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Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 140:

The noble Lord said: I have already spoken to this amendment. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 141:

    Page 41, leave out line 32.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 59, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 60 [Short-term prisoners: release subject to curfew conditions]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 142:

    Page 41, line 34, leave out from ("subsection") to end of line 37 and insert ("(2)(d) there is inserted--

"(da) the prisoner is subject to the notification requirements of Part I of the Sex Offenders Act 1997;"").

The noble and learned Lord said: This grouping contains government Amendment No. 142, as well as amendments tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch; namely, Amendments Nos. 148 to 154. I think it would be convenient if I were to deal, first, with Amendment No. 148, which would have the consequence of the abolition of the home detention curfew scheme in its entirety. The amendment

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proposes to insert a new clause to the effect that Sections 34A, 37A and 38A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 would cease to have effect.

I may be wrong, but I understand that the present Leader of the Opposition has highlighted this as a policy pledge; namely, the abolition of the home detention curfew. The other amendments proposed by the noble Baroness are intended, both individually and together, to limit the scope of application of the HDC scheme. The noble Baroness and I are diametrically opposed: the Government have no intention of scrapping the home detention curfew scheme, which incorporates one of the biggest electronic monitoring systems in the world. It has had a very successful first 20 months of operation. Indeed, as I have travelled around and spoken to colleagues in different countries, I am bound to say that they are extremely impressed--first, with the nature of the scheme and, secondly, with its success rate.

All prisoners discharged on home detention curfew are inevitably about to return to the community. This is about the successful resettlement of short-term prisoners who are serving sentences of not more than four years and is aimed at supporting the transition from custody to community. It is worth bearing in mind that the home detention curfew scheme had the unanimous support of the all-party Home Affairs Committee in the other place. It said that the scheme will,

    "provide adequate protection to the public because of the tagging element, and will give prisoners an opportunity to readjust to life outside prison".

Prison governors have been very cautious; indeed, only 30 per cent of eligible offenders have been placed on HDC to date. I know from my own visits to prisons in the past that the co-operation between prison staff, police and probation officers has been extremely effective. The risk assessment is used very prudently. As I said, two figures are important: only 30 per cent of eligible offenders are placed on home detention curfew; and there is a very high and successful completion rate of about 94 per cent. Moreover, fewer than 2 per cent on HDC to date are known to have committed new offices while on the scheme, and many thousands have completed the scheme successfully.

As regards the specific amendments, I turn now to Amendment No. 149 tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. This amendment looks like a straightforward attempt to encourage the sentencing courts to explain the practical implications of the scheme. However, its consequence would be that no one in prison could go on an HDC scheme unless its existence was explained by the court at the time of sentence, together with an explanation of the way in which the scheme would affect the length of sentence. If the court did not mention the existence of the scheme when sentencing, the offender would automatically be barred from consideration. We believe that the net result would be additional time-consuming bureaucracy for the courts and a loss of clarity and consistency in the use of the scheme.

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However, the amendment goes further. It would require the court to specify the precise amount of time that would be served in custody by the individual offender if he were to be released on HDC after the minimum period of imprisonment specified in statute. That would create false expectations. In any event, looking at courts in practice and the scheme as it is operated, it simply would not be possible for the sentencing court to have the relevant and required information to hand to determine whether an offender would be eligible for HDC.

We do not accept that the list of statutory exemptions which already exists needs to be overlaid with a further set of exemptions decided on an individual basis by the courts. I recognise the noble Baroness's concern but I say again with great respect that the courts simply do not have the ability at the time of sentence to overlay a further set of exemptions decided on an individual basis.

We believe that the public protection/prisoner resettlement balance is best served by up-to-date assessment of risk determined by the prison governor in conjunction with the police and the appropriate agencies, not least the Probation Service. In reaching that decision, consideration needs to be given to the prisoner's criminal record, but also--this is critical--to an assessment of the offender's behaviour in prison, particularly his willingness, or otherwise, to tackle his offending behaviour. Those elements are simply not knowable at the time of sentence.

No such provision applies to parole, the other major discretionary release scheme applying to prisoners. The fact that a prisoner is eligible to be considered for release on HDC or parole does not mean that they will be released in this way. In the case of HDC, the percentage passing the risk assessment is about 30 per cent. In the case of parole, about 40 per cent of those eligible are successful in being granted a parole licence in any given year.

Amendment No. 152 has a similar intent to Amendment No. 149. But the grounds suggested--"the interests of justice"--are wide indeed. The defects which I mentioned a moment ago still obtain as regards the scheme that is proposed.

Amendments Nos. 150, 151, 153 and 154 would add to the list of categories of prisoner who are excluded from eligibility for release on the home detention curfew scheme. Amendment No. 150 would exclude domestic burglars who have committed more than three offences, but it does not deal with the nature of those offences. They may be extremely trivial at one end of the spectrum, or extremely serious at the other.

