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Burglary (Sentencing)

Volume 489: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2009

2. What recent estimate he has made of the proportion of first-time offenders found guilty of burglary offences who are given custodial sentences; and if he will make a statement. (263747)

According to figures recorded on the police national computer in 2007, 22 per cent. of first-time offenders convicted of burglary with no previous convictions were sentenced to immediate or suspended custody. With the Government’s active encouragement and the courts’ active involvement, household burglary has decreased by 55 per cent. since 1997.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, although I think that burglary has increased more recently. When I raised the matter on 3 February, the Justice Secretary said that the Lord Chief Justice had issued

“very strong guidance to sentencers on burglary”.—[Official Report, 3 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 697.]

He also said that there would be a “toughening up” of sentencing policy. However, the key points in that sentencing document include the following:

“Previous convictions and the record of an offender are of more significance than in the case of some other crimes.”

What exactly does that mean? It seems like a weakening rather than a strengthening of sentencing policy.

I think I have made it clear that the Government and the judiciary feel strongly that we need to strengthen and encourage custodial sentences for burglars when appropriate. Under the previous Conservative Government, the average sentence for burglary was 15.8 months, whereas the average sentence now is 16.7 months. Indeed, 85 per cent. of those who commit a third burglary are now sentenced to custody.

For first-time offenders who are found guilty of burglary and get a custodial sentence, a key component of ensuring that they do not, on their release, commit burglary again is their educational skills—illiteracy among prisoners is high. To stop first-time offenders becoming second-time offenders, what are my right hon. Friend and the Government doing about education in the Prison Service, which is vital?

My hon. Friend is right to say that improving literacy and numeracy and the opportunities to learn new skills and gain employment are key to preventing reoffending. We have dramatically increased the amount of investment and the number of hours available both in young offender institutions and adult prisons to deal with education for literacy and numeracy. There is self-evidently more that can be done, but I give my hon. Friend an assurance that we will continue to do that, because those things are key to preventing reoffending.

Instances of burglary tend to increase in times of recession. Given that prison places are at a premium and given the depth of the recession that we are going through, what steps will the Minister take to ensure that those who engage in criminal activity for the first time face extreme sanction and the knowledge that they should not carry out such actions, and that they do not repeat those offences?

As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), at the moment 22 per cent. of offenders convicted of burglary with no previous convictions are sentenced to immediate or suspended custody. Whatever response the courts make, I am clear that we need to ensure sufficient prison places for those for whom custody is an option in the courts. That is why we will build an additional 3,500 or so prison places in England and Wales this year alone and why we have an ambitious programme to get to 96,000 places by 2013-14. We currently have some headroom in the prison system, but we want to ensure that there will always be places for people who are sentenced. That is why we have the ambitious building programme that we do.

Has the Minister found some new evidence that short periods in prison make offenders less likely to commit further burglaries? If he has not, will he ensure that the courts have available to them community payback schemes, restorative justice and the means to address the original causes of offending, such as drug addiction, rather than spending lots of money on prison sentences that do not work?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. A key issue is what we do with people who are sentenced to less than 12 months in prison, because going through the revolving door of prison gates is not conducive to preventing reoffending. We have a menu of options. Ultimately, it is for the courts to decide. Custody will be an option, depending sometimes on an individual’s persistence with burglary or another offence, but I want to see what works. On many occasions, a drug rehabilitation order or a strong and intensive community sentence will be just as important as a short custodial sentence in helping to prevent reoffending.

What is the point of the courts sending burglars to prison, as the Lord Chief Justice recommended in January, if the Government let them out? Some 4,527 burglars have been let out under the Government’s hopeless and benighted early release from custody scheme. Why do the Government not do something useful for once? Most burglars are drug addicts, stealing to fund their addiction. Why do the Government not get them off drugs, either in prison or outside, and do the public a good turn?

The hon. and learned Gentleman will know, because he takes these matters seriously, that a renewed and revised drugs strategy for the next three years will shortly be produced for the National Offender Management Service. He knows that we intend to terminate the end of custody licence scheme as soon as practicable and that we are working towards that end. Unlike the Opposition, who released 3,500 prisoners in a single day, we are committed to ensuring that there are sufficient prison places, that we tackle the causes of crime and that we support both strong community sentences and effective activity in prison. That is what we are doing and I am sorry that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not recognise it.