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Sentencing (Green Paper)

Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I thank Mr Speaker for being kind enough to grant me a debate on the Green Paper entitled “Breaking the cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders”.

Crime and the punishment of criminals is important for my constituents. Although I appreciate the Government’s good intentions, I am not sure that the Green Paper hits the appropriate nails on the head. Importantly, it says some constructive and helpful things. For example, it says that prisons should become places of hard work and industry and that community sentences should punish offenders and make them pay back to society and the taxpayer. It wants offenders to make a greater financial reparation to victims and the taxpayer, and victims to engage with the criminal justice system on their own terms. It would also like offenders to get off drugs for good and to pay their way in prison, and to prevent young people from offending.

Although the Green Paper contains laudable aims, the mood music behind it does not hit the right notes for my constituents, who believe that there is a proper place in society for prison and that prison works. Prison did not work as effectively as it might under the previous Government, largely because far too many prisoners lived in overcrowded conditions and far too many sentences were too short. Basically, my constituents are of the view that prison works when it is managed properly.

I welcome this opportunity to say what my constituents think, which is, of course, that they want law and order. They recognise that the prison system is there to deal with the worst offenders. Surely it is right that we tackle reoffending, which is one of the key thrusts of the Green Paper. Does my hon. Friend not agree that the Secretary of State for Justice has outlined a strategy that is consistent with that objective?

No, I do not agree with my hon. Friend. Yes, it is right that reoffending rates are far too high and that we face a real problem in tackling them. None the less, when prison works effectively, it reduces reoffending rates, and I shall come back to that later.

We have twice as many people in prison as the French. Do you think that we are twice as naughty or that our system is not quite good enough?

I am grateful for that intervention. I have some statistics that I shall use later about how we do not have enough people in prison in this country, which relates to the point that my hon. Friend has just made.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that we have to look at overall sentencing in three respects—punishment, rehabilitation and deterrence? Given what the previous 13 years have left us, I completely agree with him—criminals have had it far too easy in prison. The Government’s payback proposals will ensure that prisoners go out and work. When a compensation order is passed in court, they will no longer be able to say, “We haven’t got the money; we are on welfare.” The Secretary of State’s proposal will ensure that they have to work, earn their keep and pay back the money. That must be a good thing.

My hon. Friend is right about that, but prisoners need to work more in prison. On page 9 of the Green Paper, I am pleased to see the coalition Government say:

“Prisoners will increasingly face the tough discipline of regular working hours. This has been lacking in prison regimes for too long.”

I say, “Hear, hear” to that.

The Secretary of State for Justice has indicated that that is one of his intentions. I have also taken him to Stroud where we looked at a payback scheme, which was highly effective. He spoke to people there and he got the impression, as we all did, that the scheme was definitely working. Does my hon. Friend agree that that type of scheme should be pursued?

It should be pursued, yes, but not for persistent and prolific offenders. Far too many nasty people commit all sorts of horrible crimes and never find themselves in prison. On page 6 of the Green Paper, the coalition Government say:

“Recent evidence suggests there is a group of around 16,000 active offenders at any one time, who each have over 75 previous convictions”.

The document goes on:

“On average they have been to prison 14 times, usually for less than 12 months, with nine community sentences and 10 fines.”

Prison works but only when people are sent to prison for an appropriate amount of time. It is clear to all of us that short prison sentences do not work. My solution is to send these very nasty 16,000 people to prison for longer so that they can be rehabilitated before being let out into the community.

With regard to short sentences, is it not the case that a prisoner who is on six months will do three months and be transferred from one prison to another and then another? Therefore, there is no effective rehabilitation within the system. If the prisoner stays in one prison, he will have management and structure rather than being pushed from one prison to another. Does my hon. Friend not agree that that must be changed?

Does my hon. Friend not agree that there is a danger in just looking at statistics, in that we do not know or understand the level of criminality that lies behind them? If we look at the figures and then the length of sentences, we can see that they refer to prolific, but low-level offenders. The Green Paper seeks to address the situation of those criminals who are not the serious criminals—serious criminals will continue to be sent to prison for a long time. This is about short-term sentences of under 18 months. That is why I commend the Green Paper—or I will do in due course—to the House and to my hon. Friend.

