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Community Payback

Volume 717: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2022

Debate resumed.

At the outset, I declare my interests, having served as a magistrate for 12 years, as a member of the Sentencing Council and as a non-executive director of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, all prior to my election.

In my role on the bench, I sentenced many people to community payback. It is a superb way to achieve the purposes of sentencing. It acts as a punishment by depriving offenders of their free time; it makes reparation to the public by improving local community facilities; and it often also helps to rehabilitate offenders by providing them with new skills or, at times, giving them their first ever experience of work. I have heard many accounts of people who have gone on to use those skills and experiences in later employment—employment that reduces their likelihood of committing further offences and so reduces the number of victims of crime.

Over the past two years, however, we have had the covid pandemic. When I first saw this motion on the Order Paper, I thought that the Labour party had perhaps forgotten about that. I realised then, of course, that it had not because its leader constantly wanted to keep us in lockdown. The pandemic had a massive impact on work across the entire country, so it is hardly surprising that community payback fell considerably during that time or, indeed, that the type of work that offenders were asked to do was adapted to the circumstances of the covid restrictions that were in place. It seems to make sense to me that when it was necessary, offenders were given tasks that they could complete at home, which included making personal protective equipment and face coverings, which became such a vital part of everybody’s life during those grim covid days.

I do not claim for a second that that was perfect, but it was surely better to have people carrying out their sentence in some form, producing something useful and contributing to their local community. What would Labour have preferred? Would it have preferred that they all sat watching “Bargain Hunt” while waiting for life to return to normal? What about offenders whose health meant they needed to shield for longer than others? Does Labour think that they should have been let off? We certainly do not. Does it not make sense, in fact, that community payback can adapt to circumstances, so if a person is unable to work in a certain location, perhaps because of a physical disability, other provision can be made for them to repay their debt to society? In my time at HMPPS, I constantly called for greater innovation. It strikes me that that is exactly what was demonstrated during the pandemic. Indeed, we can learn from that for the future.

This is an appropriate time to pay tribute to all the staff of HMPPS for everything that they did during the pandemic—I absolutely share the view of Opposition Members on that. I have often described those staff as the unsung heroes of our public services and they certainly proved that over the past two years. I particularly congratulate the winners of the Prison Officer Of The Year and Probation Champion Of The Year awards, which were held last week, recognising the outstanding contributions made across both services. As the chief executive of HMPPS said:

“The incredible work on show reflects the resilience & professionalism I see across the service every day from our fantastic staff”.

I am therefore absolutely delighted with the investment that the Government are making to recruit 500 additional community payback staff over the next three years, meaning that a record-breaking, staggering 8 million community payback hours will be completed each year.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), who is still a serving magistrate, pointed out, community payback is just one of a wide range of non-custodial sentencing options open to magistrates and judges. I very much hope that the recent unification of community rehabilitation companies and the National Probation Service will lead to a wider use of community orders where doing so protects the public and has the confidence of the judiciary.

I am very pleased that we have already seen the introduction of tougher community sentences under this Government. One aspect of that is doubling from 12 to 24 months the time for which an offender can be subject to curfew restrictions. Personally, I hope that over time the Ministry of Justice will look at creating new forms of community sentences. A couple of years ago, I worked with the Centre for Social Justice on just such a proposal: the intensive control and rehabilitation order, under which offenders would wear GPS tags tracking their movements. They would be confined to their homes under a highly restrictive curfew that allowed them out only for specified reasons such as a job, a meeting with their probation officer, specific reparation work for victims or a course to address their offending behaviour. To some extent, it would be a midpoint between the current community orders and a spell in prison. I would very much welcome the chance to discuss that proposal further with Ministers.

For now, however, I return to my puzzlement at today’s Labour motion. The Government are committed to community payback, and they can prove it with the work done so far, the work still to come, the money being spent and the staff being recruited. Indeed, they are committed to tackling crime and reducing the number of victims in a plethora of ways, including by increasing the number of police officers, giving the police more powers and toughening sentences for the most serious crimes—measures that the Opposition have opposed time after time. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), who is shaking her head at me from the Opposition Front Bench, was right about one thing: this debate will show which party is serious about tackling crime. It is the Conservative party. It always has been, and it always will be. I am proud to be on our side of the House, in the party that takes action and makes investments to put victims first.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I declare some interests: I work with the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group, as I mentioned in my intervention on the Minister for Crime and Policing, and I recently spoke at the POA conference in Eastbourne. In recent weeks, I have spoken in debates about the need for a national policing strategy for anti-social behaviour and for off-road bikes, and about repeat offenders and sentencing.

