Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment
of Offenders bill
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Kate Emms, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
‘(2AA) A court must consider making an order to participate in a restorative justice course in any case where this section empowers it to do so.
(2AB) Where a court makes an order under (2AA) it shall consider the views of the victim of the crime in determining what form the order will take.’.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, on such a beautiful sunny morning. It is appropriate that clause 53 is the first clause under part 3 of the Bill. It relates to the needs of victims, and I am sure that all members of the Committee are worried about how victims are treated under the criminal justice system and wish to improve that treatment.
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that restorative justice is considered in each case. Restorative justice is much spoken about across all parties, but I fear not so much acted upon. Unfortunately, the Green Paper “Breaking the Cycle” hardly mentions victims. Considering where the criminal justice system is now, it is unrealistic for us to jump to what we might call “victim-centred justice”, and the purpose of the amendment is to take steps to redress the balance, which is what the amendments on restorative justice and the compensation fund are designed to do.
There are three models for restorative justice. The first is when the offender and the victim meet. The offenders make reparation and offer an apology to the victims of their crime. The second model is when offenders meet victims of similar crimes, not their own crime, to make reparation to someone who was put in similar circumstances. The third is when offenders undertake a course to enable them to see things from the point of view of victims by learning to empathise with other people. When they can do that, they are in a much better position to deal with their own behaviour.
The Prison Fellowship, a voluntary sector organisation, has been running courses on the third model for several years. I attended one such course in Wormwood Scrubs in the spring, and could see how effective it was. Unfortunately, the event—
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I am following what my hon. Friend is saying with interest, but the next time she attends a meeting in Wormwood Scrubs perhaps she would first notify the hon. Member who represents that constituency of her intentions.
Unfortunately, the course that I attended was the last occasion when such a meeting was being held in a London prison, because the public spending cuts imposed by the Government mean that prisons are cutting back on anything that they regard as non-essential.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I am familiar with the work of the Prison Fellowship in Styal prison, in my case. I was struck not only by the worries that funding might be lost in the future for what is an admirable project by workers in the Prison Fellowship, but by the view expressed strongly by the women undergoing the programme that it was worth while and they would be concerned if funding were not available in future.
The Sycamore Tree course, which both my hon. Friend and I are aware of, enables a group of 20 offenders to think about the impact of their crime on their victims. They meet a surrogate victim, and at the end of the six-week course make a contract of restoration. It is the most widely used restorative justice course in prisons in England and Wales, but at the moment it has reached only about 2,000 offenders a year. Its effectiveness is currently being evidenced by the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge university, but the evidence report for the Bill from the Ministry of Justice found that restorative justice reduced the frequency of reoffending by about 14%. That is the Minister’s own figure, and he knows that the course is a good way forward. The most substantial reductions are for repeat offending, serious crimes and crimes involving personal victims. The Ministry’s research also demonstrated that restorative justice saves £9 for every £1 spent, through reductions in reoffending. That calculation was done using a cost-benefit analysis and the Home Office’s standard model for the full cost of crime.
It is evident that this is one of the areas of the criminal justice system where we will achieve long-term savings if we make a bit of short-term investment. That is one of themes running through what will, I hope, be short debates on this part of the Bill. All the time, Ministers are saving money in the short term, but I am concerned we will end up with higher rates of offending in the long term, with higher costs to the criminal justice system and the community.
In our evidence sessions, restorative justice was supported by the Magistrates Association, by Victim Support and, with some caveats, by the victims commissioner. The Minister will also be aware of the positive experience of restorative justice in Northern Ireland.
Although experiences of restorative justice are positive, we need to be sensitive to the views of individual victims. Not every victim wants to get involved in a personal restorative justice experience with the person who offended against them. I held a seminar about the Bill in Durham at which Support after Murder and Manslaughter gave me its views. It strongly felt that restorative justice could make things worse if it was badly handled. I therefore inserted the second proposed new subsection so that the court must take account of the individual victim’s views when deciding whether to go ahead with restorative justice and what kind of restorative justice approach to take.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): The hon. Lady is right when she notes that all members of the Committee should, as I am sure they do, share enthusiasm for restorative justice, given the evidence we have seen in all our constituencies, including mine. I do not wish to strike a discordant note, but I can foresee one problem. If the court is required to start considering the victim’s views before sentence is passed, the problem is that the sentence might be delayed. A better approach might be to pass sentence, make a restorative justice programme part of any alternative to custody and allow the victim to be consulted at that point. We should involve them at that stage of the decision-making process, rather than cause a delay between conviction and sentence, which is what the amendment could do.
Helen Goodman: I am not sure whether what the hon. Gentleman suggests is right. In serious crimes, victims have the opportunity to make a victim witness statement, and as the hon. Gentleman will see from what I say later about the evidence from the victims commissioner, there might be an opportunity to do so earlier in the trial.
