The Government's Approach to Crime Prevention - Home Affairs Committee Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Question Number 257 -

RT HON CHRIS HUHNE MP

2 FEBRUARY 2010

  Q257  Chairman: Thank you very much for giving evidence to us this morning. The Committee is looking at the issue of crime prevention, basically going back to the former Prime Minister's statement that this Government would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. If we are to believe the opinion polls and there is a hung Parliament you could well be the Home Secretary in a hung Parliament. So you arrive there on your first day and what will a Liberal Democrat administration do in order to deal with the causes of crime?

  Chris Huhne: Let me start by saying that our approach to cutting crime is relentlessly focused on what actually works and I think a lot of the debate that we have seen, particularly between the Conservative and the Labour Party, has been a debate about the severity of punishment, when we know from the evidence of the Home Office and indeed of international criminologists that punishment is actually the least effective variable and that we as policy makers have to tackle crime, compared, for example, with prevention measures and compared with detection. Roughly at the moment about one in 100 crimes in this country—if you take the British Crime Survey and you take business crime and you take crime not recorded by the British Crime Survey because it is of teenagers—actually ends up with a conviction in a court of law, from which it seems to me very clear that trying to change the severity of the punishment is very unlikely to have a serious deterrent effect. If we want a serious deterrent effect we need to work on prevention measures and on improving police detection. So our focus is very much on those two aspects—improving policing, more police on the beat and better policing and it is on prevention.

  Q258  Chairman: If you were looking at the top three causes of crime why do people commit crimes? What do you think they are?

  Chris Huhne: I noted that your previous witness was talking about the fall in crime that has been going on in this country now for a number of years. I would merely point out to you, Mr Chairman and the Committee, that I think it is absolutely crucial to put that in an international context. In every single Western European country, except for one, which is Belgium—I do not quite know what Belgium has been doing wrong—crime has been falling. The causes of crime are multiple, but one of the very clear factors is demographic; it is about, frankly, the number of young men in the age group from about 16 to 24, and if that goes up you tend to have an upwards pressure on crime and if that goes down it tends to be down. That is one set of factors. Another set of factors is, for example, technological change. It is a bit like a war, where you have the introduction of the tank on the western front which completely changes the nature of the war between attack and defence; similarly, burglar alarms, security measures, the quality of locks, those sorts of preventive measures can have a very dramatic effect as well on the balance that is going on particularly with acquisitive crime. So one of the things which I think is absolutely essential is that we reinstate the effort that Government was making some time back—and which I understand the Ministry of Justice is actually again doing but you would need to confirm that because I have only had that through back channels—which is to attempt to do some serious model building about the impact of different factors on crime. As an economist by background and not as somebody who is a lawyer or a specialist in this area, I was frankly shocked at how little hard evidence there is on the social factors that actually create crime; and we ought to be investing as a society much more in model building so that we can actually understand the levers which we genuinely have to affect crime and get it down more rapidly; and that we do not try and take credit, frankly, for effects which may be coming about for entirely other reasons—because of changes in the size of particular groups in the population, for example. So I think that an evidence base is absolutely crucial and we need to invest more as a Government and as a society in actually understanding the problem.

  Q259  Mr Winnick: You say that there would be no credit to the Government, Mr Huhne?

  Chris Huhne: On this I am shocked to say that there has been a very long period when we have not been doing this. I can remember—because I did model building not in this area but in other areas many years ago—that there was work on this in the 1970s and 1980s, which then appeared to stop. I am told that it is beginning to restart under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice; but it is time to do that.

  Q260  Martin Salter: Mr Huhne, I am sorry that this relentless focus has not reflected back to your two Lib-Dem colleagues to actually turn up, and this is a poor turnout by us, I must admit. But my question is that there has been a lot of debate—and you heard it earlier—around focusing on causes of crime and particularly parenting and patterns of generational crime and criminality or tendency to crime and criminality as a result of young people taking negative role models from within the family. How do we break that cycle, Mr Huhne? There are some good programmes up and running but in my view they are a bit patchy—you can get a good service in one place and virtually no emphasis on this in others.

