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Volume 465: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Community Sentencing

1. What measures he is taking to improve the effectiveness of community sentencing and to encourage public support for it. (160183)

3. What measures he is taking to improve the effectiveness of community sentencing and to encourage public support for it. (160185)

Community orders are an effective way of reducing crime. The Government have ensured that more than 7 million hours of unpaid work are completed by offenders every year, with increasing visibility of projects in the community.

Some 18,000 children are affected every year when their mothers are sent to prison, yet 70 per cent. of those mothers receive sentences of less than a year. Does my right hon. Friend agree with Baroness Jean Corston’s recommendation that community sentencing should be the norm for those mothers? Does he also agree that their particular vulnerabilities and their caring commitments should be taken into account in sentencing?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As she knows, Baroness Corston has produced a report, which I intend to respond to before Christmas. The report recommends strongly that community sentences should become the norm. We have accepted in principle a large number of the recommendations and we want to explore how we can work those through, but I agree that we should try to find as many community sentences as possible for women, to reduce the number of women in prison and to ensure that their needs are taken care of.

The rehabilitation of offenders should be a key part of any sentence. Will the Minister confirm that when there is a short custodial sentence, it is difficult for the Prison Service to organise effective rehabilitation, and that a community sentence may allow better rehabilitation over a longer period?

My hon. Friend is correct, in the sense that people who receive short prison sentences, particularly sentences of less than 12 months, have a high rate of reoffending; she will know that it can be as high as 75 per cent. Community sentence statistics show that in 2000, 53 per cent. of people undertaking a community sentence had reoffended within two years. That figure dropped to 50.5 per cent. in 2004, so there is a clear correlation showing that community sentences help to prevent reoffending more successfully than short prison sentences.

Does the Minister agree that support for community sentences is greatly strengthened when they are associated with restorative justice, particularly among victims and their families? That being the case, will he look carefully at the threat to the Thames Valley restorative justice scheme because of a funding problem, and ways in which restorative justice could be encouraged and funded throughout the country?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that restorative justice is an important element in working through community sentences. He will know that the Liverpool and Salford community court options allow local people to be involved in deciding some community pay-back schemes, which are effectively restorative justice, whereby individual offenders look at the impact of their offences and how they can support the local community. I will look into the Thames Valley scheme that he mentions, and follow up with a letter to him in due course.

As a long-term supporter of community sentencing, may I suggest to the Minister, in direct answer to the question on the Order Paper, that if he wishes to increase the effectiveness of community sentencing and popular support for it, the National Offender Management Service—NOMS, or the national offender management scandal—should be dead and buried, and we should go back to resourcing and training probation officers properly, thereby doing exactly what the question asks.

I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The National Offender Management Service tries to match offenders through the system, from pre-sentence report, through sentencing, custody or community sentence, and onwards into probation and supervision afterwards, with the sole intention of preventing reoffending. However, I agree that community sentences can provide a better form of prevention of reoffending than can short custodial sentences. They are not appropriate for everybody, but they are a positive means of bringing offenders face to face with the consequences of their action and providing a way in which they can be punished and rehabilitated without some of the difficulties that a short prison sentence brings.

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the particularly difficult situation for the families of women offenders in Wales who do not receive community sentences but are imprisoned, because there is no women’s prison in Wales. In the Government’s response to the Corston report, will he consider particularly the situation in Wales and the need for a special unit there to deal with women offenders?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in such matters. She will know that I intend to respond to the Corston report shortly, before Christmas. That response will consider a range of issues. She will also know that the Welsh Affairs Committee has produced a report recommending consideration of custodial facilities in Wales—particularly north Wales, because of the difficulties faced by women who, in almost all circumstances, have to travel out of Wales for custodial sentences. I am currently assessing both reports. I have said that I want to investigate potential alternative facilities for women in Wales and elsewhere—a theme that arises throughout the Corston report. I shall certainly keep my hon. Friend informed of progress on those matters.

