Skip to main content

Sentencing Bill

Volume 742: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2023

Second Reading

[Relevant documents: Tenth Report of the Justice Committee of Session 2022-23, Public opinion and understanding of sentencing, HC 305; Correspondence from the Chair of the Justice Committee to the Lord Chancellor, on the Criminal Justice Bill and the Sentencing Bill, reported to the House on 28 November 2023.]

I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a privilege to move Second Reading of the Government’s recently introduced Sentencing Bill. The first responsibility of any Government is to protect the public. Levels of crime have come down by more than 50% since 2010. Violent crime is also down by over 50% in the last 13 years, and when it comes to reoffending, the rate is down by six percentage points since 2010. Indeed, His Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary has said that

“England and Wales are arguably safer than they have ever been”.

The Bill builds on that record to put public protection at the heart of sentencing. It will enable us to remove from circulation those who pose the most risk and to follow the evidence on the most effective ways to reduce reoffending and cut crime.

Let me start with the most dangerous offenders. I am referring to those whose crimes are so appalling and who present such a high risk that sending them to prison for as long as possible is the only way to protect the public. As the House will know, following the Criminal Justice Act 2003, all prisoners given a standard determinate sentence were entitled to be released automatically at the halfway point, no matter their crime or the length of their sentence. I want to be crystal clear about what that meant. That meant that a rapist sentenced to 12 years was out of prison in six. They were released at that point and there was no power to detain them in prison for longer.

Through the Release of Prisoners (Alteration of Relevant Proportion of Sentence) Order 2020, we legislated to ensure that serious violent and sexual offenders sentenced to seven years or more had to serve two thirds of their sentence in custody, with the rest under strict licence conditions. In the same year, the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Act 2020 ensured that terrorist offenders also served at least two thirds of their sentence or custodial term in custody and were not released without the agreement of the Parole Board.

We went further in 2021. A new type of sentence was created in the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Act 2021 that means that the most serious and dangerous terrorist offenders will now serve a minimum custodial term of 14 years. Just last year, we passed the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which put a stop to the automatic halfway release of other serious sexual and violent offenders who are sentenced to a standard determinate sentence of four years or more. The net effect is that they, too, should now serve two thirds of their sentence in prison. The Act also allows for the overriding of the automatic release date of offenders sentenced to a standard determinate sentence who are found to be dangerous while in custody, and for increased sentences for causing death by dangerous driving and causing or allowing the death of a child.

All those were sensible changes to sentencing that were designed to protect the British people from harm. Now, we go further. Under the provisions on whole-life orders, for the very worst offenders who kill in the most appalling circumstances, life really will mean life.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way so early in his speech. Will he confirm that the proposals he is presenting to the House on the Government’s behalf will ensure that anyone who commits an offence like those committed by Colin Pitchfork, who brutally raped and murdered two young women, and who might very well be released tomorrow after the Parole Board decision on the matter, will likely spend the whole of their natural life behind bars?

Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend. He has raised this issue on behalf of his constituents with such assiduity and so conscientiously, with me personally and, indeed, in the House. He is absolutely right to do so: that crime was truly abominable and utterly atrocious. At its very heart, this part of the Bill caters for precisely those sorts of offences, where there is murder accompanied by sexual or sadistic conduct, so that in such circumstances, when the offender hears the clang of the prison gate, that will be the last time that they breathe free air.

Let me turn to the very worst offenders who kill in the most appalling circumstances. Clause 1 creates a new duty for the court to impose a whole-life order in cases of the murder of a child that involve the abduction of the child, murders involving sexual or sadistic conduct, and murders carried out for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause. There will be judicial discretion in exceptional circumstances. The clause will also impose whole-life orders for the murder of a single victim that involves sexual or sadistic conduct, so that murderers like the killers of Sarah Everard and Zara Aleena will never enjoy the freedom that they cruelly denied their victims. The measures will ensure that severe punishments are available for those who commit the very worst crimes.

In my statement to the House on 16 October, I set out the Government’s intention to legislate so that rapists and serious sexual offenders serve their whole custodial terms. Again, the Bill makes good on that promise. Clauses 2 to 5 and clause 7 will mean, when implemented, that those convicted of rape or serious sexual offences will now serve every single day of their custodial term in custody, without the possibility of their case being referred to the Parole Board. That means that the custodial term handed down by the judge on the day they are sentenced will be exactly how long they initially spend in prison. They will then have a period on licence in the community after their custodial term ends. This will ensure that their victims get the justice they deserve and the public can be protected.

