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Home Detention Curfew

Volume 301: debated on Thursday 20 November 1997

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3.30 pm

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about an extension of the electronic monitoring—or tagging—of offenders.

On 30 July, I announced to the House a number of measures, building on our manifesto commitments, to protect the public and to establish a criminal justice system that is fair, swift and effective in tackling crime and disorder. Many of the measures—including new community punishments—will be provided by the crime and disorder Bill that will come before Parliament shortly. Others, such as automatic life sentences for second-time serious sexual and violent offenders and seven-year mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers, were brought into force on 1 October. Work is also in hand to bring the Prison Service and the probation service closer together.

The Government are pledged to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Ex-prisoners are plainly much less likely to reoffend if they have settled into work or if they are actively looking for a job or have a clear prospect of a job. The welfare-to-work programme will guarantee every young person who has been out of work for more than six months the opportunity to work or train. I have ensured that ex-offenders are targeted as a special group within the welfare-to-work programme.

Protecting the public and maintaining public confidence in the criminal justice system are my primary goals. Prison must be used for serious and persistent offenders. That is why I discharged our manifesto commitment to audit the resources of the Prison Service. As a result, I have provided an extra £43 million to help with the additional population pressures that we inherited and which were not adequately funded by the previous Administration. Since May, the prison population has risen by more than 3,400 to 63,000, an increase more than double the April 1997 predictions of my predecessor. To cope with that increase, I have authorised the building of four new prisons to provide an additional 2,400 places.

We must also give the courts a wider range of options on tough community punishments in which they—and the public—have confidence. Those can now involve greater deprivation of liberty by the use of new technology. Therefore, I am setting out today, to the House and to the public, new action that I am proposing in the use of tagging.

It may be helpful if I give some of the background information. Over the past 10 years, there has been much interest in the use of electronic tagging to provide 24-hour supervision of offenders who have been curfewed. The first trials, in 1989, which were of curfews imposed as a condition of bail—not a sentence—were not a success. The equipment simply did not work as intended.

The Criminal Justice Act 1991 provided for a new penalty of a curfew order enforced by electronic tagging. The previous Government delayed the implementation of those provisions until 1995, and then only introduced them in three trial areas—Norfolk, Greater Manchester and Berkshire.

On Tuesday, I published the report of the second year of the trials. To begin with, sentencers were very cautious about using their new powers, and only 83 orders were made in the first year. However, as it became clear that the equipment really did work, and that the orders were effective, more and more use was made of them. In the second year, 375 orders were made. In the last four and a half months alone, a further 269 orders have been made.

There are three reasons for the increase in sentencers' confidence in tagging. First, the equipment has proved absolutely reliable. When an offender is tagged, it really is possible to tell, second by second, whether he or she is complying with the curfew. Not only are absences instantly noted, but any attempt to tamper with the equipment is detected immediately.

Secondly, the two contractors have performed well. Every violation of the curfew conditions is followed up by properly trained and managed staff.

Thirdly, sentencers are using tagging as a high-level penalty, in many cases for offenders who might otherwise have been sent to custody.

Therefore, it is clear that the technology can offer substantial benefits for victims and the public. The trial areas for curfew orders made under the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 are now being extended into four new areas: West Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and the Middlesex probation area, which covers the London boroughs of Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Enfield, Haringey, Harrow, Hillingdon and Hounslow. In addition, from January 1998, in the pilot areas of Greater Manchester and Norfolk, the courts will be able to impose a curfew order, enforced by tagging, as a community punishment on 10 to 15-year-olds, on fine defaulters who would otherwise be sent to prison, and on persistent petty offenders.

I turn to how I propose to use electronic tagging in respect of those who have been in prison and are very near to the end of their sentences. Those who are sentenced to prison typically have lived disordered, irresponsible lives. They are poor at making sensible decisions about their own futures or those of their families. In prison, of course, they do not have to. However, the moment prisoners come out of prison, they have to make critical decisions about what they do with every moment of the day; whether they drift back into crime, and into the company of their criminal associates, or whether they try to bring order into their lives.

