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Community Sentencing

Volume 465: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2007

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.