I did not intervene on the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), but he said that the Conservative party is leading the way. I have served in this House for several years now, and I well remember that in 2011, the then Justice Secretary—who had held many high offices of state, including Chancellor of the Exchequer and Health Secretary, and now serves in the other place as Baron Clarke of Nottingham—proposed a similar solution, although in those days it was called a non-custodial sentence rather than community payback. The prison population was 85,000 then, but because of criticism from his own side, the then Justice Secretary had to back down. I well recall his statement, when the then Speaker remonstrated with him about the length of his answers; I said in his defence that I thought that that was a terribly unfair criticism because the Justice Secretary had already indicated that he was against shorter sentences. [Laughter.] Thank you.

I highlighted the difficulties experienced in our prison system and the lack of rehabilitation in a recent debate, to which the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), responded. The hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), who is no longer in his place, spoke very well in that debate and was very constructive.

There are concerns among people who work in the system. I agree with the Minister for Crime and Policing that for community payback to be effective, it must be a team effort, but there are issues in our prison system with lack of rehabilitation and with the unsafe working environment for those in the Prison Service—not just prison officers, but prison educators and others. There is a serious threat to life and threat of injury for prison officers, whose service and commitment to public safety often go unnoticed behind the prison walls.

It is my intention to continue to raise the frustrations of police officers about pensions, particularly for new recruits. They have seen the number of their colleagues cut over the past year; there are fewer experienced police officers, and they are struggling to contain rising crime and antisocial behaviour. I know Ministers will say that we are recruiting extra officers, but we lost 20,000. We are running to catch up with where we were in 2010. I have the utmost admiration for the police officers who seek to ensure that our streets are safe, but many are new recruits. We have lost experience, as we have in probation and many other areas, and it will take many years to get that experience back.

Yesterday, we saw criminal barristers on strike, walking out of courts. Let me say for the record that as a Labour MP and as a lifelong trade unionist, I will always stand up for working people in their fight to protect their pay, pensions and terms and conditions, whether they are barristers, rail workers or postmen and women.

After 12 years of Conservative Government, there are frequent and systemic failures across our whole criminal justice system. Only yesterday, I had to raise a complaint about a constituent who has twice been unable to report crimes via the 101 service, owing to extended delays in answering calls. Today we are looking at community payback, but we will never even get to that point if the public cannot report crime. The hon. Member for South Suffolk may recall that I highlighted a particular case in last week’s Westminster Hall debate and subsequently wrote to him about it; he asked me not to raise it individually at the time because it was still ongoing.

On the surface, crime figures may appear to be declining in particular areas, but in the case that I pointed out, many in the community, including the victims, considered the sentence overly lenient. They have lost confidence in the system and are less likely to report crimes; in fact, the individual affected has said that under no circumstances will he ever go through it all again, because he does not feel that justice has been served. There are not enough police officers to attend incidents in a timely manner, and criminals are not being convicted because of court delays and backlogs. Sadly, the Government are refusing to take responsibility, but the decision to close 164 out of 320 magistrates courts since 2010 is clearly not helping the backlog.

The Government are undermining the quality and quantity of community sentences. In 2019, the chief inspector of probation found that because of the Government’s “Transforming Rehabilitation” reforms, which split probation provision into the public sector National Probation Service and privately owned community rehabilitation companies, probation services are

“failing to meet all performance targets…In too many cases, there is not enough purposeful activity…The probation profession has been diminished…There is now a national shortage of probation professionals”.

The chief inspector noted that there is too much reliance on unqualified or agency staff, and that

“in the day-to-day work of probation professionals, there has been a notable drift away from the evidence base”.

I think the Government acknowledge that privatising probation was an error, because they renationalised it, but these issues prevail. The courts are less inclined to give community sentences. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) mentioned the reduction in the number of such sentences. Indeed, there has been a 46% decrease in England and Wales over the past 10 years, and a 25% fall in the four years between 2017 and 2020 alone in my region, the north-east. A decline in community sentences may indicate a more hard-line approach, given the increase in the use of custodial sentences. However, the prison population is lower today than it was in 2010. I do understand that during the pandemic there was less crime, and I think that the prison population fell by about 6% during that period, but what we have now are fewer police officers, fewer courts, and fewer community and custodial sentences.

The Conservative party often tries to portray itself as the party of law and order, but the statistics and the experience on the streets suggest that it is more the party of crime and disorder. Recently—and quite regularly—the Government have said, “Well, what would you do?” It is easy to throw stones and criticise.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that while different types of crime can fall in different ways, some serious volume crimes are, according to the Office for National Statistics, well down on where they were three years ago. Burglary is down, robbery is down, theft is down, and admissions to hospital with a knifepoint injury are well down. There are areas of concentration, to which we have given significant priority and resources, which are now significantly down across the country. That is British crime survey data, not data for reported crime.

I acknowledge the Minister’s intervention. My concern, which I raised earlier in my speech and also last week, is the number of people who, because of a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system, are simply not reporting crimes—not necessarily the very serious crimes involving physical assault but crimes that we might classify as minor, including antisocial behaviour.