Tagging has a key role to play here. If prisoners who are serving short-term sentences are tagged towards the end of the custodial period of their nominal sentence, they can be given the opportunity to structure their lives more effectively and be swiftly brought back to prison if they breach the tagging conditions.

The research into the first year of the trials showed that offenders see curfews enforced by tagging as a very severe restriction of liberty—just as magistrates and judges do. Some offenders have said that they found that the self-discipline required to complete such a curfew order made it harder than prison. Tagging also provides opportunities for offenders to take proper responsibility for working or looking for work, for keeping their families together and for maintaining self-control.

The case for introducing an element of tagging into the last part of a short-term prison sentence is very strong in any event, but it has been reinforced by the recent rise in the prison population. No one wants to see an unnecessarily overcrowded prison system, and it would be the height of irresponsibility not to take advantage of modern technology to help prevent that. The alternatives are bound to be at the expense of constructive prison regimes, and at the expense of improving the prisoners' prospects for resettlement—in other words, at the expense of the law-abiding public.

Therefore, I have decided to seek Parliament's approval to impose electronic monitoring on selected short-term prisoners in the last two months of their sentence. The orders will be called home detention curfews, and the relevant powers will be sought in the forthcoming crime and disorder Bill.

Home detention curfews will be available for prisoners who have received sentences of more than three months' but less than four years' imprisonment. They will be tagged for between two weeks and two months, according to the length of their original sentence. Currently, under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, such prisoners are automatically released at the halfway point of their sentence. All those prisoners will in any event shortly be back in the community.

There will be no automatic entitlement to tagging. The Prison Service will in each case conduct a risk assessment. If the prisoner fails it, he or she will continue to serve the sentence in prison until its halfway point, as now. The prison governor will set the place and times of curfew, in consultation, where needed, with the probation service. It will usually be 12 hours a day and could be more, but will in no case be less than nine hours a day.

That will enable the prisoner to have a specified period each day in which he or she can adjust to living in the community, while still facing a restriction on liberty for a major part of the same day. The curfew conditions will be in addition to the supervision requirements with which anyone with a nominal sentence of 12 months or more must comply.

If a prisoner breaches the conditions of the home detention curfew, he or she can immediately be returned to custody. As with the present trials of curfew orders enforced by tagging, the monitoring will be provided by private sector contractors, and there will be an invitation to tender in due course. Our aim is for the scheme to be operational in 1999.

At the heart of all my policies as Home Secretary is my commitment to provide better protection for the public and for the victims of crime. I am ready to use every measure at my disposal to honour that commitment. We now have a real opportunity to use modern technology to provide a much better transition for carefully selected prisoners from prison into the community. With the support of Parliament, I intend to take that opportunity.

I thank the Home Secretary for his courtesy in letting me have an early view of his statement.

Seldom has the House listened to more verbiage to disguise such a massive U-turn in Government policy. I want to apologise to the Home Secretary, because in our debate on policing in London last Friday I suggested that he was only part owner of his job and that he shared it with the Chancellor of the Exchequer; I was wrong: the Chancellor now sets Home Office policy by himself, and the Home Secretary simply does what he is told.

"Tough on crime" never meant anything, given the Labour party's record in opposition; now its meaning is clear: it means soft on criminals. New Labour's language means anything that it decides that it will mean. According to the Home Secretary's statement, being tough on crime means being willing to put the public at risk in order to save money.

I welcome the Government's conversion to the importance of tagging. Why is the Home Secretary now in favour of tagging, when only a few years ago his party said that tagging was
"a dangerous and irrelevant concept…wrong in principle. It has enormous implications for civil liberties".—[Official Report,Standing Committee A, 18 December 1990; c. 274.]?
Will he confirm that this is another U-turn by his party and that tagging was an initiative of the previous Government in the context of sentences imposed by the courts?