  Chris Huhne: I do not think there is a single solution. It is fairly widely recognised—although more anecdotal than hard evidence, but I would certainly accept on the basis of anecdotal evidence—that you do get these cycles of criminality in much the same way as it is surprising on how many occasions you see children following their parents' particular job or particular profession. They see somebody earning a living and doing something and they tend to pick up the lessons of that and, sadly, that happens in families where parents have a criminal pattern of behaviour as well. One of the things that we clearly have to do is to work very hard on making sure that the prison system is not the college of crime that effectively it has become. We need to make sure that the work is there, that the training is there, that people are prepared for life outside much more effectively than they have been. So that works, if you like, at the parental level and the older level. I think that parenting orders certainly have a role to play and can be effective. I think that that ideally needs to happen early on. Early intervention in the education system to identify where there are problems—I am certainly very supportive of Sure Start, of Children Centres, of attempting to identify early on when a child is not being adequately parented. So I would tend to suggest that we have to work at a whole series of different levels but also to say that if a child begins fairly early on to go into a pattern of antisocial behaviour it is important to get there as quickly as possible with informal measures that do not in the first stage criminalise them. Involving the family in Acceptable Behaviour Contracts involving the family in that, trying to find the diversionary activities—youth centres, for example—we have mentioned the Youth Volunteer Force, which we would like to see piloted by local authorities that want to find diversionary activities for young people. So I am afraid that on a lot of these social issues there is not a simple silver bullet; there is a whole range of things that we need to do to try and break that cycle.

  Q261  Martin Salter: Just one follow-up question—and I do not disagree with what you said—it seems to me that we are making up in many ways, either at school or in the criminal justice system or elsewhere, in the youth service, for often bad parenting or inadequate preparedness for life. That is a given. What is starting to emerge, probably in this Committee, are some concerns about the experience of first-time offenders in a custodial sentence—70% if not more are reoffending. Does that not lead us to the conclusion that actually very short first-time custodial sentences are a total and utter waste of time, and if we have young people with drug problems or literacy problems or whatever then actually we have to give the prison estate time to put them on the relevant detox course, the relevant training course and the rest of it, and that actually means being perhaps a bit tougher in some circumstances; but also on the other hand making sure that the right people have the custodial sentence and not the wrong ones. I would really be interested in the Lib-Dem view on that.

  Chris Huhne: I am completely sympathetic to that point of view. The figure that I had in my mind, actually, is even worse than the one you cite, which is that for young men serving their first custodial sentence the reoffending rate is actually 92%. If it is that high then frankly it is very clear that the custodial sentence has been completely ineffective. What is more, what we do not have—because we do not have the evidence base—I suspect that the reoffending is at a higher level, in other words it is more sophisticated, it is more trained, that the criminality is actually worse than it was for the offence when they went in; therefore, I do think that it is actually very important that we should be looking at those short sentences. As we know, there are alternatives in terms of non-custodial sentences. I think one of the reasons why magistrates are reluctant to use non-custodial sentences in these circumstances is because of worries about the way in which they are supervised and the increasing number of tales, which are not just urban myth, I fear, that effectively non-custodial sentences are not honoured and that they are so often breached that they effectively do not do what they are meant to do. But I think that if they do what they meant to do, if they are properly supervised, they are much more effective not least because we keep people who are going into first-time custodial sentences away from that college of crime aspect where they are effectively picking up tricks that we do not want them to pick up.

  Q262  Mr Clappison: I was very pleased to hear what you said about training young people in prison, who sadly have to go to prison, because that is something that the Committee has come to time and time again and when we have visited prisons we have noticed the difference in regime and the difference in the constructive elements of the regime. Can I probe you a little on what you were telling us a moment ago about first-time offences—and this is an important point—that young people are sent to prison because the magistrates or the judges take the view that their offending is so serious that only a custodial sentence can be justified? Do you have any thinking as to where that line should be struck about seriousness? If you are saying that fewer people should be sent to prison then are you changing the line there?

  Chris Huhne: I am not sure that I entirely accept your premise. As I said in my previous answer to Martin Salter, I think that in a lot of cases magistrates actually decide to use custodial sentences because there have been breaches particularly of non-custodial sentences and those breaches are, in many cases, because of lack of proper supervision, because the non-custodial sentences have not been properly organised and I think that that is something we really have to work on. It is crucial that magistrates and indeed crown court judges are confident that if they use non-custodial sentences they are actually going to be applied and will work, and I think that is the problem; it is morale in the Probation Service and so on. I think that magistrates and judges need to have that menu so that they can graduate their response all the way through. Obviously there are going to be circumstances in which custodial sentences are appropriate, either for serious offences or for serial offenders who continue to cock a snook at the justice system by, for example, not fulfilling their obligations under non-custodial sentences. But I do think that that is the key element we need to work on.

  Q263  Mr Clappison: There has to be a custodial sentence where the organiser of community service or the Probation Service think that it is being breached—that has to be available, does it not?