The Minister knows that we strongly support effective community sentencing. May I draw his attention to the multi-agency public protection arrangements—MAPPA—figures released this week? They show that one in 10 of those under supervision commit a breach of their licence within a year. Last year 83 committed a further serious offence—murder, violent assault or rape—within 12 months of release. Does that not show not only that prison is failing to rehabilitate or deter those offenders, but that supervision needs greater resources to ensure public safety?

I accept that the figures produced this week have caused difficulties concerning some individuals who have committed further crime. I want to take all possible steps to ensure that the public are protected when individuals are released on licence. Given the number of offenders going through both community sentences and prisons, there will always be the likelihood of some reoffending by some individuals.

We have to put in place proper supervision, and I believe that the probation service is doing that. However, I shall certainly reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s points. He has my assurance that the top priorities for the Government team are public protection, prevention of reoffending and stopping serious crime being committed by people on licence.

British Statement of Values

The process for developing a British statement of values will involve local, regional and national events, and opportunities for the public to deliberate and debate, using a wide range of mechanisms.

I appreciate the value of the exercise as a way of crystallising some of the issues that have been debated concerning Britishness and citizenship for the best part of a decade. However, how will the Minister ensure that once the statement of values is agreed, it will achieve some purpose and be disseminated to the wider British public, rather than just being an intellectual exercise?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that it is not just the formulation of the statement that matters, but what it will be used for. That will be for the British people themselves to decide. They are going to deliberate and debate, and in the final stage of the process—a citizens summit—they will decide not only what the statement should be, but what it should be used for, subject to the views of Parliament.

Does the Minister agree that with any statement of British values, it would be absolutely fundamental that communities across all regions of the United Kingdom would embrace and cherish that sense of Britishness—and it would actually mean something?

I completely agree; it is vital that the process be inclusive and involve every part of the United Kingdom. We are making great efforts to ensure that the process of deliberation and debate reflects that.

Is not fair play a quintessentially British value? How can the Minister justify the introduction by the Ministry of Justice of regional pay banding, in which people doing exactly the same job in adjacent towns are paid different rates?

I pay tribute to the ingenuity of my hon. Friend’s question. Of course he is right; most people would agree that fair play is an important British value. However, I am not sure how he is arguing that the system to which he alluded transgresses that fundamental principle.

Will the Minister please translate his first answer into plain English? Will he tell us how much all this gobbledegook is costing, and precisely what the nonsense of a citizens summit is supposed to mean?

I am genuinely sorry that the hon. Gentleman, who has a distinguished history of democratic participation, sees so little value in the process on which we are embarked. We very much hope that all Members of this House will take part in that process. I would have hoped that he would want to look for a statement that can bind this country together at a time of rapid change. Unfortunately, I think that he wants to make a political point, and I am sorry about that.

The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about how much this is costing. We are still working out the process, so we do not have a specific figure to give him, but he can be assured that we will look for value for money. I shall be happy to write to him in due course when we have a figure.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the strengths of the UK is that we are made up of many cultures and many nations, and that central to any British statement of values should be a recognition and endorsement of the multicultural and multinational nature of our society and our country?

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. It is precisely because we are now a very various and diverse nation undergoing huge changes that we believe it is important to embark on this process of trying to find what binds us together. As I said, we want the process to be inclusive and we want all Members of this House to participate in it; I very much hope that they will do so.

As part of the citizens summit, will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss the contents of my private Member’s Bill about burglary—the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Protection of Property) Bill—particularly in relation to ensuring that having a go, and the right to defend oneself and one’s property, family and possessions against burglaries will form part of the British statement of values?

My right hon. Friend is nodding vigorously, and I think that the hon. Lady can take that as assent.