I disagree with my hon. Friend. I understand that we are not talking about serious offences. None the less, it is very serious to my constituents that someone can be convicted 75 times. That person is very nasty and is committing lots of very low-level crimes and they deserve to spend a long time in prison.

Let us take that example. That could be someone who is, for example, committing shop thefts on a regular basis. The maximum sentence for something such as that would be around 12 months at the most, or 18 months if they were very unfortunate. This is a persistent but very low-level offender. Clearly, in the example that my hon. Friend puts forward, prison is not working, because the person keeps on committing crimes and keeps on going back to prison. It is to end that revolving door that we are doing the things that have been laid out in the Green Paper. That person is not necessarily a nasty person; they are not violent otherwise they would go away for a lot longer. Those who steal from shops are exactly the sort of people we are addressing.

I am sorry, but that person is a nasty person. Just because someone is not violent does not mean that they are not nasty. I contend that the reason that they are reoffending is that they never serve their sentence in full. Even if someone is sentenced to 18 months for shoplifting, no one in this country will ever serve such a sentence. They might be sentenced to that, but the chances are that they will be out reoffending within six months. My contention is that such people need to be in jail for at least a year to enable proper rehabilitation to take place.

My hon. Friend is spot on in terms of what went on from April 2007 to April 2010 when some 80,000 prisoners were let out on early release. That was absolutely shocking. When a sentence is passed, we must ensure that it is fully complied with.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The previous Government made an almighty mess of this. Even though I disagree with the main thrust of this Green Paper, I commend the coalition Government for taking an organised and proactive interest in trying to address this issue sensibly, which the previous Government did not do.

My hon. Friend has been extremely generous in giving way. The fact that four Members have already contributed to this debate from the Back Benches shows how important the issue is. Prison officers came to my surgery and said, “What we need, Mr Bone, is not these short sentences of a year. We put them on community service for a couple of occasions, but when they come back the third time, we should put them away for five years so that they can get the proper training and education that they need in prison.” What would my hon. Friend say to that?

I would say that my hon. Friend is spot on. He has provided me with a helpful link to the next part of my speech which is about the length of sentences. In 2006, the Home Office report “Re-offending of adults” concluded that

“re-offending rates are lower among offenders discharged from a custodial sentence of at least a year (49 per cent.) than among those discharged from a shorter custodial sentence (70 per cent.)...This suggests that custodial sentences of at least a year are more effective in reducing re-offending.”

It is worth repeating those figures; prisoners with sentences of up to one year had a reoffending rate of 70%, while in the case of prisoners with sentences of more than two years the reoffending rate dropped to 49%. The report also showed that for people who had spent more than four years in prison, the reoffending rate was merely 35%. Looking at those figures, my constituents would say, “Well, that says to us that we need to put these nasty people behind bars for longer, so that they can be rehabilitated properly before being released and being at large again”.

I also want to address this myth that we have too many people in prison in this country. In terms of absolute numbers, yes, we have a relatively high prison population, but we are a relatively highly populated country. If we look at the number of prisoners that we have for every 100,000 people, we are nearer the average but still quite high. However, the only meaningful measure of the size of the prison population is how many prisoners there are in relation to the number of crimes committed. On that measure, I would suggest that the evidence is startling—we do not have the highest prison population in the western world, but the lowest. Compared with the US, Canada, Australia and the EU as a whole, the UK has the lowest prison population of all. For every 1,000 crimes committed in the UK, we have approximately 13 prisoners, compared with approximately 15 in Canada and Australia, well over 20 for the EU as a whole and a whopping 166 in the US.