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we use two methods to measure crime. There is recorded crime, as he says, which is sometimes affected by sentiment, but the more accurate measure—the one that is generally used—is the British crime survey, which contains data that is not impacted by the kind of sentiment to which he is alluding, and that data shows that these important crime types are significantly down.

I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. However, let me return to the frequent criticism of Labour for not being definitive enough in proposing alternatives. Let us be no doubt about this: Labour is not soft on crime. Through new community and victim payback orders, we would make offenders pay back to the communities they have harmed. I think that that is an excellent idea, and I hope there is a basis for us to move forward together, given that Labour has a solid policy that commands support in the community.

Labour would set up police hubs—indeed, we have an embryonic police hub in Horden, in my constituency—in our towns and larger villages, and would put more police back on the streets. That would give residents direct access to a way of sharing their concerns about their community. We all know that the most effective policing is intelligence-led, and features close co-operation with a community who can often identify those who are involved in crime. Finally, Labour would create new neighbourhood prevention teams, which would bring together police, community support officers, youth workers—that is very important—and council staff to tackle the causes of the antisocial behaviour that is blighting so many communities.

The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary know that the cuts of the past 12 years were wrong, and I welcome the U-turn at the 2019 election, when it was proposed that 20,000 police officers be rehired, but the public should remember that they were, in the main, present for, and voted for, each and every cut to our criminal justice system over the past 12 years. When it comes to community payback and rehabilitation—although I believe in the concept—the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary are repeat offenders. It will take many generations for the criminal justice system to recover from the wanton attacks and mismanagement of this Government.

While we can restore numbers relatively easily, the decades of experience that we have lost among skilled professionals—in the police and the probation service, and among prison officers—are not so easily recovered. Even following the recruitment drive to which the Minister referred, there are still nearly 24,000 fewer police staff today than there were in 2010, and over 6,000 fewer special constables. That is 30,000 fewer people seeking to prevent crime and catch offenders. Moreover, the closure of so many magistrates courts means that we have halved the court capacity to process offenders who are caught and charged.

The probation service recently launched a recruitment drive—the Minister mentioned this—to attract 500 extra community payback staff. The question I want to ask is this: how does the Minister expect to attract people to these important roles, given that retention, let alone recruitment, is struggling? The probation union Napo tells me of issues involving staff feeling unsafe at work—that may be partly due to concerns about covid—frustrations over stagnant pay and a lack of progression in jobs, and, overwhelmingly, covid-induced backlogs that are still clogging up the system.

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that he will soon bring his remarks to a conclusion. He has not done anything wrong—he is behaving perfectly properly—but although I did not impose a time limit originally because I thought that that would allow freer debate, I will have to ask Members who speak after the hon. Gentleman to take about six or seven minutes, because we want to finish the debate at about 4 pm.

I shall heed your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker. Let me end by saying this. In the opinion of many—myself included—our criminal justice system is falling apart, and the Government should be finding a way to fix it rather than just using it as a means of silencing their critics. I must say how disappointed I am that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 is being used to silence Steve Bray just yards away from here. I know that many of us have had brushes with Mr Bray, but his voice is being silenced today, and by tomorrow, many of us who have never demonstrated before could be subject to prosecution under that law.

It is absolutely ridiculous that the Labour party has brought this Opposition day debate, and then sent along four of its Back-Bench MPs. It is an absolute scandal. It is worth pointing out that, since I have been in this place, Labour has voted against every single measure to increase sentences for criminals such as murderers and rapists.

Labour Members really do have a cheek to talk about community payback, especially after my experience of Labour MPs and supporters calling for my head, and calling me some sort of right-wing fascist, when I had the temerity to suggest that criminals should go to work for a living, pay taxes and work hard. That was just before the election in 2019. I was working with residents on the Carsic council estate in Sutton-in-Ashfield, and they had had enough. They were having problems with antisocial behaviour, and with criminals who were making their life a complete misery. This was a handful of no-good villains who the council thought it was a good idea to put into flats and bungalows meant for pensioners, in order to try to integrate them with old-age pensioners, but it did not work. I did not think it was fair, so my suggestion was pretty simple: make these criminals go to work. There is a shortage of workers on our farms and in our agricultural industry in this country, so the answer is quite simple: do some graft, earn a wage and pay some taxes. That just might stop these people causing trouble by going out thieving and robbing people.

The hon. Member talks about hard graft. Does he think that making birthday cards and greeting cards is a suitable punishment for criminals?

No, I do not think that is a good way for criminals to do community payback. Of course it is not, but during the pandemic and in lockdown when people had to stop inside the house, we had to find something for them to do, so for that period of time I would say yes, get them to do some work, like making personal protective equipment. That was a great thing for them to do. We have not been living in normal times.