I am not suggesting that restorative justice approaches should be confined to community sentences. The experience that my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston and I are describing and the work that the Prison Fellowship does show that restorative justice can also work for people with custodial sentences.
Kate Green: My hon. Friend will be interested to know that in Styal prison I met a woman who had been convicted of murder. Restorative justice was deemed appropriate even for cases as serious as that.
Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend anticipates my point. Usually, people think of restorative justice as something that is appropriate to lower-level crimes, such as breaking into a car or bashing down a fence. However, it has, as my hon. Friend says, also been used for serious crimes. Personally, I cannot imagine that if I or a member of my family had been subject to a violent crime, I would be particularly enthusiastic about taking part in a restorative justice scheme. However, some people are capable of great forgiveness; they are capable of doing that. Obviously, that is admirable, but because these are very sensitive issues, the important thing is to take account of the victim’s views.
My only experience of restorative justice was with a constituent who was obviously an extremely troubled person. He went into the benefits office and threatened the staff with a knife. He went into the council office and threatened the people who administered housing benefit. He poured petrol over himself and threatened
I did not exactly feel that the way the man had behaved towards me and towards other people previously was okay, but it was quite reassuring to receive the letter, because I then knew that he was a much less risky person than he had been previously. I offer that as a small example of how the victim can benefit from restorative justice, in addition to the improvements that we hope it will bring about in offending behaviour patterns. With those few remarks, I urge the Minister to accept the amendment.
Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): I want briefly to support the hon. Lady’s amendment, which is entirely sensible. Restorative justice is not an airy-fairy thing at all. It works in many instances. I remember—this is a true story—a young boy who had committed an arson offence in the constituency that I represent. I was defending the young man. The owner of the property met him and was appalled at what he had done, but they developed a relationship whereby the owner gave him an excellent character reference. The young man went on to take a first-class honours degree at the university college in Aberystwyth. He is now one of the best young poets in Wales. I shudder to think what would have happened to that young man had he gone to prison. Would he have gone completely the other way? Would society have faced another huge bill because another young man had lost his way in life completely? That is one example with which I am familiar.
Not so long ago, the all-party group on policing was told by a person who had suffered a disturbing burglary at his premises and the burglar himself what had happened; they were sitting together presenting their case to us. The burglary took place in central London during the day, which was pretty serious, but it also included violence, with the old man being pushed to the floor as the burglar was making his way to stealing whatever he was after. The elderly gentleman suffered a cut to his forehead and hurt his arm, and the burglar left with his ill-gotten gains.
The burglar was a career burglar; for more than 12 years all he did was burgle and steal, and one would have thought that he was totally beyond the pale and incorrigible. However, when it came to sentencing it was considered appropriate to see whether restorative justice would work. Although he served a sentence for the burglary and the violence that it involved, it was a lesser sentence because the victim was prepared to go through a scheme of restorative justice. The index offence occurred eight years ago, and the burglar has not committed an offence since. Indeed, he has become friendly with the other man, they contact each other from time to time, and he helps out with one thing and another.
The point surely is this: diverting a career burglar by means of restorative justice can work. I hasten to say that it will not work in every case. In some cases, the victim will plainly never want to confront the offender, but in many instances—as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland says, they are not only minor offences but serious offences of the sort to which I have referred—it can and does work. At the end of the day, society wins if we are able to divert career criminals from serious offences, because it costs a lot of money not only to keep those people locked up but in insurance premiums, compensation and so on. It is huge amount of money. That is one example, but there are many others. That case struck me as astonishing, but I have been told by friends in the probation service that it is not unusual for that path to be taken with such offences, and that it works.
I urge the Government to accept the amendment. I say yet again that it will save money. I fear that we are all labouring to save money. Crucially, however, it will save a lot by not having to lock up people who are prepared to follow the path of restorative justice. It is not a panacea for all ills, but I firmly believe that in many cases it can and does work. I therefore fully support the amendment.
Kate Green: Good morning, Mr Sheridan. I am sure that all hon. Members will support the spirit of the amendment. It is generally recognised that restorative justice can make an important contribution to achieving sentencing objectives and reducing further offending. It is an evolving area of law. It is not new, but it is developing and I believe that we should do all that we can to encourage it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd said, it has been shown to be effective in a significant number of cases. My hon. Friend mentioned that it was in early use in Northern Ireland. The Prison Reform Trust examined the practice of restorative justice and produced a report that shows what a positive impact it can have on offenders and victims.
When I visited Styal, I was struck by the impact the programme there was having on women. I am not predicting that none of those women will ever reoffend or that their lives will be easy when they are released, because women in prison typically come from very disadvantaged situations in the first place, and one restorative justice programme will not deal with all the issues we face. However, a couple of things struck me as a result of my visit.
