Examination of Witnesses (Question Number
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 countryif
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 teenagersactually 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 aspectsimproving
policing, more police on the beat and better policing and it is
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 BelgiumI do not quite know what Belgium has
been doing wrongcrime 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 backand 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 channelswhich 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 reasonsbecause
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 rememberbecause I did model building
not in this area but in other areas many years agothat
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 debateand you heard it earlieraround
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 patchyyou 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 recognisedalthough
more anecdotal than hard evidence, but I would certainly accept
on the basis of anecdotal evidencethat 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 problemsI
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 activitiesyouth
centres, for examplewe 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
questionand I do not disagree with what you saidit
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 sentence70% 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 havebecause we do not have the
evidence baseI 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
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
offencesand this is an important pointthat 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 breachedthat
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
Chris Huhne: One of the things
that my Party has traditionally stressedand we get into
trouble with, with both Conservative and Labouris 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 diversionyouth 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 awarenot least in my own area
of Hampshireabout 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
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 levelnational and localwhat
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.