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Custody Licence Scheme

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2009

I have made it clear to the House that I will withdraw the ECL scheme as soon as we have sufficient capacity in the prison system to do so. We have been undertaking the fastest ever capacity programme, and 2,700 more prison places became operational in 2008, on time and on budget. A further 2,300 prison places are planned for this year, 2009. Court cells have not been used since the end of February last year, and police cells have not been used since 23 September.

When the scheme was announced by the Lord Chancellor’s predecessor in June 2007, he described it as a temporary measure. Since then, some 47,500 prisoners have been released early, of whom more than 950 have offended while on licence; those offences include three murders and two rapes. In the circumstances, did not the Secretary of State agree that when his colleague Lord Bach said last month that

“it is not entirely a satisfactory scheme”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 January 2009; Vol. 706, c. 1555]

he was guilty of the greatest understatement imaginable? Is it not, in fact, a positively dangerous scheme, and when does he propose to end it?

Personally, I would take out the adverb: it is not a satisfactory scheme. However, it is better than the alternative, and far better, in terms of seeking to manage the prison population to capacity, than the devices to which the Conservative Administration whom the hon. Gentleman supported used to resort. At one stage, the Conservative Administration had 3,500 prisoners packed into police cells in wholly unsatisfactory circumstances. Over a couple of months, a previous Conservative Home Secretary released 3,500 prisoners, including some who, because of the severity of their sentences, would be quite beyond the current categories eligible for an end of custody licence.

But would not the abolition of the custody licence scheme put added pressure on the prison population? The Secretary of State has made it clear that he has provided more places, and more are planned in prisons. What effect would a cut to his Department’s budget have on those plans?

It is quite clear that if the Conservatives were to follow through on their plans for formula cuts in criminal justice Departments, as proposed by the shadow Chancellor, prison provision would be subject to severe cuts.

Order. We have had anti-Conservative party propaganda from two Ministers, and we will call it a day at that. Ministers will answer the questions that are put to them.

I did not hear anywhere in the Secretary of State’s reply the answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones). Given that the scheme was supposed to be temporary, will it, or will it not, continue indefinitely?

No, it will not continue indefinitely. It is not a satisfactory scheme; no one has ever suggested that it was. It is, however, better than the alternatives that the Conservative Administration used, just for the record. It certainly will not be continued indefinitely, and I will seek to end it as soon as I judge that we have sufficient capacity. That is why we have been increasing the capacity of the Prison Service far faster than previous Administrations have done.

As there have been three murders, two rapes and many more serious offences committed by criminals who were released early under the Government’s end of custody licence scheme, will the Secretary of State tell the House what assessment he has made of the likely number of such offences that will be committed by such offenders who will be released under the scheme in 2009?

First, may I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman on his first appearance in Justice questions? Secondly, the reoffending rate under the scheme has been pretty consistent. I am sure that he has the extrapolations written on his pad and will give them a wide audience in a moment. Thirdly, of course it is a matter of great regret and deep concern whenever there is reoffending from prison, but in quite a number of those cases, particularly in the serious cases, there is evidence to suggest that the offence would have been committed in any event. That was certainly the view of the trial judge in one of the worst cases, that of the Andrew Mournian murder.

I thank the Secretary of State for his welcome, but he cannot escape the fact that the offences, including murder, were committed by people who were released early under his scheme. That says volumes about the Government’s assessment of the need to protect the public. Is it not his intention to institutionalise, not end, early release through proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill that will require sentencing to be conditioned by the cost of the sentence? That will make sure that, in future, Government expediency is placed in front of criminal justice.

The hon. and learned Gentleman has a very short memory—I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but my comments are relevant to the Conservatives’ suggestion that only we have faced this problem. Other Administrations have had to resort to such measures. Some 3,000 prisoners were released between July and August 1987. As for the hon. and learned Gentleman’s key question, if he wishes to table amendments to the Coroners and Justice Bill, we look forward to considering them. I have made it clear that there is no prospect whatsoever, nor is it Government policy, that at the point of sentencing, sentencers should have to take into account the resource costs of what they are proposing. That is not in the Bill, nor is it Government policy.