First, my hon. Friend rightly alluded to the fact that victims might be reluctant to meet the perpetrator of the crime against them, but that was not the case at Styal. A woman who had been the victim of a crime—her son had been murdered, and I have huge admiration for a woman who has lost her son in that way and is willing to participate in such a programme—came in to run a session with all the women in Styal. She was not their victim, and she was certainly not a typical victim—she was an extremely remarkable victim—but she was an impressive representation of victimhood. It is not essential and necessary, therefore, that the specific victim of the crime should meet the specific perpetrator, if that is likely to cause them great distress; we can still design restorative justice solutions that work well.
Secondly, there may be a concern, perhaps not in this Committee, where Members are informed and understand the issues, but among members of the public more generally, that such restorative justice is a soft option. As everyone here knows, it is not a soft option, but even if that is a concern, the fact that restorative justice can be combined with a custodial sentence, for example, makes it clear that the punitive element of sentencing need not be removed when we include a restorative element.
I have one final thing to say. In the recall debate at the time of the riots, the hon. Member for South Swindon suggested that restorative justice might, in such circumstances, have a particularly appropriate place, and I was struck by that insightful suggestion. Restorative justice enables us to make a better connection between the crime and the penalty that the perpetrator pays. As I said, this is an evolving area of sentencing, and we can think imaginatively about the sorts of restoration that could be included as part of a restorative justice order. It need not be just a meeting and a talk with the victim; it could involve putting things right physically.
Mr Buckland: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for referring to remarks I made in the recall debate. She makes an important point about restorative justice being wider than the defendant and the victim just having a meeting or, indeed, meetings—it can take several meetings to reach a resolution—but being about the need to include actual physical reparation to the community that has been damaged or destroyed.
To my mind, restorative justice takes three forms. First, it can be employed as a direct alternative to prosecution. That is not strictly in the Committee’s remit, but we must remember it, and as we speak it is certainly taking shape in local police areas, including mine. That is a welcome innovation. Secondly, there is restorative justice in the community. That could be part of a programme requirement under a community order, and it could be at the discretion of the probation service to organise that. Thirdly, as Opposition Members have helpfully reminded me, there is restorative justice in a prison environment. Those are the three areas where restorative justice is relevant.
My concern is that the amendment, although well intentioned, prescribes something that, at this stage, is still better left to the discretion of probation officers when they determine the form and content of a programme requirement or a specific requirement under a community order. Similarly, in a prison environment, such things should be left to the discretion of probation officers, who will have daily or weekly contact with prisoners. They will see and know how prisoners develop and will know whether a restorative justice procedure would be best.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has referred several times to probation officers. Across the country, we are seeing a tremendous reduction in the number of probation officers. Would it not be better to have something specific in the Bill that directs a court rather than adding to the work load of probation officers, of whom we have far fewer these days?
Mr Buckland: The problem with the point that the hon. Gentleman properly makes is that we will be placing more burden at sentence stage on the authors of pre-sentence reports. That is a problem because it is probation officers who write them. It would be far better to allow probation officers, who are working with the offender after sentence, to assess the offender, particularly if they are a young offender, to see whether they are in the right place to take part in a restorative justice session.
The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland is absolutely right when she says that the system has to be victim-led, but the offender has to be in the right frame of mind too. It would be regrettable if restorative justice measures were implemented at perhaps a premature stage in either a community sentence or a prison sentence. We all know that most prisoners or defendants on community orders will change their attitudes over time, but I am afraid that some do not. Young offenders often display a change in attitude and in maturity over the course of quite a short community order or prison sentence. That has to be borne in mind when we look at the merits of these well-intentioned amendments.
The amendments give parliamentarians a welcome opportunity to raise issues of restorative justice in the House. It is vital that we keep on doing that. As hon. Members have said, in this debate we allow the Minister to focus his mind and the mind of the Government on practical ways in which restorative justice can be expanded and enhanced.
The Swindon youth offending team have told me many encouraging stories about how young offenders have been brought face to face not only with the victims but with the consequences of their offending. In conclusion, I reiterate the point to which the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston alluded; this is not just some soft option but part of the punishment. By bringing young offenders face to face with the consequences of their actions, we are teaching them a proper hard lesson, which may be something that they have never learned before. Let us not leave this debate thinking that this is a soft option. It is part of the punishment.
Mr Slaughter: I agree with what the hon. Member for South Swindon said about restorative justice being an alternative to prosecution, and that is particularly true for young offenders as it will, where appropriate, keep them out of the criminal justice system. What this debate has shown is that we are underusing restorative justice because it covers a wide range of things. The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd mentioned its use in quite serious offences, which is an area that is not so commonly explored. If we think about it in an international context and look at truth and reconciliation commissions in countries around the world, we see that forms of restorative justice have been used for the most serious offences over many years. Therefore, we need to take it more seriously, which is why I support my hon. Friend’s amendments.
We have a new Minister answering in this debate. I hope that he will be less trenchant in refusing all amendments. Perhaps the shadow Minister will be more persuasive than we have been used to over the past few days. I urge the Government to support the amendment because we need to be much clearer about the role of restorative justice. That may involve more resources, which could be the reason why the Minister wants to resist it.