How many prisoners does the Home Secretary expect to be freed each year if his proposals are enacted? How much saving in public expenditure does he expect to achieve? Will he confirm that that money will be clawed back by the Treasury? He mentioned victims, in passing, only twice, brazenly suggesting that this move would add to their protection. How exactly will victims feel more reassured and safer after the early release of offenders from prison?

In this country, courts decide sentences in individual cases. Will the Home Secretary confirm that he plans to breach that principle by substituting governors' judgments for those of the courts? If the Home Secretary wishes to assist criminals to re-enter society—that is a laudable wish shared by both sides of the House—why has he decided to release them two months early with tagging, rather than amend the law to require that they are tagged for the first two months after their release? We all know the answer—the Chancellor of the Exchequer has told him to save money.

The Home Secretary says that the Prison Service will conduct a risk assessment in each case. Who is the Prison Service in this context? Is it prison officers? Is it their union? Is it governors? Is it bureaucrats? Is it Mr. Tilt? Is it the Prisons Minister? Who is it? Who will be responsible to the House when the curfews are broken?

Given the limited nature of the tagging pilots thus far, and of those proposed, how will the Home Secretary reassure people throughout the country that they can have confidence in an untested scheme?

The Home Secretary has consistently refused to put in place mandatory minimum sentences of three years for career multiple burglars. Will he confirm that such criminals will be eligible to take part in the scheme, providing, of course, they have not been sentenced to more than four years? Will he confirm that violent and sexual offenders sentenced to four years or less will also be eligible to take part in the early release scheme?

Will the Home Secretary also confirm that most people sentenced to six months—who would usually serve only three months—by the courts, will, with time on remand and this scheme, effectively be able to walk free from the court, despite its decision that they should serve six months? How does he believe that that will reassure the public? Indeed, will he confirm that he does not believe in honesty in sentencing?

Today, we have seen a significant shift in this country's penal policy—from the victim to the criminal—and all to save the Chancellor of the Exchequer some money. We will not take any more moral lectures from the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister. We will recall the Home Secretary's complacency in the face of crime rates, which are a continuing worry, as he himself said only the other day. Crime rates are coming down as prison numbers are going up—a trend which he is determined to reverse, not because he believes in it, because I do not believe that he does, but because he has been told to get up and say so by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I tell him now that when this bit of the crime and disorder Bill comes before the House, we will resist it.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me whether I believe in honesty in sentencing. The answer is yes, but he obviously believes in confusion in response. There has rarely been a more muddled response to any statement in the House since I have been a Member.

The right hon. Gentleman said that crime rates are a continuing worry. One might put that much stronger: in 18 years of a Conservative Administration, of which he was an adornment, we saw crime double. Despite the welcome modest falls in crime, his Government's record made crime victimisation levels in England and Wales the worst of any of 18 industrialised countries. Britain became a very much less safe place when his Government were in office.

I shall do my best to answer the few coherent questions that the right hon. Gentleman asked. He asked me about the numbers likely to be affected. That depends on a number of assumptions, especially about the risk assessments made by prison governors, which relates to his fifth question to which I shall come in a moment. If about half of those who would be eligible for this arrangement are granted home detention orders, the effect on the prison population in a year will be about 3,000. I shall be happy to provide him with further details if he wishes.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about savings in public spending. I have already pointed out that the public spending plans for the Prison Service, which he endorsed as a member of the previous Cabinet, did not provide sufficient funds even for prisoners entering the service on 1 May. As a result of that, I have had to arrange for an additional £43 million—resources which his Government never found—to pay for additional places, as well as order four new prisons. Waffling rhetoric about protecting the public or empty prison places sounds extremely hollow when set against the fact that his Administration, had they remained in office, would not have provided the prison places that I am providing. That is the truth—that is the reality written down in his own public spending plans.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the additional protection that will be given to victims. I should point out that we are acting very differently from his Administration, who—contrary to what he said—suddenly in 1987 decided to change the parole rules and thereby secured the release of many thousands of prisoners, without any protection for the public. There is a world of difference between a prisoner being released on to the streets and a prisoner who is subject to curfew in the last two months of his sentence. Lord Hurd, a former Home Secretary, said in a lecture yesterday:
"Virtually all prisoners come out of prison. The public safety is put at risk if on release they are even less qualified to get a job and lead a law-abiding life than when they were convicted … Security is not just a matter of walls and wires."
That is something which the right hon. Gentleman should remember.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether this is a breach of the principle of the court deciding. It is not, and I have already referred to the decision taken by his predecessor in 1987. By the way, some of us remember that last summer—before the right hon. Gentleman moved to home affairs—his predecessor let out 500 prisoners, simply by mistake. There was no decision taken—not by the court or even by the Home Secretary.