  Chris Huhne: Absolutely. Let me make it absolutely clear that I do not know any society that does not have custodial sentences. Custodial sentences are absolutely essential for serious offences and for serial offenders. The difficulty we have as a society is not any lack of custodial sentences because, as you know, we have one of the highest prison populations relative to population in the world, but the difficulty we have is actually the other aspects of the criminal justice system and making sure that those work because at the moment we are not giving judges and magistrates an adequate menu of options for dealing with criminality, going right the way through in the graduated response from relatively minor offences up to much more serious ones.

  Q264  Mr Clappison: Can you give us an example, so that we can have it in mind, of a case where you think somebody has been sent to prison where they should not have been?

  Chris Huhne: One of the things that my Party has traditionally stressed—and we get into trouble with, with both Conservative and Labour—is pointing out that the rich tapestry of life is so varied that we are very pleased to have magistrates and judges making judgments on individual cases and they have to take into account what the particular track record of the person before them is; they have to take into account whether or not they have breached any previous non-custodial sentences and so on. Therefore, coming out with mandatory rules on what should be the sentence for a particular offence is something which we have traditionally been rather cautious about.

  Q265  Mr Streeter: Mr Huhne, I must confess that I have not yet studied your Party's policy in this area in great detail.

  Chris Huhne: I am shocked, Mr Streeter; it would benefit you enormously!

  Q266  Mr Streeter: I am sure it would! I understand that you advocate an expansion of youth work schemes.

  Chris Huhne: Indeed.

  Q267  Mr Streeter: Targeted on a high risk group. Could you explain how you think that might help and how many young people might be affected by this?

  Chris Huhne: Yes. Again, I would start by saying that I wish we had more very clear evidence on what works, and certainly we are committed to turning the National Police Improvement Agency to have a general remit for looking at what works; but a lot of the professionals in this area say that diversion—youth diversion in particular works. That means youth centres; it means catching early signs of bad behaviour before people, kids start getting sucked into the criminal justice system. One of the ideas that we have put forward is for a Youth Volunteer Force which we would like to see piloted by local authorities that are interested in it. The ideal would be effectively to establish a list of projects which are of demonstrable public value, which might be cleaning up areas, improving sports' facilities and so forth, and actually getting the local authority to pilot that by inviting young people to get involved. It may be that in some cases those young people would be actually volunteering to do so and in other cases it might be suggested that it would be a good idea to avoid other particular consequences. But I think that it would be one of the lists of things that we would like to try in terms of youth diversionary activity.

  Q268  Gwyn Prosser: Mr Huhne, in your brief you talk about the need to give prisoners the life skills to equip them for outside, and we have had this discussion this morning. We would all sign up to that; that is the warm cuddly side of the issue. Then you have told us this morning the reason you say that judges and magistrates are not giving non-custodial sentences in lots of cases is because they have lost confidence in it. We have all seen the anecdotal stories and the Daily Mail sort of headlines, but is there any real evidence that judges and magistrates are actually making that decision? And, if they are, are they feeding that back into the justice system so that things can be corrected?

  Chris Huhne: A repeated refrain, which I am afraid you will hear from me, is that all of us rely so much on talking to the professionals and getting what are often basically anecdotal views. I am not aware of serious research on this, but I am certainly aware—not least in my own area of Hampshire—about morale in the Probation Service, about the problems of the whole reorganisation and therefore difficulties with the policing and supervision of non-custodial sentences. That is, I think, something that you hear back from magistrates and from crown court judges on many, many occasions and I would like to hear much less of it.

  Q269  Gwyn Prosser: There is a serious weakness in the system, surely, if judges and magistrates are making their decisions on what they see as the effectiveness of a particular line of custodial or non-custodial.

  Chris Huhne: I think that is absolutely right, and I think that if you are looking for a cause for this quite extraordinary continued increase in the prison population this is one of them.

  Q270  Gwyn Prosser: How would the Liberal Democrats' approach tighten up the non-custodial incentives?

  Chris Huhne: We have to make sure that when people are given a non-custodial sentence that first of all they can do it, that there are plausible arrangements for getting them there and that they are actually being supervised and that there is a clear sign off; so that at the end of it you know that the non-custodial sentence has been performed. In many cases I have heard stories, and no doubt you have as well from your own constituency, of where people, for example, get into trouble because they have turned up on one occasion and there was nobody there to make sure that they were actually doing what they were meant to be doing. Then they did not bother turning up the second time and they got into trouble for that, and this is a real difficulty. So we have to make sure that the system actually is not overloaded, that it is capable of dealing with what it is being asked to do.

  Q271  Gwyn Prosser: Something we all agree on is that short custodial sentences are simply too short to allow this rehabilitation and this retraining to have any effect. One of the obstacles of course is the churning effect of prisoners, moving from one prison to another, and indeed that is related to the shortage of prison places. The soft cuddly approach is: let us give them more training and equip them; but the hard decisions are, shall we have longer sentences and shall we have more jail places? What is the Liberal Democrats' view?