Sentencing Policy

A major review conducted by Lord Carter of Coles is currently considering sentencing policy as part of the wider examination of prison and probation services.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response; the review will be very welcome. We have already had a serious debate in this Chamber about the need for non-custodial sentences for those who do not pose a major danger to the public. Does he accept, nevertheless, that there is public disquiet about those who pose a serious threat to the public—those who have been found guilty of crimes involving great violence or unreasonable cruelty—but whose sentencing does not always seem to reflect what the public would see as the need for salutary deterrent sentences? Can he refer that to the review body?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the need to ensure that the committing of a serious sexual or violent offence is properly punished. Whether in respect of the review of indeterminate sentences for public protection or in other ways, we have no intention of seeing any cuts in sentences for rape. He may also wish to know that between 1996 and 2004 the average sentence for rape increased from six and a half years to seven years, and that the minimum recommended by the Sentencing Guidelines Council in any circumstances is four years.

In considering any proposals for changing sentencing policy, will the Minister ensure that the lack of capacity in the prison estate does not influence the length of sentences given and the proportion of those sentences which are served?

Any prison system has to take account of total capacity. We have increased capacity by 20,000 places over the past 10 years—twice as fast as the rate under the previous Administration whom the hon. Lady supported, with 2,000 places a year compared with 1,000 places previously. We have already announced plans for an additional 9,500 places over forthcoming years. In his review, which will of course be published first to this House, Lord Carter of Coles is considering what further capacity is needed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great challenges of sentencing policy is to educate the public about the sentences passed by our courts? In discussions with my constituents, it is clear that there is an under-appreciation of the length and nature of sentences. Will he take every opportunity to inform the public better about sentences that are actually passed?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. As my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for prisons has pointed out, we have greatly toughened up the effectiveness of community sentences, particularly for prisoners who might otherwise be sentenced to short terms of imprisonment. A point frequently made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is that community sentences are often more effective. I would also point out that over the last 10 years, a major effort by the police, the probation service, the Prison Service and local authorities throughout the country has ensured that crime has come down. Statistics published by the Office for National Statistics last week show that there has been a 40 per cent. drop in crime since 1995, with even bigger drops in burglary and vehicle crime.

Political Party Funding

5. What recent consideration he has given to proposals to limit funding to local parties between electoral periods. (160187)

This is one of the issues currently being considered in the inter-party talks chaired by Sir Hayden Phillips. The Government very much hope that a consensus can be reached between the parties to restore public confidence by tackling the spending arms race.

An opinion poll commissioned earlier this year by Unlock Democracy showed that 76 per cent. of the public support cross-party talks on party funding. Would the Secretary of State agree that it would be a grave error of judgment if one political party were to withdraw from the commitment on party funding for reasons of petty political advantage?

I would, and I hope that no party withdraws from the talks. The last time we reviewed the issue of party funding was in 2000, and I led those discussions. We were able to reach all-party agreement. The problem, however, was that Lord Neill recommended a tightening of expenditure limits in his report in 1998, and we all thought that that was agreed. However, it has not turned out to be the case, and as Sir Hayden Phillips made clear in his report in May, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 sought to control the level of spending but has proved inadequate to the challenge. The changes in respect of local spending have had the consequence—entirely unanticipated by all parties—of leading to more lax controls on local spending rather than the reverse, which was what all parties at the time intended.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital to plug this local loophole before politics descends into a mercenary battle to see who can raise the most money? There is an urgent need for a Bill in the Queen’s Speech to extend the current limits on national campaign expenditure to local parties and candidates.

I remain hopeful about that. I draw to the attention of the House, and of my hon. Friend, the fact that when we discussed this issue on 15 March 2007, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), on behalf of the official Opposition, said:

“we are happy to discuss spending caps on all year round non-election campaigning”,

as well as other controls. I hope that that is still the position of the official Opposition.

Most people will be astonished by the front of Labour Ministers, such as the Government Chief Whip, who call for controls on party donations but want to exempt unions from those controls. We have called for a comprehensive cap on all donations so that individuals, companies and trade unions are treated equally. Is it not obvious why the Government have rejected this? They do not want to give up the £17 million of funding they received from the unions last year. In exercising his responsibility for policy on party funding, will the Lord Chancellor be acting in the interests of the public or the interests of his party?

