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Short Sentences

Volume 663: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2019

5. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of sentences of less than three months in reducing reoffending. (911801)

There is persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences do not work for the purposes of rehabilitation and helping some offenders to turn their backs on crime. They are highly disruptive to people’s lives, and provide little time for the Prison Service to do any meaningful rehabilitative work. In certain circumstances, community sentences are more effective in reducing reoffending and addressing offenders’ needs. Unless we tackle the underlying causes of reoffending, we cannot protect the public from being victims of crime. There is a strong case for abolishing short custodial sentences, with some exceptions, and I shall set out proposals shortly.

The Secretary of State will be pleased to know that 85% of those who responded to the Scottish Government’s consultation supported the existing presumption against short sentences, and were in favour of extending that beyond the current three-month presumption. Given that that presumption has helped to achieve a 19-year low in reconviction rates, I hope he agrees with the outcome of the consultation. Perhaps he will also tell us exactly what “shortly” means, and exactly when the UK Government intend to follow the Scottish Government’s lead on these matters, as they should on so many others.

“Shortly” means “shortly”. [Laughter.] I am not going to elaborate on that, but I will say that in considering sentencing reform it is necessary also to look more broadly at the probation system. That is why I recently announced proposals to reform probation that will inform offender management and strengthen confidence in probation. However, I advise the hon. Gentleman to watch this space.

I welcome the link that my right hon. Friend has made between sentencing and probation. Does he agree that one of the compelling arguments in favour of reform is that the vast majority of people who are given short sentences tend to be repeat petty offenders whose behaviour is often driven by a number of factors such as drug addiction, debt, alcoholism and mental health issues—which are not and cannot best be treated in a custodial setting—and that we ought to invest far more in treating those people effectively outside, in the interests of public protection as much as anything else?

I entirely agree with the Chairman of the Justice Committee. If we put people inside for a short time—for instance, prolific shoplifters—we want to address that criminality, but all that we actually do is make them more likely to reoffend and continue to be prolific criminals. Evidence shows that when it comes to reoffending rates, community sentences work better, but we need to do everything we can to ensure that they can be improved.

In the past five years, more than 300,000 prison sentences of less than a year have been handed out, but the reoffending rate among that cohort is a staggering 64.4%. The Justice Committee has repeatedly called for the abolition of short custodial sentences. I appreciate that the Secretary of State is sympathetic to that call—I note his answer to an earlier question—but may we please have swift and urgent action?

I agree with the hon. Lady’s point about the statistics—we should be led by the evidence—and I hope to make further progress on this matter in the time that is left ahead.

I very much hope that a large amount of time is left to my right hon. Friend, who has been a truly reforming Secretary of State in this area, and I endorse everything said on this question by my fellow members of the Select Committee on Justice. However, does the Secretary of State agree that it is very important that if we do have community sentences they are robust and well enforced? Given that the original question was asked by a Scottish MP, I am conscious of the fact that one in three community payback orders in Scotland are ignored by criminals.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that point, and much though I believe that we should make rapid progress in this area, I think that we should do so in a way that ensures the system works properly, and I do think that the link with, for example, strengthening community sentences and the way the probation system works is very important. I hope that we are moving in a direction whereby we can make progress and we focus on ensuring that these prolific petty offenders do not reoffend and we are led by the evidence on what is the most effective way to achieve that, and my sense is that there is a large cross-party consensus on this point.

When the Secretary of State decided to bring back 80% of community rehabilitation company activity into the National Probation Service that was welcome news, and I thank him for that, but he has left the community payback and accredited programmes in a different place. If he does not intend to bring that back into the core service, too, will he at least commit to having it commissioned as locally as possible?

Again, we have been led by the evidence. Offender management is not working as we need it to work with regard to the CRCs, but some of the other activity CRCs do is done very well: there is good innovation and good measures are taken, and we should recognise that. So I believe the private and voluntary sectors have a significant role to play, but it is different from the role played until now. In terms of commissioning and so on, I believe we need to ensure that reflects local circumstances and that is part of our plans.