I hope to go to Northern Ireland to see the scheme there. The Minister, I think, has already seen it. Successful schemes involve an investment of time, money and resources. We discussed mediation not being an achievable alternative to litigation, and restorative justice is not a cheap alternative to other forms of sentencing and punishment. Will the Minister tell us what expanded role the Government see for restorative justice, what resources they will provide, and whether it forms part of the proposals for payment by results?
The Minister may have the figures to hand, but I understand that only a small percentage of victims attend restorative justice sessions. That must be a matter of choice for victims, but I suspect that, unlike the Northern Ireland scheme, which has a much higher attendance rate, not enough is done to prepare the ground or to make the circumstances comfortable for the victim. Although that is not the be-all and end-all, it is clearly an important part of the restorative justice programme. We cannot have it on the cheap as a casual alternative to other sentencing methods. Will the Minister explain what the Government intend to do to ensure better facilities and a better environment for victims taking part in a restorative justice programme?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): It is a pleasure to open the batting for the Government on the sentencing part of the Bill. The hon. Member for Hammersmith has spent the last four days in Committee unsuccessfully trying to persuade us of the merits of his arguments. I must tell the Member for Bishop Auckland that all was going well until he decided to come to her assistance. Should she wish to visit Her Majesty’s prisons Downview and High Down in my constituency, she is more than welcome at any time to see the work that is being done there.
I am delighted to reply to this debate, because it is clear that all parties represented in the Committee are in the same place on the desirability of a significant widening of restorative justice in the criminal justice system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington is not in his place, but he and I have had several conversations about that, and he has intervened many times on the Floor of the House in support of restorative justice. Every party and every member of the Committee are in the same place, and the Government are sympathetic to the ambition behind the amendment.
One of my personal objectives as Minister was to identify three priorities for real focus and leadership from me. One is to deliver work in prisons; the second is payment by results, and the third is restorative justice. Those are relatively new, and have the capacity to make substantial changes in how we deliver our criminal justice system. Drive and focus will be required to deliver them and to bring them to scale. I want restorative justice to be brought to scale, and the assistance and support from the country’s political leadership representing all the parties here will be immensely helpful in that objective.
Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): The Minister is well and truly on top of his brief, so I am sure he knows that the Prison Reform Trust published research today showing that 95% of the public support restorative justice.
Mr Blunt: I am delighted that we are in the same place as 95% of the public. That is an unusual position for me, but I am happy to enjoy that level of support. The great thing is that the desirability of widening restorative justice has been widely accepted by hon. Members who take a keen interest in the matter, and the argument is being won throughout the criminal justice system. As more and more people become aware of it, it is being deployed more and more.
The Government are formally committed to increasing the use and availability of restorative justice right across the criminal justice system. It is an important tool to help repair the damage caused by crime: it offers victims an opportunity to explain the impact that a crime has had on them and it helps ensure that offenders face up to the consequences of their crime. We are taking several steps, such as improving its use in community resolution so as better to tackle low-level crime, including through neighbourhood resolution panels. We are also improving its use as part of, and in addition to, out-of-court disposals.
We are working with criminal justice partners to decide how best pre-sentence restorative justice can be made available, when the offender admits their guilt and all partners are willing to engage—the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland made that important point—to inform the court’s decision about the right type of punishment. We are also building capacity for the use of post-sentence restorative justice in the community and in custody.
Crucially, alongside that, we are looking at victims’ access to restorative justice as part of our wider work to review the role of victims and witnesses throughout the criminal justice system. The hon. Lady began by saying how vital it is to focus on victims in the criminal justice system. Of course, I absolutely endorse that. We should look at the criminal justice system through the eyes of victims, and to a degree that is what the criminal justice system is about. The hon. Lady chided the Government for the lack of focus on victims in the “Breaking the Cycle” Green Paper. All I can say is that, in their own right, victims justify having a policy focus, which they will get when we introduce a victims strategy later this year.
Kate Green: I welcome everything that the Minister is saying. Will he confirm whether, given that the courts already have powers to use restorative justice orders, resources to build capacity will be put into training, because levels of awareness are still quite low, including among the lay judiciary?
Mr Blunt: I shall say something that the hon. Lady will welcome—as much as I welcomed discovering this morning that I am in the same place as 95% of the population. She will discover that we have already put resources in, and I shall make that point during my speech.
We are trying to move away from enforcing top-down approaches on the whole criminal justice system, because we have gone through a period during which we eroded professional discretion and disempowered the front line.
Increasing the use of restorative justice is not about imposing rigid legal duties; it is about supporting a culture change in the mind of practitioners to develop and deliver effective restorative justice practices that are rooted in local need and responsive to local crime and reoffending, all of which can be achieved through existing legislation. Indeed, restorative justice is not so much a course, which is what the amendment states—the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said that the amendment relates to only one element of it—but much more a process and an approach.