Imagine the outrage from Labour Members when I said all that stuff about people going to work. Going to work! The outrage! It was incredible. They said I wanted to open up gulags and forced labour camps, just because I was asking for people to go and pick vegetables. They said it was cruel to make people work on farms, yet they said it was not cruel for immigrant labour to come in and pick fruit and vegetables on farms. Do they just not like immigrants? Is that what it is? Because that is how it looks. It is not cruel for people to work hard, pay taxes and contribute to society. It is the right and decent thing to do in any civilised society.

We all know that the Labour party is trying to rebrand itself as the patriotic, low-tax party of law and order that is tough on illegal immigration. What a load of nonsense that is! Even Labour Members are laughing right now. It is ridiculous, isn’t it? They need to make their mind up, because the same MPs were saying, a while back, that we should not deport foreign criminals at Christmas time because it was cruel. I think it is a great Christmas present, deporting criminals. The people in Ashfield think it is brilliant. [Interruption.] I was in here when Labour Members said it, and it was absolute nonsense. They were absolutely out of touch with the decent, hard-working, tax-paying people in places such as Ashfield—[Interruption.] They can shake their heads all they want, but they are completely out of touch.

Labour Members have voted against every single measure to lock people up for longer. They should be ashamed of themselves. I know they think I am on a rant, and that I like picking on them, but I do not. I like to be sensible, calm and measured, and to put a proper argument across—[Interruption.] But there they are, chuntering away. This is great.

I hope that the Government will listen to some of my suggestions and take on board what I am saying, because criminals up and down the country are living rent-free in social housing, and every day they are making people’s lives a misery. It is true. I say again—I stick to my words—that these people do not deserve to be given free housing while we have decent people on the waiting list. They should work for a living.

Community payback is a great idea, and the Government are doing great things and investing millions of pounds in it—it is absolutely fantastic—but I hope they will look at doing something a bit more long term to sort this problem out. I will stick to my guns: as I have said before, we have a massive shortage of labour on farms in this country, but the good news is that we have a massive pool of habitual, bone idle, self-entitled criminals who are a drain on this great society of ours, so when the payback is finished, how about the Government—if they are listening to me—ensuring that these people are sentenced to 40 hours’ paid work a week for the rest of their life until they retire? Imagine that! It would send them into meltdown. That’s me done, Madam Deputy Speaker. Thank you very much.

To return to the subject of community payback, most of us across the House know the impact of crime and antisocial behaviour on our communities. We see the impact on our towns and villages. We see how it worries people, makes them anxious, brings down their sense of pride in an area and makes them angry. We know that the link to antisocial and criminal behaviour, even at a low level, exists and really matters to our communities, so it is right that, where it is appropriate and in line with sentencing guidance, the option of community payback work should be given. A lot of communities see a link between wrongdoing and payback to the community. They see that those who have offended are doing work to make a difference in their local community. I think, for example, of work done a few years ago in my local cemetery—that is seemingly a very popular option for payback schemes. The work was very much needed. It helped the local community, and helped the offenders to learn skills and move forward after their payback service was completed.

The well-respected consultancy Crest Advisory has said that

“the notion that community sentences can be a more effective, cheaper alternative to prison is supported by a strong body of evidence.”

Community payback can stop more serious reoffending by addressing the root causes of offending behaviour, yet there has been a reduction in its use by the courts because of concerns that the schemes just will not be carried out; there is a concern to ensure that offenders do actually pay back for their crimes. That reduction means that community sentences are now being used less than at any point over the past 15 years.

Let us look at the number of offenders who completed a community sentence in each year between 2016 and 2020 in every region in England and Wales. In my region of the north-east, there was a 25% decrease over that period, and a fall of 69% in the number of community payback hours completed. If we look at the causes of some of those reductions, we see that ironically, even after sentences are given, local organisations cannot access schemes because of the pressure on probation services and the cost involved for the organisations. As we have heard, the probation services have been through a really difficult time as a result of the Government’s failed privatisation of them. Such services are vital and respected. Voluntary organisations are willing to lead payback schemes, but they need funding and support from probation to run them. Again, that affects the number of people who can be on these schemes. It reduces the benefit to communities and the need for that work when such schemes cannot be carried out.

I wish to speak briefly about another aspect of giving back to our communities. Operation Payback is a scheme operated by our excellent Northumbria police and crime commissioner, Kim McGuinness, using money from the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. She is determined to ensure that communities use the money recovered from crime to address local problems. Northumbria is a huge area for a PCC to cover, and many of its town and villages have successfully submitted bids to Operation Payback. Let me highlight one example in my community. Our PCC has worked with local community groups, which are doing great things to support young people in avoiding offending or antisocial behaviour, and are providing positive alternatives. The scheme has funded a forest school, which brings older young people together to engage in positive activities. It tackles the issues of potential antisocial behaviour and food poverty.