  Chris Huhne: There is a clear view, as you probably know, that the prison places in this country are in the wrong place; that effectively a rather large number of prisons—

  Q272  Gwyn Prosser: So would you start building new prisons in different places?

  Chris Huhne: The difficulty is clearly that there is much more criminality in the south-east of England in particular than there are prison places in the South East; so there tends to be a churn through the system, as I understand it, as it has been explained to me by prison governors, of people moving around. That actually has two effects which I think are pernicious. One is that it makes it more difficult for prisoners to stay in touch with family and local community, so that when they come out they do not have that network that they should have. The other effect is that because of the churn they do not have that settled ability to go through training courses, and indeed even when they do do training courses the training courses are often arranged in such a way that they are most convenient for the prison and the prison authorities rather than for the prisoner. So, for example, you might learn to be a bricklayer on a fairly long sentence but the course to become a bricklayer is fitted in at the convenience of the prison authorities, which might be early on in the prison sentence and actually by the time you are released you are no longer up to speed. So a lot of that has to be refocused. I think that there are three things we need to do to try and relieve the pressure.

  Q273  Gwyn Prosser: You might have lots of other things that you want to tell us but I am asking you about new prison places, expanding the prison estate.

  Chris Huhne: I hope I shall leave you with a very clear understanding that our policy is to try and shift resources in the criminal justice system away from what we see as the excessive use of prison, particularly for short term custodial sentences but also for dealing with mental health problems which are more appropriately dealt with in secure mental health institutions, and for dealing with drug problems which are more appropriately dealt with in drug rehabilitation units; and our whole strategy as a Party is to shift away from the excessive concentration on this idea of punishment through prison towards an emphasis on detection and an emphasis on prevention because the criminological evidence suggests that that is what works. If you look at when Liberal Democrats are in power in local authorities, where obviously there is a clear remit to deal with preventative measures, you can actually see that Liberal Democrat local authorities invest in preventative measures in a way that actually now shows clearly that crime has fallen more rapidly in Liberal Democrat controlled local authorities than it has fallen in either Labour or Conservative controlled local authorities, and that is a very substantial piece of work, which I would I suggest to you that you should be learning from; and rather than banging your head against a wall with an approach that has failed you should actually start thinking about an approach to cutting crime which works, which is concentrating on prevention and detection.

  Q274  Gwyn Prosser: When you have finished, Liberal Democrat local authorities are not responsible for providing prison places, but you evaded that and now we pass on to the next question.

  Chris Huhne: But that is precisely why it is so important to have a change at national level as well in the approach to crime because it is important to make sure that we are doing at every level—national and local—what works as opposed to what clearly does not. The approach that you appear to be suggesting clearly does not work.

  Q275  Mrs Dean: Mr Huhne, you want to expand prison labour. How can we incentivise employers to participate?

  Chris Huhne: One of the schemes to which I would point you, which I think was a very useful one, was the successful pilot run by the Howard League for Penal Reform, which paid prisoners at much nearer the market rate and they actually paid tax, national insurance and so forth, and indeed they paid into a compensation fund for victims, but it was nevertheless in some years that that pilot was self-financing and I think it would make a lot of sense to try and roll out schemes like that. The incentive to participate is clearly there because you are paying nearer the market rate and, hopefully, you are also developing some of the skills of routine and of work which will stand those prisoners in good stead when they leave and hopefully will then find some useful employment outside.

  Q276  Mrs Dean: My question is how do you incentivise employers and not prisoners?

  Chris Huhne: Employers, I am sorry. This is when people leave prison?

  Q277  Mrs Dean: No. Whilst prisoners are in prison how do you incentivise employers to actually take part in providing employment within prisons?

  Chris Huhne: I think that there are a number of employers who have been attracted to the wider social goals. I am thinking particularly of the scheme whose name unfortunately escapes me at the moment, but when prisoners leave prison where they are actually employed, and that has been rather a successful way of providing people with employment outside. If you have a group of employers who are interested in trying to make an effort in this area I think that you can encourage them to come in and work within prisons as well. But the obvious response if there is a problem then and if you actually are in the happy position of wanting to do more than there are employers to do it then clearly the thing to work on is the gap between their costs and what they get back. So the obvious solution if there is a shortage of employers is to subsidise some element of the pay that is given to the prisoner.

  Chairman: Mr Huhne, thank you very much indeed for sharing your thoughts with us this morning. If there is anything else that you want to add to your evidence please write to us; the inquiry will end in about a week's time.


 
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