Does my hon. Friend agree that sentencing and the number of people in prison should be determined by the sentences rather than the ability of the Government to house those prisoners, and that it is the responsibility of Government to ensure that suitable premises are available if sentences are passed?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Frankly, it is a national scandal that we do not have enough prison capacity. When we have troops living in tents in theatre in Afghanistan receiving money per meal that is less than the money per meal provided for a prisoner in a UK jail, it is a disgrace that we are not making better use of the redundant military facilities that we have in this country to house a bigger prison population. With a bit of imagination and, frankly, some political backbone, we could achieve a lot more.

That is the very point that I wanted to address today. My constituency neighbours my hon. Friend’s and it contains Her Majesty’s Prison Wellingborough, which now appears to be under threat of closure. HMP Wellingborough is under market testing. However, the market testing has been abandoned or put back. HMP Wellingborough has gone from being a rather poor prison to being the best category C prison in the east midlands. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should not be considering closing that type of prison?

I agree with my hon. Friend. However, prison conditions are far too luxurious. I think that it is 1,500 prisoners who have Sky TV in their cells. I have lots of constituents in Kettering who cannot afford Sky TV. It is a scandal that prisoners receive a bigger allowance for their daily meals than our troops in Afghanistan. In many cases, prison accommodation is too comfortable.

On the other hand, I accept that when a prison is overcrowded it makes rehabilitation more difficult and it is appropriate that we have the right number of cells for the prisoners whom we need to house. However, there must be a limit on the quality of the accommodation on which we are currently spending lots of money.

The other point that I wanted to draw to the House’s attention is the fact that the country with the lowest prison rate—the UK—has the highest crime rate. Is that a coincidence? I do not think so. We have more than 10,000 crimes for every 100,000 people. The country with the highest prison rate, which is the US, has the lowest crime rate; it has about 4,500 crimes for every 100,000 people. Canada, which is the country with the second lowest prison rate, has the second highest crime rate. The EU has the second highest prison rate and the second lowest crime rate. That is not a coincidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has done a lot of very good work in this House in highlighting these statistics, which I think blow apart this namby-pamby approach to having soft community sentences to tackle the behaviour of some very nasty people.

I wanted to make a point with regard to community penalties. I have been at the criminal Bar and prosecuted and defended many cases. Is it not the case that the Green Paper should be welcomed, because community penalties will be tied in with greater use of curfew orders? We should give offenders hard work during the day, make sure that it is done and that it is hard work, but we must also ensure that their liberty on Friday and Saturday nights is completely curtailed, so that rather than have them committing crimes, going out until the early hours and making a nuisance of themselves, we should make greater use of curfew orders, which is what this Green Paper is all about.

I agree with my hon. Friend that if we must have these community penalties, they need to be tough and unpleasant. Frankly, the gangs that I have seen taking part in these sort of activities have not been that disciplined, were not working that hard and I very much doubt the utility of the work that they were doing.

Does my hon. Friend not recognise that the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice has said that there is a place for prison, people should go to prison and that, if they have committed a serious crime, they should go to prison for a long time? We need to get this issue into perspective, because we are actually talking about reducing the prison population by 3,000 and not, as my hon. Friend suggested, about simply having a namby-pamby approach to prisons.

Yes, but my contention is that there are some unpleasant people out there who will commit crime unless they are prevented from doing so by being put in prison. When half the crimes committed in this country are being committed by 10% of the offenders, those 10% of offenders do not need to be out there doing good works on the street; they need to be behind bars so that they cannot reoffend.

The concluding part of my remarks is that although I recognise the good intentions of the Ministry of Justice in trying to reduce reoffending—I do not doubt the Ministry’s efforts in that regard—the obvious thing to do to reduce prison numbers is sort out the 11,500 foreign national prisoners in our jails. The number of such prisoners doubled under the previous Government.

I have raised this issue time and time again on the Floor of the House and frankly we are not getting very far. One of the countries that has a high number of its nationals as prisoners in our country is Nigeria. When I last looked at the figures, I saw that there were something like 752 Nigerian nationals in prison in our country. Effectively, we are paying £30 million a year for incarcerating those individuals. The Nigerian National Assembly has been looking at this issue since 2007. Why are we not hauling in the Nigerian ambassador or speaking to the Nigerian President to get this arrangement sorted out, because sending 752 Nigerians back to Nigeria would go a long way to freeing up the 3,000 prison places that my hon. Friend the Minister wants to find?