I want to reassure the hon. Lady and the Committee again about the needs of victims, and I do not wish us to lose sight of the important benefit to victims if they take part in the restorative justice process. The hon. Lady is quite right to say that the engagement of victims must be a voluntary exercise and will not always be appropriate. However, the evidence from Northern Ireland, where there is a more formal approach to the youth system, is that the levels of victim satisfaction for those taking part are more than 85%.
Mr Blunt: There is also a point, which the hon. Lady may be about to make, involving the Ministry of Justice’s own figures, which I acknowledge, on the rehabilitative effect on the offender of taking part in restorative justice. However, the striking figure is the amount of satisfaction reported by victims who take part in it.
Mr Blunt: Back in 2001, I had the pleasure of sitting on the Committee considering the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, and of speaking for Her Majesty’s Opposition. The system implemented a formal conferencing process. When considering whether that option was appropriate for England and Wales, we had to wrestle, regrettably, with the issue of resources. A formal conferencing system is expensive, and we do not have growing resources. The huge difficulty with trying to advance things through mandate and legislation is that that would impose costs on the system that it cannot afford at the moment. We want to deliver the changes through a different approach, by winning the argument for a change of culture on restorative justice in the system. As we can see, that has happened in this Committee, and it is happening throughout the criminal justice system as people start to consider whether they can deploy restorative justice in their area.
There are good examples. The Thames Valley probation trust, for example, is doing good work on the issue, and the same is happening in Norfolk. We have heard examples from Committee members of the use of restorative justice in their areas. Courses are being given in prisons, as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston told the Committee. It is happening all over the system. We are trying to extend the practice, and I will explain how we want to do so.
Part of the process must focus on the victim. I am interested in how the involvement of victim and offender at the end of a successful restorative justice process could be extended in the criminal justice system. When the process has taken place between offender and victim, that should be included in the pre-sentence report to help inform the court’s decision.
However, we are only beginning to create restorative justice capacity in our system. The first graduates of the Ministry of Justice-supported programme completed the programme on Tuesday. Had I not been here, I would have been there. Unfortunately, as I was detained here, they had to put up with a filmed version of my speech congratulating them. I was told that it went extremely well, and I was happy to write to all the graduates of the scheme to thank them for taking part and acquiring those qualifications.
Alongside that first course, the National Offender Management Service is accelerating plans to build capacity for training staff to deliver more restorative justice interventions in the community and in custody. We must reflect carefully on how to widen the application of restorative justice using a law, and whether it will prove possible to take that approach. I will keep the matter under review as we continue to build capacity and look for and deliver resources to support it. That is what the Ministry of Justice is doing. We are one of the principal funders of the programme.
Helen Goodman: I am extremely grateful for the support of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston and for Hammersmith and the hon. Member for South Swindon, but I was disappointed not to hear anything from the hon. Member for Edinburgh West, because when we were taking evidence, he raised the issue of restorative justice.
I am pleased that the Minister supports restorative justice. I do not doubt his sincerity, but I am worried that his approach will not deliver the goods. He argued that he does not want legislation and that he has no money, but that he wants to change the culture. When people talk about culture change, it often means that they want something to happen, but they do not quite know what. It is a catch-all for not taking action. Sometimes, changing the law is an instrument for changing culture; it is not a result of a changed culture.
I have had conversations with magistrates in Sunderland. They were dead keen on restorative justice, but could not understand why victims did not all rush forward and go for it. I know why they do not rush forward and go for it, and I appreciate the Minister’s remarks about the importance of professional judgment. I also share the concern that the criminal justice system, if we do not take a uniform approach, will have pockets of good practice and pockets of bad practice. If we explore the criminal justice system, we will see pockets of good practice in all parts. The trick is how to turn them into common practice throughout the whole system. I hope that that is a major part of how the Minister conceives
‘(2) In section 175 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 (service compensation orders), after subsection (7) insert—
(7A) The court must consider making a service compensation order in any case where it has power to do so.”’.
The amendment is one of those provisions that replicate, in the Armed Forces Act 2006, what we are doing in the Bill, and are, by their nature, repetitive and technical. I think that the point established when the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, moved his amendments, is relevant, so from now on when Government amendments replicate provisions in the 2006 Act I shall move them formally. If members of the Committee want to question details I shall of course be at their disposal.
Helen Goodman: As we had notice of the amendments very late, I want to ask the Minister whether he proposes to make changes that exactly translate provisions of the Bill so that they apply to the armed forces. Are there any differences?
Mr Blunt: There should be no differences. The technical amendment inserts in section 175 of the 2006 Act a provision very similar to the one that clause 53 inserts in section 130 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. The effect of the amended clause is that both civilian criminal courts and service courts will have a duty to consider making a compensation order in any case where they have the power to do so.
As with other Government amendments to part 3 on armed forces legislation, the resulting clause is designed to ensure that sentencing law and the practice of the service courts will, where practicable, be aligned with the law and practice of civilian courts in England and Wales. The hon. Lady will have noticed the minute qualification that I entered. To all intents and purposes the effect will be the same, but such is the nature of the
‘(2B) A court must make any payments ordered into a compensation fund.’.