Community payback is really important and needs to be strengthened greatly, so I welcome Labour proposals to make it effective, and to link it closely with the priorities of the local communities who suffer from crime. Our community payback boards would put local representatives at the heart of the payback scheme, which is important if we are to make that community link. We would set up new police hubs to put police on our streets and increase their visibility; we all know that people across our constituencies are calling for that. We would also create new neighbourhood prevention teams.

This is an important debate on community payback and how we can strengthen it, and on the issues arising from the reduction in hours of community payback. I would like a much stronger and more effective scheme, linked to our local communities and the issues that they face.

I am already an avid follower of the Twitter feed of the Minister for Crime and Policing, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), so I have already seen his regular payback of the day posts, which I highly recommend, showing the tree planting, the painting and decorating, the restoring of parks and the other schemes that are happening. Anyone can nominate a local project, and I am encouraging my constituents to make sure that they do so.

Like others who have spoken in this debate, I was surprised when I saw the motion on the Order Paper, as there are already plans to deliver 8 million hours of payback—2 million more than happen now. Perhaps Labour Members were also surprised, given the poor attendance for their own debate. Where are the Liberal Democrats? Do they have nothing to say on crime? There is no one here from that party.

Increasing the hours is important, because community payback does what it says on the tin. It is about offenders making amends in the area where they committed their crimes, doing something positive for communities that they can see. To deliver that increase, and other efforts to reduce offending, the probation service has launched a campaign to recruit trainee probation officers in Norfolk, which I hope will be successful. As others have said, it is a rewarding career to help people turn their lives around.

Another element of the Government’s community sentence scheme that I support is electronic monitoring or tagging. Last week, the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, looked at that programme. Across the country today, 15,000 people are tagged, including those subject to community orders and offenders released under licence from prison. In due course, the Committee will report on the programme and some problems with the IT system, but I was struck by the impact of tagging on alcohol monitoring. Among community-based offenders and offenders on licence with an alcohol abstinence requirement, there was an overall sobriety rate of 97.2% and 95.6% respectively. There is a big prize here, given that alcohol-related crime costs society £21 billion a year and plays a part in nearly 40% of violent crime. Reducing it must be a priority and tagging has an important role to play. Based on the success of the programme to date, it is being expanded, with up to 12,000 offenders due to be tagged over the next three years.

Part of the extra £183 million to be invested in tagging by 2025 will go into a technology innovation fund. I welcome the fact that that will include focusing on what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime and Policing has referred to as the holy grail—an effective tag to monitor for drug use. Tags are also used in domestic abuse-related cases to better protect victims and their families. By adopting new technology, there is the potential to protect the public and deliver better value for money.

Payback and tagging are part of the Government’s focus on standing up for victims; recruiting more police, with over 200 additional officers already recruited in Norfolk; and ensuring offenders face tough penalties while getting support to reduce reoffending. In contrast, the Labour Party voted against tougher sentences for the worst crimes, voted against increased police funding, and voted against giving the police powers they need to protect the public. The first job of any Government is to keep people safe, and this Conservative Government are committed to cutting crime and reforming the justice system so that it serves the law-abiding, decent majority.

When people talk about crime, all too often the focus is on the crime itself and not the impact on victims and communities. Drug dealing leaves people scared to go out of their homes, knives are taking away young people’s lives, and rapes are going unconvicted, leaving victims feeling they have nowhere left to turn and completely powerless. Under this Conservative Government, rape is effectively legalised, and when they had the chance to toughen up the laws and actually get on with the job of governing, their perverse priorities meant that a statue was better protected than me or any of my constituents. Any of the meaningless figures reeled off by Ministers do nothing to redress the years of cuts to policing in our communities.

The hon. Lady just said that rape has been legalised under this Government. That is a shameful thing to say. Whatever differences we have about the detail of waiting times and so on, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) made it clear earlier that we are all working hard on this matter. I ask the hon. Lady to retract what she has just said.

I will not be retracting that. I said “effectively” legalised. When only 1.6% of reported rape cases are prosecuted, the crime is effectively legalised. It is a shameful statistic for a Minister.

I have not finished.

It is a shameful statistic and it is shameful that rape victims are left without any justice. Although there is much political difference here, that is one statistic that we should all agree needs to be improved.

The hon. Lady is being very generous with her time. Does she realise that language such as that in this place strikes fear into the hearts of women in this country and encourages men who are thinking about doing these horrible crimes to go out and commit them? It is absolutely shocking. She should retract what she said.

When it comes to using moderate language, I think the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) might have to take some of his own advice. And when it comes to protecting women and giving them faith in our Crown Prosecution Service, in our Criminal Justice System and in our policing, that responsibility is on this Government, and for 12 years they have let victims down, so I will not be apologising for their mistakes.