I fully endorse what my hon. Friend has said with regard to foreign nationals. Linked to that point, what must change is the procedure that is applied to removal orders and the time that it takes for somebody to be removed from this country. At the moment, there is a disjointed approach and that must change, so that once someone has been through the courts, their removal must be swift.

As usual, my hon. Friend is quite right. However, now we have the Prime Minister launching a campaign on the front page of the Daily Mail to say that repatriating foreign national prisoners is one of his top priorities. Please can we have a joined-up approach across this Government—across the Ministry of Justice, the Foreign Office and the Home Office—to ensure that we actually get these people back to their own countries? Then we will create the space in prison that we need to rehabilitate people properly, reduce the overall prison population if need be and stop people reoffending.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate on the Government’s Green Paper “Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders”, which my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice laid before Parliament last week.

Given the brevity of this debate, the many and varied contributions that we have had from hon. Members have all been very helpful and show the complexity of some of the issues that we are dealing with. The Green Paper’s proposals are the initial conclusions of the wide-ranging assessment of rehabilitation and sentencing that we announced in our programme for government back in May. We are now consulting widely on the proposals set out in the Green Paper and this debate is a welcome opportunity to discuss some of those proposals.

I shall start with the point about foreign nationals that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, and about which he has long been concerned. I can confirm that as we take forward the Green Paper proposals, we will consider what more we can do to reduce the number of foreign national offenders.

Foreign national prisoners make up 13% of the prison population, and the figure has doubled over the past 10 years. That is not an effective use of expensive prison places if foreign nationals could be removed from the country. There is, however, a balance to be struck. Foreign nationals who commit serious offences should be punished by prison sentences; victims of crime would expect nothing less. But when foreign national offenders do not need to be in prison, or when they could spend some of their prison terms in prisons in their own countries, we should do everything we can to ensure that they are not a burden on our prisons.

With that objective in mind, we are looking to expand prisoner transfer agreements with other countries, so that a prisoner can serve some of their sentence in their home country whenever possible. We are also looking to divert some foreign nationals—for example, those who commit immigration document offences—away from the criminal justice system altogether, if they agree to be removed from the United Kingdom. We are considering other options, and would very much welcome further ideas in response to the Green Paper.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor made it clear last week that the current criminal justice system does not deliver what really matters. Society has a right to expect the system to protect it. We all expect offenders to be punished effectively, but we should also expect criminals to be reformed, so that when they finish their sentences they do not simply return to their life of crime and create more misery for victims.

Despite record spending, the criminal justice system falls short, in that about half of released offenders go on to reoffend within a year—and the reoffending rates for young people are even worse, with three quarters of offenders sentenced to youth custody reoffending within a year. Those high rates are unacceptable to this Government. If we do not prevent people, especially young people, from offending, they will become the prolific offenders of the next decade.

The Green Paper sets out how we propose to break that destructive cycle of crime and to ensure that offenders make amends to victims and communities for the harm that they have caused. That requires a radically different approach—a system that protects the public by punishing the guilty and reducing reoffending, makes offenders face up to their responsibilities and pay back to victims and society, and makes punishment hard work, both in prison and in the community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering referred to the mood music of the Green Paper, so let me make it clear that prison is the right place for serious and dangerous offenders, and that we will ensure that sufficient prison places are always available. I shall come to the detail in due course, but we do not propose in the Green Paper to reduce the ability of any sentencer to send a serious offender to prison, nor do we propose to introduce, as the previous Government did, any new early-release schemes.

We want offenders to be suitably punished for their crimes. Through both the tough discipline of regular working hours in prison, and more strenuous and demanding work in the community, we aim to ensure that offenders work hard and that there is greater use of tough curfew requirements.