‘The Secretary of State shall establish a fund for compensation.’.
‘The Secretary of State shall make regulations for the functioning of a compensation fund.’.
Helen Goodman: The amendment and new clauses would establish a compensation fund for victims. We have heard numerous complaints from victims and victims organisations about the way compensation is paid—or rather is not. It is frequently not paid at all, and often it is paid only in part. The money comes, as Victim Support told us in its evidence, in dribs and drabs.
That is not just a financial problem but an emotional one. A cheque for small amounts such as £5 or £10 a week is a constant and regular reminder to the victim of the crime—a reminder that, frequently, they do not want.
The Magistrates’ Association has provided some numbers, which it says are from the Ministry of Justice. At the moment 16% of all offenders are ordered to make compensation payments, and on average they are required to pay £418. In the case of summary offences only, the figure is 24% of offenders, whose average payment is £86. About 40% of the compensation is paid in the year when it is imposed. However, because of the poor payment record, the amounts outstanding are now between £120 million and £150 million. That is money to which victims are entitled and that they are missing.
In our evidence sessions, Victim Support, the national organisation, said quite clearly that it wanted a compensation fund, as did the victims commissioner, the official who is meant to represent the interests of victims. The Magistrates’ Association gave particularly interesting examples of the kind of problems faced at the moment, of which this is one:
“Alan is 38, married with two teenaged children. Alan’s house was burgled one evening when everyone was away from home. There was little damage, but over £10,000 worth of goods were taken from the house.
The Judge said that because he was not heavily convicted, he would be sentenced to a 3 year community sentence with rehabilitation programmes and 200 hours of unpaid work. A Confiscation
As Sean was leaving the court he said (sotto voce) that Alan could ‘whistle for his money’, that he’d already packed his job in and any payment would be made at £5 per week now that he was on benefits.”
So far, the victim—Alan—has received £35. He has engaged a private detective to investigate Sean. He discovered that Sean has moved to another part of the country, where he is earning and also receiving benefits. He lives comfortably, drives a nice car, which, in Alan’s view, is a real example of a situation where crime pays. Not surprisingly, he is deeply unhappy with the criminal justice system. Such cases undermine the confidence not only of victims but of the public as a whole in the criminal justice system.
“Sheila is 74. She was knocked over in the street coming out of her local Marks and Spencer store. The two young men who pushed her over had never intended to hurt her, but their boisterous and low level criminal behaviour which also caused others in the area to fear for their safety, led to Sheila being hurt.
She was awarded £100 compensation by her local magistrates’ court for the injuries and distress caused and the two young men were also given a 12 month community order of 80 hours unpaid work and supervision.
Both young men are on Job Seekers Allowance and can only afford to pay Sheila £5 per week. Sheila has been so alarmed by this event she has not set foot outside her house since this event, instead asking her daughter to do any necessary shopping for her.
Every time Sheila receives the £5 compensation, which is intermittent she is reminded of the unfortunate event which led to her self imposed ‘house arrest’. Sheila is ‘disgusted’ with the way she has been treated by the criminal justice system and has said that she would rather not have the compensation as it reminds her of her unpleasant experience.”
“Victims rarely seem to get the compensation they were awarded. One of the courts we deal with….does write to victims to ask if they would mind the money being written off. While at first this may seem like adding insult to injury, in fact because on so many occasions victims fail to receive anything, it is actually a major step forward.”
I am sure that the Minister understands that something needs to be done to speed up the payment of compensation to victims. Treating victims fairly is essential to improving public confidence in the criminal justice system.
A related problem is the inefficient, insensitive and fantastically complex operation of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. SAMM, the organisation I mentioned earlier, has described its operation as “faceless” and “judgmental”. Louise Casey, in her evidence to us in preparation for the Bill, said that when she surveyed victims’ families in murder and manslaughter cases, 50% of them said that complexity adds insult to injury.
The Minister will say that this is another example of the Labour Opposition throwing money at a problem, and that he has to take account of the pressures he is under from his Treasury colleagues, but the amendments need not imply a cost to the Exchequer. We are talking about a cash flow problem. This is not an additional public spending commitment; it is a re-profiling, which is what victims want. We are not saying that the state should pay; we propose a system in which the state underwrites the payments to speed them up, and then recovers them, which could be done in several ways. The voluntary sector groups that gave evidence to us said that they wanted 100% of the money up front, but we could give people 50% at the outset and 50% five years down the track, thereby at least introducing some certainty into the situation.
The Minister will see that, in new clause 8, I have not set out all the possible detail of how the compensation fund should operate. We need to think about that in more detail, and the Minister needs to consider how he would do it in such a way as to sell the idea to his colleagues in the Treasury. Alternatively, he could follow the proposal made by the Magistrates’ Association, and wrap up the compensation fund with the victim surcharge. The association has also suggested extending the surcharge. All those measures would enable the Minister to do what victims want, while at the same time satisfying his colleagues in the Treasury.
Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): Is not the only reason for refusing to accept the amendment that the Government believe they have no chance of paying compensation to people who are entitled to it? They are leaving victims without their money because the scheme that has been in operation has failed to deliver.
Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend puts his finger on it. Insufficient priority is, and has been, given to the matter, and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service simply does not give it the management priority it ought to have. By establishing a compensation fund and, as it were, putting the compensation through the Ministry of Justice accounts, we would change the incentives for Ministers and officials—and consequently change their behaviour—to sort the problem out.
The clause, unamended and unadorned, is possibly the emptiest in the Bill. No doubt the Minister’s response would be that under the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 a court may make an order for the offender to provide compensation, and that he is changing that “may” to “must”. The officials might have briefed him, and I do not know whether he has looked in detail at section 130. If he looks at it more carefully, however, he will see that the measure is disingenuous, because the court already
In effect, therefore, it “must” give reasons for not making such an order. The clause is empty; we want to give it some bite and we want an effective compensation system. I hope that the Minister wants to be in line with 95% of the victims who have thought about the matter and that he will, therefore, accept the amendment.
Mr Llwyd: In the debate so far, we have not mentioned the problem of collecting fines and compensation. I have met the Minister over the past twelve months in my role as Chair of the justice unions parliamentary group, because there was much concern about the huge number of uncollected fines and amount of compensation, which rather makes a mockery of the law. That, at least, needs to be put right to begin with. I hear what the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland has said. Victims feel badly let down when they see perpetrators continuing to live well-funded lifestyles while making those payments only in dribs and drabs.
Whatever comes of this debate, the collection of compensation and fines must be improved, however the Government do it. We hope that they will not do that by outsourcing, but by ensuring that each magistrates and Crown court district has targets, and that officials apply their minds to bringing in that money. With the purport of the amendment in mind, I repeat what Sally Gimson, the then chief executive of Victim Support told the Committee. Victim Support’s view is that
“the Bill could have done more to make provision for the victims compensation fund. We are happy that there is a duty for the compensation fund, but we are worried that victims will not necessarily get the money and that there is no means to enforce that better than at the moment. The Government have not done that, and it is a missed opportunity, because victims tell us that money comes through from offenders in dribs and drabs. We would like there to be a compensation fund, so that the money is funded up front and so that the fund would get the money from the offenders.”––[Official Report, Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Public Bill Committee, 12 July 2011; c. 28, Q42.]
The reference to an empty clause is not without force, because if current enforcement is so bad, merely providing in the Bill that there must be consideration of compensation does not take us very far down the road. More must be done to underpin the clause, and the amendment would be perfectly good at doing that. Perhaps, as the hon. Lady has said, we must move money from one area to another, but in doing so, we must ensure that people who have been through difficult situations do not have to face the hurtful prospect of knowing that there is a compensation order of £500, but they have received only £5 a year. That happens—it is hurtful and it makes people think that the criminal justice system is falling apart. The Minister will appreciate that this is an important subject. I, too, will be interested to hear his response.
Mr Blunt: I accept that this is an important subject. Let me begin by discussing the clause. In the previous debate, the hon. Lady adduced arguments about the importance of law in sending a signal, but said that this particular provision is empty. That smacks of contradiction in the presentation of her arguments. We are sending a firm signal that we expect sentencers to hold offenders to account to their victims, and that the first duty of the court in sentencing must be to consider what compensation is due from the offender to the victim. The purpose of the clause is to send the clearest possible signal about the intention of Parliament on the duties owed by offenders to their victims.
Mr Blunt: I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I have something to say about the collection process later, but the comments of the Opposition, who, as the Government, presided over the situation that we have inherited, about their particular amendments slightly impress me with their chutzpah—their arguments have condemned the system over which they presided.
Let me proceed to the details and the issues that sit around the clause because, plainly, given the number of people who have made the case, it needs to be taken seriously. I assure the Committee that I have carefully considered the arguments.
The amendment and the two new clauses seek to establish a compensation fund from which court order compensation will be paid directly to a victim when an order for compensation has been made by the court. We have considered carefully the proposal to establish a new victim compensation fund, as the idea undoubtedly has merit. Such a fund would allow court order compensation to be paid immediately to the victim by the Ministry of Justice and then recovered from the offender. That has two challenges, one practical and the other a matter of approach or what I call philosophy, but the practical issues are the most important.
First, let us be clear that the clause strengthens the duty to consider compensation. That will have an effect, sending the clearest signal about the intention of Parliament if the clause is passed. Today, we have a situation in which £30 million in compensation is ordered every year. I expect that figure to rise as a result of the Bill, but we cannot predict by how much. Equally, if sentencers knew that the Government would automatically pay compensation, they are highly likely to impose much greater sums, knowing that the victim will receive them, irrespective of the offender’s ability to pay. That approach has superficial attraction, but the practical effect would be to inflate significantly the £30 million in compensation currently ordered each year. There would be a growing shortfall between the amount paid by the state and what could sensibly be recovered from the offender.
