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Community Sentences

Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2012

The Government are determined to ensure that community sentences deliver punishment, rehabilitation and reparation. We are legislating to require courts to include a punitive element in every community order, as the public would expect, and to enable the electronic tracking of offenders.

I hope that Justice Ministers will not go soft on introducing an element of shame and real punishment in these new community penalties. I am told that under community payback offenders might wear a yellow vest with the words “community payback” on the back, and that these can be removed if the probation staff think it appropriate. What we need are community punishments where offenders are in the community with orange dayglo boiler suits with the word “offender” on the back to inculcate some sense of shame and to make these tough sentences, not the soft ones we have had up until now.

I have a good deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend. When I have seen community payback in the community, it has been evident that those carrying it out are offenders. They are easily identifiable. That is partly for the reasons he gives, but it is also to ensure that people in the community understand that work is being done to repair some of the damage that these offenders have done in the communities where they are working.

I have seen work done in my constituency as part of community sentences tackling projects that would otherwise not have been done, thus benefiting communities and, in particular, reinforcing the merits of work. Does my hon. Friend have any plans to extend the element of work in community sentences?

As I said, we will ensure that, whenever a community order is passed, the sentencer will impose at least one element of punishment. That is what the public would expect. One element of punishment could be community work of the sort my hon. Friend described. It is important that there is a good channel of communication between the community and the organisations within it, and the probation service and those administering community payback in order to ensure that the work is done where people want it done.

Tamworth police, led by Chief Inspector Coxhead, are clear about the potential power of community sentencing and restorative justice, so may I echo my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) in calling on those on the Treasury Bench to implement with full speed neighbourhood resolution panels, so that communities themselves feel that they have a hand in community sentencing?

I am disappointed not to receive an invitation to Tamworth. None the less, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that we move forward with the work being done in Staffordshire and elsewhere with neighbourhood justice panels. We want to see what work can be done by and in communities to ensure that low-level offences are dealt with appropriately. The broader point about restorative justice is also right. This is an important innovation, and we can get a great deal out of it—mostly for victims, although there are reoffending benefits as well.

Can my hon. Friend assure me that community orders will continue to address the problems that have caused—or at least contributed to—offending behaviour in the first place, such as drug abuse, alcoholism and mental health problems?

Yes, I can. We are saying that there should be an element of punishment in every community order, unless there are exceptional circumstances, but that does not prevent a sentencer from passing whatever other measures in the order they believe appropriate for the purposes of rehabilitation. My hon. Friend is right to identify some of those, but there are of course many more. This is all about reducing reoffending. That is partly about punishment, but it is also about ensuring that someone does not go right back to the same cycle of offending.

Work in the community is obviously a valuable element of punishment, but it is quite a crowded field, with various voluntary youth organisations and the unemployed also jostling for that work. What other specific types of punishment does the Minister have in mind? Will he give us a flavour of what will happen?

It is first worth pointing out that we have toughened up the work requirement, so we will now expect people sentenced to community payback to go and do it very soon afterwards. We expect them to do it for four days a week and we expect them to do it properly. If they do not, they will have breached the order and there will be consequences. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that there will be other elements to a community order which can properly be seen as punitive, whether it is a restriction on movement, an exclusion order from certain places or a financial penalty. There is a range of options available to the court, but we think—and I think his constituents would think—that each order should include a punitive element.

The Minister has talked about potential breaches if—as we would probably expect—an increased number of orders are made. What risk assessment has his Department carried out to determine the likely percentage of breaches, and what would be the impact on the Prison Service of having to find additional places?

It does not follow automatically that if someone breaches an order, the penalty would be a period of imprisonment, although that is possible. I think the right thing is to say to people: “If you receive a period of unpaid work as a punishment, we expect you to do it and to do it properly. If you don’t do it properly, you will find yourself back in court, and you may find yourself going to prison.” That is absolutely the right approach.

I welcome much of what the Minister has said this morning, and I am sure there will be support for it in all parts of the Chamber. The key to effective community sentences is also proper supervision. How will he address the legitimate concern, which many people have, that increasing the use of community sentences at the same time as making cuts in probation could lead to less effective community sentences, with offenders being neither properly reformed nor punished?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that we are looking at ways in which we can deliver a better probation service, more rehabilitation for offenders across the board and better outcomes, because this is the key. It is not just about the processes we go through; it is about the outcomes we achieve. We are seeking to reward those who provide rehabilitative services in a way that also reduces reoffending. Doing that will help the offender and the wider community. It is also, incidentally, a good deal for the taxpayer.