This Government, as I have said, have the wrong priorities and seek only to divide our communities when our communities should be offered the hope that, as a society, we can be brought together to live safely and to see those who do not want to live by those laws adequately punished and rehabilitated.

After 12 years of Conservative Government—it may come as a shock to Conservative Members, but they have been in power for 12 years—we have seen record criminal case delays, police officers disappearing from our streets, courts sold off and a court backlog that cannot just be blamed on covid. Communities have no faith that the Criminal Justice System, for which the Government are responsible, is keeping their communities safe from crime. But it does not have to be this way.

We have all heard, from both sides of the House, many examples of how community payback can stop more serious reoffending, but judges have stopped handing it out because this soft-on-crime Conservative Government cannot be trusted to ensure that offenders pay back for their crimes. To be honest, when they look at the state of the Prime Minister, is it any wonder why this Government do not care if criminals get off scot-free?

To give Members an idea of the sheer scale of how let down victims feel, I can tell them that, last year, 1.3 million cases were dropped because victims just gave up. They did not have hope that the system would deliver for them, and that includes only the people who made a report. We can only guess at the number of unreported crimes where the victims did not have the faith that they would see justice. When will this Government stop treating victims as an after-thought?

I have spoken to people in Luton North who have been conned and defrauded of their money by bogus cowboy builders. Not only have their homes been wrecked in the process, but they have lost hard-earned savings. In one heartbreaking case, a pensioner lost pretty much everything, but they were told that it was a civil matter and that they would never get their money back. That may have been true, but the people who are conning our residents are criminals and they should pay for that, yet under this Government they do not.

We have seen reports from across the country of police being so understaffed that they no longer investigate burglaries, leaving victims to take matters into their own hands. Is that what the Government mean by community payback? One woman tracked down her stolen car only to be threatened with a crowbar. The BBC reported three other serious incidents where the community were left to fend for themselves under this Government.

A mother reported that her 12-year-old son had been sexually assaulted by a man in a pub toilet. She said that it took a week for the police to investigate, and officers then accidentally wiped the CCTV footage. A victim of domestic abuse was assaulted by an ex-partner in front of her children, aged two and four. She was told that no one could visit her until the following morning. The man returned later that evening. A stalking victim said that officers failed to attend her home despite repeated visits by her stalker, which included death threats.

These serious failings are not one-offs. Sadly, they are becoming the dangerous norm—if the Minister wants to listen. I am perfectly clear that this dangerous new norm is the fault of the Tory Government, and not the fault of the hard-working, dedicated police officers working with fewer resources and fewer colleagues to keep people safe. I recently visited Luton police station with my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) whose constituency it is in. That followed a visit to the Bedfordshire Police headquarters in Kempston. We met Detective Superintendent Zara Brown and spent time listening to officers and police support workers tackling some of the toughest cases. Those teams covered rape and serious sexual assault, protecting vulnerable people and domestic abuse.

What struck me as I listened to the officers was not only how dedicated they were to each individual victim, but how frustrated they were on the victims’ behalf with the backlogs and the delays in getting them justice. Many in those teams have not seen significant pay rises and were regularly called in on their days off to attend in uniform to police extraordinary events in the region.

Most strikingly, that visit showed me, clear as day, without anyone saying a thing, the half-empty desks—not a covid measure, but because there were not enough police officers to fill them, and certainly not enough detectives. The failure for victims does not fall on hardworking and dedicated police officers and staff, but squarely on this Conservative Government, and that failure is being brutally felt in communities such as mine. The Conservatives’ version of community payback is one where the community pays repeatedly for this Government’s failure. That is not justice.

Labour knows that our communities need and deserve better than this. We will create neighbourhood prevention teams that will give our communities the tools and support to tackle the root causes of antisocial behaviour. We will put communities and victims at the heart of how offenders repay society and make sure justice is seen to be delivered locally and for good. Labour will put security at the heart of its contract with the British people.

The hon. Member for Ashfield talked about criminals living rent free, so I have one final question for Conservative Members: when will they get rid of the one living in No. 10?

Today we have heard from many hon. Members who know that the blight of crime and antisocial behaviour has grown out of control in their constituencies over the past decade, and who know its impact on victims and the failure of this Government to deal with it. We have heard powerful contributions from many hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) made a very powerful speech about the impact of the lack of investment in the probation service over many years, with staff undervalued and neglected. She made a strong argument for improving the system to reduce reoffending. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame Morris) and for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who also emphasised that the probation service has been stripped bare, so that courts are less inclined to give those important community sentences. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) made a powerful speech, giving strong examples from within her own constituency of where victims are being let down.

Hon. Members have reiterated that the public want to see solutions rooted in their constituencies and communities. That is why the collapse of community payback has dealt such a heavy blow to the trust in our criminal justice system among both the public and the victims of crime. Not only do victims have to deal with the aftermath of crime, but they must battle incessantly for justice, and many drop out of the system after years and years of waiting.

