are now being managed in a detrimental fashion in the community punishment system, particularly in Staffordshire.

The Secretary of State for Justice was invited to address the Howard League for Penal Reform and in a speech to it on 21 November 2007, which I attended, he said:

However, robust alternatives to custody have so far evaded the Government. As the National Audit Office observed in a report published in January,

However, probation inspectors found that only 63 per cent. of unpaid work requirements were suitably demanding. The Ministry of Justice concedes that, although the maximum amount of work under such requirements can be up to 300 hours, the average is only 100.

There is a place for community sentences to deal with offenders whose crimes do not warrant imprisonment and where treatment in the community offers a better prospect of rehabilitation than imprisonment. Such punishments can be useful in so far as they allow offenders to remain close to home, family and work, while affording opportunities to receive vital rehabilitation and skills. However, they cannot simply be used as an act of faith, and should not be used simply because the jails are full. The way to use community punishments to reduce the prison population is to make community punishment work to reduce reoffending, and so reduce the supply of criminals who will be sent to prison in the future.

In the past decade, the Government have embraced community sentences as a way to divert criminals away from the ever more overcrowded prison estate. Five years ago, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), talked about tough community sentences to

Disturbingly, community sentences are now given to more than 40 per cent. of violent offenders, and in the past three years nearly 90 rapists have received community sentences. In addition, a fair few of the 12,000 or 13,000 people who have been released early from custody on licence—I am referring to the end of custody licence scheme—since 29 June 2007 have been
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violent offenders, despite the fact that the Government’s rules for the release of people on ECL are supposed to keep violent offenders off ECL. The Secretary of State says, “Oh, don’t worry about the 18 days,” but it is in the last 18 days that short-sentence prisoners receive the necessary contacts with the health service, jobs and so on—

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. I call the Minister to respond to the debate.

12.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): Thank you, Mr. Taylor. No doubt the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) now regrets suggesting that he be stopped, because he was stopped in full flow, but I am sure that he will have a chance to finish his sentence on another occasion.

I begin, as all hon. Members have done, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on both securing this debate on an important topic, which has provoked a great deal of interest among Front Benchers, and the way in which he has advanced his theses and made his remarks. His speech was excellent and well worth listening to, and I know that it was appreciated on both sides of the Chamber. Some of us perhaps come at the issue from a slightly different perspective, but there is a lot of common ground across the Chamber in respect of much of what he has said.

I echo what my hon. Friend has said about the people who work throughout the criminal justice system, who are not thanked as often as they ought to be by society—I always do my best to thank them personally—for their work in tackling tough problems and issues and dealing with people with many difficulties and problems who are not the most sympathetic members of our society. They all do an excellent job. My hon. Friend has mentioned most of them, but, like him, I am happy to thank everybody involved, even though they may not have been mentioned by either him or me. Clearly, what they do is sometimes a thankless task, but it is vital in our society, and we all appreciate it. I want to make that absolutely clear.

As my hon. Friend has also said—other hon. Members have echoed this—custody will always have to be available for serious and dangerous offenders, but a key part of the reform of sentencing policy over the past few years has been to try to limit the use of short custodial sentences for less serious offenders by unlocking the potential of the community order and increasing its flexibility, making it more possible for sentencers, be they magistrates or judges, to deal appropriately with individual cases, as has been emphasised. It is entirely appropriate that they take the decisions in individual cases; it is not for Parliament or Ministers to impose solutions to individual cases in our courts system.

Within a framework of reserving prison for serious and violent offenders, we are doing our utmost to enable the system to reduce reoffending, to protect the public and to give those who have offended a chance to tackle the problems that have perhaps led to their offending behaviour and ensure that they come out as more useful members of society than they were when they entered the criminal justice system. That balance is
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correct, and I have not heard any hon. Member in this debate or in other debates on the subject suggest that it is wrong. Prison should be used for serious and dangerous offenders in order to protect the public, and we should use other approaches to deal with those who would not benefit from custody or who do not have to be in custody for the public to be protected.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 provided an adult sentencing framework that was clearer and more flexible than that which previously pertained. The legislation set out for the first time in statute the purposes of sentencing for adults, which all hon. Members have referred to, namely, punishment, crime reduction, reform and rehabilitation, public protection and reparation. Sentences were reformed in that legislation, but perhaps most significantly the various types of community order for adults were replaced with a single community order with a range of possible requirements, and new sentences for serious and violent offenders were introduced to ensure that they are kept in prison or under supervision for longer than previously to try to manage the risks that they present. The intention is for the court to provide each offender with a sentence that best meets the needs of the case, at any level of seriousness, for sentences to be more effectively managed by the correctional services and for correctional services and the courts to work closely together on delivering the new sentences.