Mr Watts: Why does the Minister think that a court would award a compensation level above what the individual could afford? Why would that change? That does not seem correct, because the court is currently duty-bound to look at the individual when awarding compensation.
Mr Blunt: I agree with the hon. Gentleman to the extent that that is what the courts should do, but sentencers are, after all, human, and we have a substantial number of lay magistrates who are from the community and who are not immune to an extremely deserving victim appearing before them. I suspect that if they knew that the victim would receive the compensation that they had ordered, irrespective of the state’s ability to recover it from the offender, there would be a change in behaviour. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that should not take place and the behaviour should not change. I just posit it to the Committee that because we
Mr Watts: I am even more concerned, because the point now seems to be that magistrates are completely out of control and unaccountable. The Minister seems to be saying that if they act in a way not intended by the legislation, there is no mechanism to ensure that they behave themselves.
Mr Blunt: The Attorney-General’s ability to appeal sentences that are too tough is limited to a rather small number of cases. Obviously, it would not apply in every case. In law, the hon. Gentleman is completely correct. However, we are dealing with people, who face highly deserving victims, whom everyone feels should have proper compensation. All I am positing is that if they knew that victims would receive that compensation, there would possibly be a change in behaviour. That behavioural change might be quite substantial. We do not know what would happen. That is the point that I want to make to the Committee. We are dealing with what Mr Rumsfeld would call a known unknown.
Whatever the shortfall was, it would have to be covered, and inevitably it would come from funds that would otherwise be available to help victims recover from crime by providing emotional and practical help and support when they need it most. Available funds are best used to provide those services for victims. The Government are concerned that these proposals would guarantee payments to some victims where there was a successful prosecution, at the expense of services to all victims, regardless of whether the criminal justice system could bring the offender to justice to the standard of “beyond reasonable doubt”.
From the presentation that we have heard—the speeches in support of the amendment—one would think that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service was incapable of collecting any money whatever in all circumstances, but that is not the whole picture.
Mr Blunt: I will get the answer to that question if I am able to do so. I want to give the right hon. Gentleman the precise figure, but let us deal with the canard that no money whatever is recovered by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. The Courts and Tribunals Service is not as unsuccessful in ensuring that victims receive what has been ordered as one might think from the tenor of the debate. For the year to March 2011, the payment rate for all financial penalties by value, excluding administrative cancellations, was 80%, and the Department, led energetically by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, has a clear strategy to improve that further.
Of course, the enforcement of compensation orders is prioritised above all other financial penalties; they come first. The Courts and Tribunals Service has several measures at its disposal to elicit prompt payment.
Let me describe the general approach or what one might call the philosophical approach to this issue. We, as a coalition, are trying to widen the exercise of personal responsibility. To have the state step in to exercise that function is not consistent with that. While I accept that there is a problem with victims receiving limited payments of compensation, as was adduced in the debate, for the state to take on the delivery of that function is inconsistent with having citizens, including offenders, face up to their individual responsibility.
I know that that argument is a matter of judgment and balance, but it is relevant when we consider what we should do about the problem that some victims face. Combined with the fact that we are not yet in a position to know the extent of liability that the state would be taking on, the current economic circumstances regrettably preclude us from accepting the amendment and its approach today. In the light of the circumstances that we face, I ask the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland to withdraw her amendment.
Helen Goodman: I am afraid that the Minister’s response was not just disappointing but a bit alarming. On the practical issues, his first concern seemed to be that the amendment would mean that victims got more compensation, which seems an odd worry to have. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North has outlined some of the difficulties with that. I hoped that the Minister would explain his strategy for collecting the moneys. I hoped that, because the victims group has been raising the matter consistently over many months, both Ministers would agree that that was important and that they needed to turn their attention to it. The fact that the Minister does not even know how much is outstanding speaks volumes for the priority that the Department gives the problem.
As I said earlier, the Magistrates’ Association had figures from the Ministry of Justice. Since the Minister does not know what they are, I will tell him. There may be some more recent figures, which the Department should have, but the figures that I have are the latest ones in the public domain. Outstanding at 1 April 2008 was £126 million; £74 million was imposed in year; £42 million was collected in year; judicial remissions were £7 million; cancellations were £2 million; and, in March 2009, the figure was £150 million.
Ministers need to pay attention to the matter. As I said, we tabled the amendment because we think that it would change the incentives and hence the behaviour of both Ministers and officials. I hear what the Minister has said—that 80% of compensation is collected—but that is over a long period, and it is only, as I also told him, 40% in the first year. It is disingenuous to suggest that the issue is about personal rather than Government responsibility, as the state is already involved in the matter. I therefore ask my hon. Friends to vote for the amendment.