The right hon. Gentleman asked who would provide the assessment. I have made it clear that it will be made by the governor. He asked who will be responsible for that—an interesting question, given the years of evasion about who was responsible for the Prison Service. The first decision that I took in respect of the Prison Service was that I would be responsible. I am responsible and I shall be not only answerable to the House, but responsible if the scheme goes wrong. I have confidence in the scheme—it is not untested.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about time on remand. Again, we need no lectures about the length of time prisoners spend on remand. Thanks to the huge delays that his Administration built into the system, many prisoners spend not two or three months, but six months, nine months, a year, or more, on remand. We are making arrangements for the scheme not to apply where a prisoner has been on remand and is given a sentence by the court that would amount to his immediate release.

Lastly, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to read a tract about the Conservative record by his hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), a shadow employment spokesman, who wrote:
"The criminal justice system"—
that is, the Conservatives' criminal justice system—
"too often operates like a classic bad parent".
That is exactly how it operates—by the way, the title of the tract, published since the election, is "Is Conservatism Dead?"

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and regret the response of the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney). My right hon. Friend will know that the Select Committee on Home Affairs is shortly to begin an inquiry into making community sentences more effective. Will he explain his views on making punishment in the community a more effective method of sentencing?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Making community punishments more effective and increasing public confidence in them is of critical importance if such sentences are to command public confidence and greater use is to be made of them. Tagging is one way of improving confidence in community sentences. A second way is for us to secure a better organisation of the probation service and I spelled out the detail of that in a speech to the national probation conference a week ago.

The probation service is set national standards, and some services abide by them, but the overall standard of performance is not as good as it should be. Probation services are supposed to produce pre-sentence reports in 15 days, but they do not: it takes them three weeks. In my first two weeks in office, I came across an outrageous situation in the Uxbridge area, where community sentences were not being carried out. That was exposed by the News of the World. I instituted an immediate inquiry into that service, and effective disciplinary action has been taken.

We should construct effective community punishments. We should call them what they are, because "community service" is a confusing title. We must ensure that they are effectively enforced, and there is no doubt that tagging can play an important role in ensuring their full enforcement.

Is the Home Secretary aware that electronic tagging is not a magic cure for criminality? It is merely a useful way of backing up community supervision. The probation service must have the means to provide that supervision for it to be of any value. Does he recognise that, as virtually all prisoners are ultimately released, what matters for public protection is that the regime inside the prison and any subsequent supervision are effective and lead to a prisoner's rehabilitation? That is not possible with the present vastly overcrowded prisons and the limitations that that places on the service's ability to do the job properly. Is the Home Secretary aware that the previous Government sought to give the impression that they would protect the public by locking up a record number of people for a record length of time, yet they never provided the resources for prison places on the incredible scale that that required? Will he make no effort at all to follow that dreadful example?