I am tempted to descend to the level that the Conservatives have now reached on this issue. However, I live in hope that the constructive, consensual approach that they were taking under the Leader of the Opposition only a few months ago will continue. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) has not been party to the all-party talks. Those of us who have know well that each party has had to accept significant compromises to reach a consensus. That remains my hope and desire, but it can be achieved only if the spirit in which we entered into the talks, and which continued until July, goes on. I greatly regret that, for reasons that remain unexplained, the Conservatives cancelled the next meeting of those all-party talks, which was due on the 3 September, and that they have had the most extraordinary difficulty in finding a date to suit them since then.

The Lord Chancellor conspicuously failed to answer the question. There is no possibility of achieving consensus while union barons control affiliation fees. By not counting £8 million of donations, he drives a coach and horses through the principle of capping donations. Is it not clear from his answer that the Government have not the slightest interest in securing a level playing field for party funding? Is it not also clear that their only interest in the conduct of elections is exactly what the Electoral Commission’s report described yesterday—partisan interest above the public interest?

I think that the hon. Gentleman protests too much. Before he starts examining the mote in our eye, he should look at the beam in his own. He totally misunderstands the way in which individual union members have a choice—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] They have two choices. First, under Conservative legislation, they vote in ballots at least every 10 years—[Laughter.] I do not know why Conservative Members are mocking—I am taking about their legislation. Secondly, unions can make a voluntary decision about whether to pay the political levy or opt out of it.

Only one party has ever sought to act in a partisan way on party funding—the Conservative party. [Interruption.] We sought to act on a consensual basis in 2000, and we achieved that consensus with the Conservative party and with the Liberal Democrats, and I hope that we can reach it again.

Is it not clear that the official Opposition are so hooked on their regular injection of funds from the gentleman in the other place that they are not interested in consensus, and that to satisfy the public that democracy is not being bought, we will have to introduce legislation in the next Session?

It was understood by the Conservative party when it entered into talks—it may have forgotten about it since then—that the fundamental problem with the regulation of party funding at election time and between elections is the need to control total spending. I hope that nobody in the House, or any British political party, supports uncontrolled spending reaching the levels that we see in some other countries, including the United States.

Let me repeat the point that I made a few moments ago. When the House implemented the Neill committee report on a consensual basis, it was agreed that party funding at elections between the two main parties would total £40 million. As Sir Hayden Phillips’ report makes clear, spending at the last election was £95 million. It is not in anybody’s interest for that “arms race” to continue. I therefore greatly hope that the Leader of the Opposition will instruct his representatives on the Hayden Phillips working party to revert to the constructive approach that the Opposition had until the summer.


6. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Executive on the further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. (160188)

I have had no formal discussions with the Scottish Executive on the further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. Devolution has strengthened the Union between Scotland and England. We are happy to engage in constructive dialogue with those who support the current settlement.

Given that the Labour party in Scotland now favours further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament, will the Minister accept that that includes an allocation of taxes raised in Scotland to fund services in Scotland? Is it not also time that the Government recognised that they need to address the English dimension and move towards consultation for a full federal constitution for the United Kingdom?

I certainly do not accept the right hon. Gentleman’s last remark. I do not believe that having separate votes on England is a sensible policy. The Union is made stronger by us all being together. As for the issue in Scotland that he raised, I do not believe that there is consensus on that matter either

What the Minister has just said is simply wrong. How can the Government continue to ignore the effect that the devolution settlement has on the House of Commons? The West Lothian question will not go away. That great Labour parliamentarian Tam Dalyell was right to ask it 30 years ago, and we will continue to ask it. When will the Government take steps to strengthen the Union by ensuring that Members of Parliament who represent English constituencies have a decisive say when we make laws for England?

The hon. Lady cites Tam Dalyell. Let me put it to her in this way:

“This proposal risks creating two classes of MP. It would be a constitutional abortion. Either you are a member of parliament or you are not. If you go ahead with this, you will have 100 MPs—including those from Wales and Northern Ireland—who are second-class legislators.”

That was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).