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Community Sentences

Volume 473: debated on Tuesday 11 March 2008

7. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of non-custodial community sentences in preventing reoffending. (192759)

Not all the data that I am about to give can be explained by the sentences imposed. That said, the latest available data for the 2004 cohort of adult offenders show that reoffending by those serving community sentences decreased by 6.7 per cent. between 2000 and 2004. Among the 2004 cohort of offenders the proven rate of adult reoffending within two years of custodial sentences was 64.7 per cent., compared to 50.5 per cent. in the case of community sentences.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer and I am glad that everything is going so well with adult non-custodial sentences, but when I visited the Erdington youth offending service team last week I was struck by the wide variety of strategies and programmes existing under the overall umbrella of non-custodial sentences. Will the Secretary of State tell us a little about how the Department assesses programmes, and how it decides what works and what does not? It is important to be able to explain that to people. Perhaps the Secretary of State would like to meet me for a little chat about it.

Yes to the little chat, or even a long chat.

It is fundamental to the effectiveness of and public confidence in community sentences, whether they are imposed on juveniles or adults, that they work and are rigorously assessed. My Department and the Home Office spend a considerable amount of public money on research and statistics to ensure that that happens. The new chair of the Youth Justice Board—[Interruption.] She is a woman, which is why I am not calling her the chairman. She is well aware of the importance of ensuring the effectiveness of community sentences.

A few weeks ago, I had an exchange with the Secretary of State about the possibility of introducing phased community penalties. The first few months would be devoted to getting people off drugs, while the next few months would be concerned with employment and reintregrating people in society. Would either the Secretary of State or the Minister of State be prepared to meet me, and representatives of the National Association of Probation Officers, to discuss the matter further?

Of course. There is no single truth about how such sentences can be made to work better, but we all agree about the aim. The more effective we can make them—and there is no monopoly in ideas—the better it will be for our communities.

Given that we know that non-custodial sentences are just as effective in preventing reoffending as custodial sentences, why do the courts still persist, in breach-of-trust cases, in sending individuals who pose no danger to the public to prison for long terms? Is it not time that we adopted a different approach to, for instance, those who commit theft from employers, and punished them effectively in the community rather than in prison?

It is important for the courts to have at their disposal a wide range of sentences to deem appropriate in the circumstances with which they are dealing. It is an important part of our democracy that we have an independent judiciary, and that we do not criticise sentences when they are passed but rely on the judgment of the judiciary. As for breach of trust, I fear that my hon. Friend and I may simply take different views. My view is that it is an aggravated element of an offence if someone who is trusted by his employer to hold money egregiously breaks that trust.

How many prisoners who are currently serving short sentences does the Secretary of State think should not be in prison?

That is an interesting question, which both the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) have sought to answer. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden has said that he wants prisoners not to be remanded in custody if they can safely be remanded elsewhere. The question is how we can make bail and non-custodial sentences as effective as possible. That will include measures such as home detention curfew and tagging, to which the Conservatives have objected but which is one of many measures that have led to much safer communities. Notwithstanding the mocking laughter that we hear from Conservative Members, the fact is that the public are increasingly aware that crime has fallen under this Government, whereas under the Conservative Government it doubled.