Amendment No. 151 would exclude anyone committing the wide range of offences for which the maximum period is more than 10 years in prison, irrespective of the seriousness of the actual offence, and irrespective of the nature of the sentence passed.

Amendment No. 153 would exclude prisoners who had committed any one of three offences against police constables, but that includes obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty. In some circumstances that can constitute a minor offence.

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I look to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for confirmation of that point, not, I hasten to add, because he has ever committed the offence. However, he knows as well as I that sometimes that offence is not enormously serious or grave, although sometimes it is.

Amendment No. 154 would exclude prisoners who had committed against a child any of some 40 offences in Schedule 4 to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill which are defined as "offences against a child". These include matters as diverse as cruelty to children--that might include an act committed in a moment of exasperation by an otherwise loving parent--and encouraging the wicked offence of child prostitution.

The home detention curfew scheme is subject to several statutory exclusions. If the Committee accepts my proposal in Amendment No. 142, that will give effect to the commitment given by my right honourable friend Mr Straw in another place. The original Clause 60 would have excluded only sex offenders serving a current sentence for a relevant offence under the 1997 Act. Amendment No. 142 would extend the exclusion to all sex offenders still subject to the notification requirements of the 1997 Act, whether or not their current sentence is for a relevant sentence under that Act. I am sure that we can look to the noble Baroness to support this strengthening of the scheme.

In short, I believe that we have a fundamental difference of approach. I recognise that the noble Baroness feels strongly about her approach. However, I suggest that ours is better. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch: As the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General said, we shall have to agree to differ on the amendments he has mentioned.

As my honourable friend David Lidington announced in another place at col. 662 of Commons Hansard on 12th June, these amendments deal with what the Government term their home detention curfew scheme, which might be more accurately labelled "the special early release scheme for prisoners who have committed serious offences". The idea that a person serving a six month sentence could be released in just six weeks makes a mockery of sentencing--and makes a mockery of honesty in sentencing. That is what Section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 allows for.

Up to 2,000 prisoners may be on home detention curfew at any one time. In total nearly 23,000 prisoners have been released early since the scheme began in January of last year. This figure includes over 3,000 drug dealers, many killers, thousands of burglars and two rapists. Seven hundred offences have been committed by individuals who were out on the scheme. That is 700 more offences than if the scheme had not been introduced.

It is true that Amendment No. 148 removes the home detention curfew scheme. Amendment No. 149 makes it clear that it is for the judge to make the provisions of the home detention curfew clear at the

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time of sentencing. The amendment improves clarification. It brings more honesty into sentencing and will allow victims to have clearer information from the outset about the fate of the offender.

Amendment No. 150 excludes the mandatory three year sentence for burglary as it would not be in the spirit of sentencing if the offender were to be released early.

Amendment No. 151 includes offences such as supplying Class A drugs. It does not mean that an offender has to be sentenced to 10 years, only that the offence carries a maximum of 10 years. Amendment No. 151 gives the judge the flexibility to rule out home detention curfew as an option.

Morale in the police service is dangerously low and we believe that the early release of offenders who have assaulted police officers is wrong. So far I understand that 190 offenders who have convictions for assaulting police officers have been released on home detention curfew. This amendment proposes the exclusion of the use of home detention curfew orders for such an offence.

On Amendment No. 154, as the noble and learned Lord said, we feel strongly that in the interests of child protection offenders who are convicted of any offence against a child listed in the Bill should be ineligible for the scheme. I defend my amendments even against the might of the Attorney-General.

10.30 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I think that we have agreed to differ quite economically. An individual may have been sentenced to imprisonment only for obstructing a constable, or someone who was otherwise a loving parent may have been guilty of a minor offence against a child. That is quite often the experience; and they are met sometimes with terms of imprisonment. The fundamental point is that these people will be back in the community within not more than four months in any event. Four months is the maximum period, as I recall it, of home detention curfew. Therefore one seeks, as carefully as possible, to manage prisoners back into the community. We all know that the indicators for further reoffending include no home to go to, no settled community to go back to, and no work. That is the whole purpose and virtue of home detention curfew.

I take the noble Baroness's point as sincerely meant when she says that police morale is adversely affected. I go back to my own experience over the year when I was Minister for Prisons and Probation. I have never seen such close co-operation between police, probation and prison officers. They all benefited enormously from that joint assessment ultimately made by the governor.

I go back to my original point. Amendment No. 148 blows the scheme completely out of the water. I see that the noble Baroness is nodding with all the implacability of Pio Nono. I think that he is about to be made a saint: she can draw some comfort from that!

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I do not want to hurry the noble Baroness on to that because I think that that is a post mortem declaration. I think that we just have to disagree on the issue.

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