We all recognise that some people must be locked up, albeit for a short time, as a exemplary punishment, some must be locked up for a very long time to protect the public, and others must be locked up for the whole of their lives. Most offenders are released from prison within a short time. That is why it is extremely important to ensure that the transition from prison into the community is more effective than it is at present.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that if regimes are heavily overcrowded, they are less likely to be constructive. Evidence shows that the reoffending rate is higher in those circumstances, so victims are less protected.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will study some of the clear research evidence. An increase in the reoffending rate as a result of locking people up is not a sensible way to protect the public, even though I accept, and always have, that a significant proportion of criminals must be locked up.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I accept that tagging is not a magic cure. Of course, I accept that, but there is no doubt that it is an effective system and is working well. The trials in Greater Manchester had a failure rate of 17 per cent.—an 83 per cent. success rate. The failure rate in Norfolk was even less: the success rate was about 90 per cent., which is higher than the success rate of many probation orders.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to agree that I would not provide any more resources for the Prison Service. I am providing additional resources because of the huge backlog of criminality and offending over which the previous Government presided. More serious criminals are coming before the courts, and they must be sentenced. Some of them will be sent to prison, so the prison population will continue to rise. I have provided £43 million in extra resources for this year and next year to cope with that, and have ensured that many prisons have additional accommodation. I have also ordered four new prisons.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, like many people, we had strong reservations about this scheme when it was first mentioned in the House? Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that there would be a pilot scheme involving 400 Labour Members running about with pagers. I think it works.

My right hon. Friend—I am sorry, I mean my hon. Friend; I do not want to elevate him at this stage—is absolutely right. The success of the electronic media goes well beyond the treatment and care of offenders. [Interruption.] There is no doubt about that.

I will arrange for my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to be given a pager on a trial basis.

My hon. Friend will be returned whence he came if he breaks the trial.

That gives me a cue to reply to a question that the shadow Home Secretary asked me, to which I omitted to reply. The right hon. Gentleman asked about our previous position. We were sceptical about tagging when it started—as were plenty of others—and, what is more, we were right to be sceptical, because the original trial failed comprehensively. Let me make it clear, however, that we supported the scheme when we were in opposition. During our consideration of the Crime (Sentences) Bill last year, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) thanked the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), for agreeing that
"electronic tagging, although not a panacea, has a part to play."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 28 November 1996; c. 223.]

I trust that electronic tagging of Labour Members will contribute to their early release.

On a serious note, does the Home Secretary agree that if someone is robbed in the street, a woman is raped or a child is abused, it makes no difference whether the attacker is tagged or not? Will the right hon. Gentleman reassure the House and the public that no violent or sexual offender will be released early because he has taken part in the electronic tagging scheme?

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. The evidence suggests, however, that the tagging system, which will involve a curfew of at least nine hours during the period when people are most likely to commit criminal offences—in the evening and at night; the period is typically 12 hours, but in some cases it is longer—can be very effective. It has been used effectively in respect of some serious sexual offenders on their release from prison.

The arrangement will apply only to short-term prisoners. I accept that some may be in the categories that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but there will be a risk assessment in every case. If an individual has a clear propensity towards violence or the commission of sexual offences, it is very unlikely that he will be released on those terms.

An important part of the scheme, which I think will make it much more enforceable than it would be otherwise, is that not only will an offender who breaks the tag face the immediate prospect—not only the risk—of being taken straight back to prison, but, when he gets there, he will be at the basic entry level to prison regimes, rather than at the enhanced level at which he would typically qualify for risk assessment.

As I represent one of the areas in which new prisons are likely to be built, I obviously have a great interest in trying to reduce pressure on overcrowded prisons. The people of Salford would welcome a reassurance from my right hon. Friend that his proposals will not result in the release of dangerous prisoners into the community, and that there will be intense supervision of those who are subject to the proposed measures. Will he give that reassurance? Local people need to be reassured that their communities will continue to be safe.

My hon. Friend is exactly right: the measures will not result in the release of dangerous offenders. They may result-I hope that they will-in more prisoners who are released going straight, getting jobs and finding a way of leading more orderly lives.