I speak to victims every day, and the thing I am most commonly told is how horrific going through our justice system is and how rarely it results in justice. Two victims recently shared their experiences with me. One said that,

“the system actively worked against us”,

and the other said that,

“this was the worst and most dreadful experience of my life.”

For 12 years, this Government have let victims down. It is clear that this justice system is not fit for purpose. Only Labour is serious about tackling the criminality that is wrecking our cities, towns and villages.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) said in opening the debate, “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” might sound like a slogan from another era of Labour history, but it remains as true and as vital now as it was in 1997, when the last Labour Government replaced a tired Conservative Government who were mired in sleaze and had no new ideas to fix the problems they created. Sound familiar? As is often the case, we are now seeing history repeating itself. Crime is up and prosecutions are down. This week we have seen an epidemic of fraud that hit newspaper front pages. Conservative Members may not think that fraud matters to anyone, but it does, and it matters to Labour too—and after a decade of cuts the police are ill-equipped to tackle it. We see that in the low number of prosecutions and convictions for offences such as theft. Retailers are reporting that the police will not come and investigate shoplifters brazenly walking a trolley’s-worth of alcohol out of their stores because they simply do not have the time or resource. Despite any protestations, our constituents are seeing and experiencing antisocial behaviour day in, day out.

In my own constituency we have seen a local conservation area, Forest Farm, and a climbing frame at Heath Park fall victim, on numerous occasions, to arson attacks, resulting in millions of pounds-worth of damage, not to mention the huge loss to our community. Community payback could and should be a powerful way to address why someone commits such crimes before they go on to commit any more, or worse. It means that those who committed the crime provide visible community benefit that victims and the wider community can see. It allows offenders to be held accountable by the communities they have impacted and it reduces the likelihood of further offences.

But community payback is failing. The service is still reeling from the catastrophe of the 2014 privatisation of the probation service. Even Conservative Members now accept that that was a crucial error. I pay tribute to the incredibly hard-working probation staff who struggle to supervise offenders properly. That is very clear from the statistics that we have seen over the past five years, with 4 million fewer hours of community payback, a quarter fewer offenders finishing community sentences, and a trebling of offenders finishing their unpaid work schemes from home. Community sentences are not paying back. Judges know it and victims know it—we all know it.

Labour has a different vision for community payback. We want schemes that begin to rebuild communities and victims’ trust in the justice system. We want a system where communities and victims come together, set out the tasks that must be completed through community payback and report back on results—one where offenders are properly reintegrated into communities by doing unpaid work that gives them a sense of value.

This can be fixed, but only if the Government put communities and victims right at the heart of the system. That is what our community and victim payback boards offer. Our plan would form part of the community safety partnerships and safer neighbourhood teams, meaning minimal cost to the taxpayer. Instead of emailing an anonymous Government inbox, this would give local communities, as well as victims, an opportunity to create ambitious schemes of real value. We could then publish local data on progress so that communities can really see the difference that these schemes are making. These schemes—community safety partnerships and safer neighbourhood teams—are already taking this approach, including in Labour-run Wales and Labour-run London. This is achievable, and it will bring results.

A constituent told me about the violent threats his neighbour was making to his disabled wife, while another has reported to me that she suffered a miscarriage due to the stress of antisocial behaviour from her upstairs neighbours. We know the distress that antisocial behaviour and crime are causing in our communities. Crime and antisocial behaviour are tearing through the country and destroying our communities while this Government just sit back and let it happen, letting victims down and criminals off the hook. We need a solution, and Labour has one. I hope that the whole House will come together today and back Labour’s plan.

Let me start by saying how grateful I am to all those who have contributed to this important debate today. In particular, I join the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), who has just spoken, and all my colleagues who have paid tribute to the brilliant work of those in the probation service. They have put in a hell of a shift through the pandemic. They have delivered exemplary service since then, and we all know the value they add in our communities and the key role they play in the criminal justice system. In particular, I thank them for the role they have played in helping us to achieve a situation whereby the proportion of offenders released from custody who reoffended within 12 months of release fell from 51.5% in 2010 to 42.2% in 2020. That is a significant improvement through reducing the reoffending rate.

The key point is that we have heard from the Opposition that they are now the party that is tough on crime, but as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime and Policing said at the beginning of the debate, we have to judge politicians by what they do, rather than what they say. Opposition Members cannot run away from the fact that they voted against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which recently received Royal Assent.

Let us just remind ourselves of the measures in that Act that the Opposition voted against, which include doubling the maximum penalty for assaulting an emergency worker; mandatory life sentences for unlawful act manslaughter of an emergency worker in the line of duty; a starting point of a whole-life tariff for premeditated child murder; increasing from 14 years to life the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving; increasing from 14 years to life the maximum sentence for causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs; and, among many other measures, abolishing automatic halfway release for serious, violent and sexual offenders. That is what is being tough on crime. Voting against that measure is being weak on crime.

