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Short Sentences

Volume 661: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2019

There is a strong case for abolishing sentences of six months or less—with some exceptions—and we are working towards having firm proposals by the summer. There is persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences do not work in terms of rehabilitation and helping some offenders to turn their backs on crime, and that community sentences can be more effective in reducing reoffending and therefore keeping the public safe. That said, we must ensure that the public and the judiciary can have confidence in effective community orders that address offenders’ behaviour, meet their mental health and alcohol or drug misuse needs and provide reparation for the benefit of the wider community.

Before his promotion—potentially to Prime Minister—the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) said:

“We have a lot to learn from Scotland, specifically on community sentences, and indeed we will be looking at what more we can do to emphasise that a custodial sentence in the short term should be a final resort.”—[Official Report, 24 April 2018; Vol. 639, c. 714-15.]

Given the Secretary of State’s answer just now, will he ensure that there is a continuity of approach within the new ministerial team in the MOJ?

I am sure that there will be; I would certainly expect that to be the case. One thing that we should learn from Scotland is that we need to ensure that community sentences are not ignored, and that drug treatment orders are completed. I know that that has been an issue in relation to some of the reforms in Scotland, and we need to learn from it, because if we are going to make these reforms we must ensure that community sentences are working properly.

The latest generation of GPS tags can monitor the specific movements of offenders rather than simply enforcing home curfews. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that gives courts a powerful tool to punish offenders in the community while keeping victims safe, as an alternative to short sentences?

I very much agree with that. I can tell the House that I wore a GPS tag for a couple of days, and was subsequently able to be informed of all my movements for the period concerned: precisely where I had been, and when. Thankfully I had not been up to no good, but it was a demonstration of how accurate and effective those tags can be. I believe that they have considerable potential for reassuring the public about community sentences, and about our ability to track those who might pose a risk to the community.

The Secretary of State will know about the terrible legacy of the imprisonment for public protection sentence, and its negative impact on both reoffending and re-incarceration. Will he meet me, and my constituent whose son received an IPP sentence, to discuss ideas for reform of the licence that applies?

The challenge of IPP cases is that the Parole Board must satisfy itself that those who have been sentenced to IPPs no longer pose a risk to society. That can be very difficult, and in many cases there are risks to society, so we must be cautious and ensure that we protect the public. I know that the Minister responsible for prisons and probation, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.

It is now well recognised that a system that pushes offenders through a revolving door of short prison sentences simply does not work. Notwithstanding the riders expressed by the Secretary of State a moment ago, the fact is that the Justice Committee, as well as his Government, have recognised that the system in Scotland is working. The Committee’s recent report recommended that the UK Government follow Scotland’s approach of a presumption against short sentences. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to introducing such a presumption in England and Wales?

I hope to be able to say more about the details of what we want to do in the not too distant future, but in respect of the approach that is being taken in Scotland, it is worth bearing in mind that it is already the case in England that a custodial sentence should be pursued only as a last resort, so there is already something approaching a presumption in the English system. I am interested in seeing whether we could go further than that, but I welcome the hon. and learned Lady’s approach —our shared approach, I think—of scepticism about the effectiveness of short sentences.

As someone who worked in the criminal justice system in Scotland for 20 years before coming to the House, I can assure the Secretary of State that the idea that a custodial sentence should be a last resort existed in Scotland before the presumption against short sentences, so that is an additional presumption.

One of the bodies that gave evidence to the Justice Committee pointed out that diverting those who have been identified as low-risk offenders

“from short custodial sentences to suspended custodial sentences could reduce the prison population”

in England and Wales by about 3,000 places. Does the Secretary of State agree that the presumption against short sentences in Scotland can help to reduce the prison population, and could do so if introduced south of the border?

As I have said, I hope to say more about the approach we want to take, but there is a case that an approach on short sentences along the lines that I have discussed may reduce the prison population, but the principal purpose is not reducing the prison population. It will not be massively dramatic, but I believe it will help to reduce reoffending. That is the big prize, rather than what are likely to be relatively marginal changes to the prison population.