Let me also tell my hon. Friend, whose constituency I know well, that Salford has been ravaged by crime, particularly crime committed by youngsters who are out of control. I believe that the introduction of tagging in the other contexts that I have mentioned-as part of a sentence-will make a big difference in assisting the community in Salford, and helping the police to ensure that curfews that are imposed either as a condition of bail or as a result of a court sentence are enforced effectively.

I welcome the statement. As one who spent the last four years chairing Humberside police authority, I know that police authorities, as well as probation services and prisons, will also welcome it, although they will be a little saddened—if not surprised-by the Conservatives' hostility. They will not be surprised, because of the way in which earlier Governments have treated them during the past few years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that tagging is a positive step for the reintegration of offenders and an effective tool for dealing with anti-social behaviour, which blights the lives of thousands of people and was completely ignored by the previous Government? Does he further agree that tagging is an effective way to get people early release from prison and a much more effective policy than that of the previous Government which, if I recall it right, was pre-senile dementia?

My hon. Friend is right. Tagging is a positive measure and an effective tool for anti-social behaviour. One of the issues that frustrate the police most about offenders who have been given custodial sentences is not knowing where they are at particular times of the day or night. Tagging ensures that the police and the contractors can track their behaviour. Above all, it should ensure, as many offenders now acknowledge, that offenders can begin to lead orderly lives in the community. Prison is necessary, but the problem is that it does not teach decision making for the kind of decisions that offenders have to take when they come out.

Having boldly stated his full responsibility for the Prison Service, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he will resign if any criminal who has been convicted of a serious violent crime escapes from prison or breaks his tag?

I am going to decline the invitation. I do not think that any prisoner who has been convicted of a serious sexual offence will in any sense be a candidate for this kind of system.

I welcome the statement. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that public confidence-building measures, which are crucial to all effective community sentences, are in place? Does he agree that we might be better served by far by the Conservative party—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."] What am I reading? The floor? [Interruption.] I shall continue when the children have settled down. We might be better served if, rather than indulging in the politics of the gutter, the Conservative party helped us in the fight against crime in those confidence-building measures to ensure that we benefit the entire society and that tagging is a success.

My hon. Friend is more optimistic about the quality of the Opposition than I am. I do not see much prospect of the Conservative party becoming constructive. There is an obvious answer to the question that was posed by the hon. Member for Havant in that excellent tract which I recommend to all Conservative Members, "Is Conservatism Dead?" The answer, as we have seen from today's episode 15 of the serial, is yes.

It is crucial that public confidence in community punishments is increased. One of the ways by which we aim to increase it is by the use of demonstration projects, one of which is being undertaken in Shropshire. They aim to provide the sentencers, magistrates and Crown court judges with far better information about the effectiveness of community punishments than they currently receive.

One of the major problems at all levels of the criminal justice system is that it operates in self-contained, hermetically sealed compartments with insufficient information being transmitted from one part to another.

Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment at the response of Conservative Members which does not seem to be based on the findings of the research into trial areas? Among other things, they showed a high degree of control of offenders who were subject to electronic monitoring. Moreover, they showed a great deal of confidence by sentencers in using the system as an alternative to custody.

Does my right hon. Friend expect, as I do, that the proposal may show itself to be a much more effective transition from prison to the community and that it will enable people to avoid offending in future? Is he aware that I understand that all Conservative Members are also to be issued with electronic monitoring equipment? Can he arrange a risk assessment for each of them?

On the last point, I take what my hon. Friend says as true. The only difference between our system and the Conservative party's system is that ours works—the Conservatives' will not.

My hon. Friend comes to this issue with much professional experience in dealing with offenders, and her wisdom needs carefully to be listened to. If we are to make this country safer, the crucial thing is, first, to punish offenders, but, secondly, to do our best to ensure that they lead more orderly lives. One way—it is only one—in which we can do that is to secure for short-term offenders a better transition between prison and life outside through electronic tagging.