Tough community sentences include a wide range of requirements, as they should, including unpaid work, drug treatment and curfews—some of those things were mentioned in the debate. They allow offenders to maintain employment, education and family links and ensure that offenders do not get sucked into a cycle of repeat offending that they are less likely to get out of as time goes on. Instead, the sentences deliver interventions to address offending behaviour.

The Government are convinced that a well planned and properly supervised community sentence can be tough on the offender and far more valuable than prison in offering the individual opportunities to change their behaviour and constructive possibilities for the future. The overall reoffending rate for community sentences, 51 per cent., is lower than that for short prison sentences—the overall reoffending rate after a short custodial sentence is more than 70 per cent. Even on the basis of those bare figures, such approaches are more effective.

We have made substantial progress on both the enforcement and quality of community sentences—my hon. Friend has referred to that—and 90 per cent. of breaches are now dealt with. There is no reason why the public and sentencers cannot have confidence that community sentences are tough alternatives to short custodial sentences. Increasing community confidence in the effectiveness of such arrangements is the aim of ensuring rigorous enforcement.

I agreed with my hon. Friend when he talked about ensuring that the general public understands how tough community sentences can be and how useful they are. There is a general perception or feeling at the moment, as any Member of Parliament will know, that people who receive community sentences have had some kind of let-off. Of course, they have not—community sentences can be much tougher than short custodial sentences, and they can make an offender face up to the problems that they have caused and deal with the issues that led them into offending more intensively than if they simply
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went into custody. As my hon. Friend has said, restorative justice is now embedded in the youth justice system, which is perhaps not that well known among the general public. Victim contact or reparation can be a part of youth disposals.

My hon. Friend has raised the issue of conditional cautions and made a point about a written answer. The answer should have stated that the non-compliance rate, rather than the compliance rate, was 6 per cent. There was a misspelling in the answer, but we were attempting to make the point that conditional cautions are almost always complied with. They are successful, and the conditions can have an impact. Often, they make a real difference to whether an individual becomes involved in offending behaviour again. Obviously, the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which the House of Lords is debating, extends the capacity to use conditional cautions on 16 and 17-year-olds.

I agree with everyone who contributed to the debate, including the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, that diverting young people away from the criminal justice system in the first place is the way to control the increase in the prison population in the medium and longer term. Diverting people away from the criminal justice system must be the best thing for society, and conditional cautions appear to have the potential to do so. They have restorative and reparative features, and they can involve victims. Offenders might be required to write letters of apology to victims, or to deal with or put right the damage done by their graffiti or criminal damage, for example.

Those are visible ways in which to say to a community that the person who committed such offences has been caught, that they are putting things right, that they have had to apologise, and that they have agreed to those things. Quite often, such people are required to pay compensation. That is an effective way in which to deal with the kind of low-level antisocial behaviour that is so corrosive in our communities, as many MPs know. Calling such things “antisocial behaviour” may make them seem minor, and the offences might be at the petty end of the scale, but they can be a real problem in vulnerable communities, and they need to be rigorously tackled. That is why there is a sense in many of our communities that custody is the right answer—people want such behaviour to stop. Conditional cautioning provides an alternative way to make that point clearly in our communities.

My hon. Friend has referred to problem-solving courts, which have the potential to deal with those issues positively. People involved in the community court pilot in north Liverpool, which I know particularly well, make a great effort and provide great quality work. The district judge in the court, David Fletcher, does a superb job with the people who come before him every two weeks, if they have not met the conditions by going through drug rehabilitation or looking for a job. He knows that if those people have not done what he asks them to do, they cannot hide behind the fact that they will next appear before a different judge.

Mr. Garnier: It is obvious that the drugs court in Liverpool is a success, as is its equivalent in west London, but why are there only two? Surely there ought to be more.

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