I thank the Minister for giving way. He is absolutely right about the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which comes into force today, but the problem we had was that it was take it or leave it. We had to take the whole thing or reject the whole thing. Can I ask the Minister whether it is a good use of taxpayers’ money and police resources when more than a dozen of the Metropolitan police and several vehicles were involved in the arrest of Steven Bray under the terms of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act for using a loudhailer outside Parliament? I think it is outrageous.

These are operational matters for the police, who are independent of Government. The point I am making is that the Opposition could have chosen to support those many measures. If we look at those measures as a whole, they send a signal that this party is tough on crime. The Opposition voting against them sends a wholly different message.

Can the Minister explain to me, if he is so tough on crime, why he did not accept our amendment on minimum sentences for rape?

I am pleased to confirm to the hon. Lady, because it comes back to the speech of the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), who said that we were somehow legalising rape, that the average sentence for adult rape in this country was around 10 years in 2021. I can confirm that that amount has increased by 15% since 2010—not decreased; increased. Those are very tough sentences for what is a very serious crime. I think that when we speak in this House, we should send a message that deters people from carrying out these horrific crimes, instead of sending messages that somehow people are going to get away with it. That does not help anyone. It does not help my daughter and it does not help anyone in this House or any one of our constituents.

Turning to the contributions in this important debate, the hon. Member for West Ham made a very good point about the impact of community payback on women. She talked particularly about the effects of alcohol and drugs. When we talk about community sentencing, the rehabilitative part is important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) mentioned. As the hon. Lady knows, we are piloting residential women’s centres, and we announced in May that the first one will open in Swansea. I hope that she will support that.

I am glad to hear that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) speaks with great expertise. He made the important point that the motion criticises us for what happened to unpaid work, but it ignores the reality of the pandemic. He also made the crucial point that the Opposition would have kept us in lockdown for longer. Last December, they wanted us to have a lockdown because of omicron, but we resisted, which was the right thing to do for the country. If they had done that, it would have taken even longer for us to deal with the backlog in the courts, the backlog of unpaid work and everything else.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for being persistent on the subject of persistent offenders. He had a Westminster Hall debate on it last week, to which I enjoyed responding. As a constituency MP, he continually raises the case that he has written to me about—I promise that I will respond to him—and he is a champion of his constituents. We obviously disagree on some of the matters that he raised, but he is right to pay tribute to prison officers. We certainly cherish the huge role they play and appreciate all their efforts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) was typically robust and forthright in telling it like it is. He said that prisoners should go to work, and in the spirit of that point, I say that it is crucial to ensure that there is every chance for people to get a job when they leave prison. That is why I am proud to confirm that the number of persons released from custody who were employed six months after release is up by 66%. That is testament to the strength of the economy and to the Government’s commitment to reducing reoffending.

The hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who is no longer in her place, made a very good speech. She made an important point that the evidence shows that, in many ways, if someone has a short prison sentence, it has less of an impact on reducing reoffending than community sentences can have. Hon. Members on both sides of the House agree with that, and it is certainly what the evidence suggests.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild) made some good points. He encouraged his constituents to get involved in schemes and nominate where work can happen. If there is a problem with fly-tipping in a constituency, people should go to their parish councils, which should in turn go to the police and crime commissioner and say, “What about getting some of that unpaid work resource into our constituency?” He also made an excellent point about alcohol and the increasing use of sobriety tags; all hon. Members on both sides of the House surely know the impact of alcohol on crime. The Minister for Crime and Policing is committed to making more of that.

The Government have a clear plan to increase the number of community payback hours delivered via robust outdoor placements. We have made significant investments to bolster staffing levels and we continue to strengthen our engagement and collaboration with key local stakeholders to ensure that placements visibly improve the communities in which they are served. In that way, as the most timeless common law principle says, justice can be seen to be done.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House notes that the number of community sentences handed down fell by one quarter in the last three years; further notes that completed hours of unpaid work carried out by offenders has fallen by three quarters in the last three years; notes with concern that despite the end of lockdown restrictions in 2021, the number of offenders permitted to complete unpaid work from home has continued to rise; and calls on the Government to create community and victim payback boards to place communities and victims in control of the type of community projects that offenders complete to restore public faith in community payback.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I ask the Minister to correct the record. He inadvertently misled the House by saying that I had said that rape is legal. That is clearly not the case. I find it particularly distasteful that the Minister is seeking to put responsibility for prosecuting rapists on a woman Opposition MP. I offer him the chance to correct that at the Dispatch Box, if not in Hansard.

I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. Obviously, it is not for the Chair to interpret what Ministers or other Members may say. She has put her concern on the record and the Minister will have heard it, so I suggest that we move on, unless the Minister wishes to say something.