We want prisons to be places where offenders learn about the life of work and about the routine of getting up in the morning and doing a full day’s meaningful work. Too many offenders lead chaotic lives, and too many of them have never done a day’s work. By giving offenders the experience of work, we can put order into their lives, better prepare them for life outside prison, increase their job prospects and reduce the likelihood of their reoffending.

We also want offenders to pay back to their victims. The Green Paper includes proposals for increased reparation to victims through a greater use of restorative justice, under which an offender can make good the wrong he has imposed on others. We want restorative justice to be victim-led and not offender-led. Restorative justice can benefit both parties. It can provide reparation to victims and help offenders face up to the realities of their crime and its impact on victims—and, as a result, prevent them from offending in future.

We also want to implement the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996 to ensure that more offenders directly compensate the victims of crime through deductions in prisoners’ wages. For lower-level offences, we want to increase the use of fines and compensation orders, so that offenders make greater financial reparation to both victims and the taxpayer. An increased use of compensation orders would mean that more victims would receive financial compensation directly from the offender.

We also want to take a new approach to offender rehabilitation, getting more offenders off benefits and into honest work. That is partly about the routine of work, but crucially it is about taking action to get offenders off drugs so as to break the cycle of offending to feed a drug habit. The Government are committed to rehabilitating offenders from drug dependency to drug-free lives. We want prisons to be places where offenders tackle their drug misuse, not places where their problems get worse, and we are therefore working on preventing drugs from getting into prisons. We are also working with the Department of Health to reshape drug treatment. Within prisons, we will pilot recovery wings, which will link more effectively with community services, and we will focus more on supporting offenders to be drug free.

We also want to look at the number of offenders in prison who suffer from a mental illness. For some people with mental health issues, prison is simply not an appropriate place. In some cases, better outcomes can be achieved by diverting low-level offenders into intensive treatment for mental health problems in the community. We are working with both the Department of Health and the Home Office to ensure that front-line services identify such people. We have proposals to create a more effective and robust community sentence, with greater flexibility for the provisions of mental health requirements. If we can get treatment right, we can help to reduce offending.

The Green Paper signals a transformation in rehabilitation financing and delivery. Significant amounts of public money have been spent on trying to rehabilitate offenders, without properly holding services to account for their results. We will reward independent providers for achieving a reduction in reoffending, and will pay for that with the savings that they generate within the criminal justice system. We will introduce more competition across offender management services, to drive up standards and deliver value for money for the taxpayer. We will increase the freedom for public service providers and front-line professionals to innovate in their work with offenders. The payment-by-results system will be trialled in at least six new projects over the next two years, and the principles will be fully rolled out by 2015.

I turn now to sentencing, which is an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering mentioned. We know that a sentencing framework must provide courts with a range of options for punishing and rehabilitating offenders and protecting the public. The problem is that the current framework has been developed in an ad hoc fashion over the past 10 years, leaving it overly complex and difficult to administer. We should not underestimate how complex the law has become. The Court of Appeal spends a significant amount of time on cases in which sentencing law is unclear. If the law is often difficult for judges to understand, it is not surprising that the public have considerable difficulties.

Does the Minister agree that it is completely and utterly wrong that in the past 13 years we should have had more legislation than in the past 100 years? Does he also agree that we should make legislation only when it is necessary, rather than for the sake of it?

I do. The figure of more than 3,000 new offences comes to mind. We had the situation in which a new offence was being created before the previous one had commenced.

We want to simplify the sentencing framework and make it more comprehensible for the public. We also want to enhance judicial discretion, to allow the judges and magistrates who hear the cases to make the most appropriate decisions on sentencing within the legal framework set by Parliament.

I accept that some people, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, want to see longer sentences, but we need to be proportionate. We could not accommodate the much longer sentences that he suggests without raising taxes to build more prisons.

Sentences have, however, got longer and longer over the past couple of decades, and for many years offenders have not spent their sentence in custody. We do not propose to make fundamental changes to determinate sentences. At present, offenders serving a determinate sentence spend half of their sentence in custody and half on licence in the community. If an offender breaches the condition of their licence, they may be returned to prison. We recognise—