All the offences in clause 2 have a maximum life sentence, so the proposed new power to require offenders to attend sentencing hearings would apply. However, will my right hon. and learned Friend look at extending that power? It would not cover other serious crimes, including serious sexual offences such as the sexual assault of a child under 13, as happened in a case in my constituency, where the offender hid in his cell. He would not be compelled to come to sentencing under the powers we are proposing.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for raising that appalling case. It is important to note that in respect of this Bill and the provision to require offenders to serve the entirety of their sentence, clause 2 relates to section 8 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, on causing or inciting a child under 13 to engage in sexual activity, so that is covered.

On my hon. Friend’s separate point about attendance, we are very clear, following the cases of Lucy Letby and others, that it is a grievous affront to victims and families for defendants who have been convicted, after a fair trial, not to face the music, in simple terms. They need to be there in front of the court so that they can hear society’s condemnation expressed through the sentencing remarks of the judge, and so that the peace that has been denied their victims should be denied them as well. They need to understand that condemnation. My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about the scope of the requirement for people to attend court; it is a fair one and we should certainly discuss that.

I turn to the second aim of the Bill: to cut crime. Ultimately, that is how we protect the public. As it stands, the situation is that, too often, offenders are locked up for short periods at exorbitant cost. The experience makes them worse, and they end up committing further offences as a result. Clause 6 will introduce a presumption to suspend short sentences of 12 months or less, directing the courts to hand down a suspended sentence order instead.

The fact is that almost 80% of convicted offending every year is reoffending; much of the crime in our country is committed by someone who has had at least one brush with the law. The criminal justice system is meant to punish wrongdoing—of course it is. But, in the interests of society, it is also there to rehabilitate wrongdoers and set them on the right path so that they do not reoffend and make more victims of crime in the process.

If we want to protect the public and cut crime, the most effective thing we can do is intervene to break the cycle of offending—punish, of course, but rehabilitate too. To do that we must properly examine the evidence available to us.

I thank the Justice Secretary for giving way and very much welcome the introduction of the presumption against short sentences as a way, as he said, of cutting reoffending, cutting crime, cutting the number of victims and helping to turn lives around. However, that will mean greater pressure on probation services to do the job of rehabilitation outside a custodial setting.

Lord Ramsbotham, who is sadly missed in this place and more widely, produced an excellent report, which I had commissioned, called “People Are Not Things”, about the future of a successful probation service. Will the Justice Secretary agree to meet me and representatives from the probation service to look at Lord Ramsbotham’s report and see how it could help to build the kind of probation service that we need?

I am at pains to meet directly with the probation service—not just the leaders, important though they are, but frontline practitioners. They do an exceptionally important job. My mum trained as a probation officer and I know how much of a difference they make. I am speaking to them directly about the workload that they face and how they can target it to protect the public most effectively.

As the Secretary of State knows, I do not accept the argument that the best way to protect the public is to send thousands fewer criminals to prison, but I am sure we will continue that debate later. Obviously, what he has announced is such a big departure from how we have done things in the past. Will he confirm that the Government would introduce a sunset clause into the legislation, so that we can check whether it has achieved what he hopes or what I fear and that we can come back to the issue later?

My second point is that I am sure the Secretary of State would not want the new measures to apply to people convicted of knife crime, which is a scourge of many communities around the country. Will he confirm that knife crime would not be included and make sure that that is clear in the legislation?

I thank my hon. Friend for engaging with me so closely, carefully and constructively on the Bill. His points about sunset clauses and knives are well understood and well made; it seems to us that there is real merit in them. I look forward to discussing those with him in due course. We certainly see the force of those points.

I have obviously looked carefully at the definitions relating to those who would simply not be incarcerated as a result of the new measures. The Centre for Social Justice has done a huge amount of work on this. The key point, excluding those who commit violent crime, is that most prisoners have an average reading age of a 10-year-old. They have failed in the academic system. They often come from broken homes and have drug addictions. The key problem is not so much about sentencing but about what we do to try to put them straight and rehabilitate them. The question has to be about how formidable, strong and determined what we do will be and the extent to which failure on that will come back into the prison service.

My right hon. Friend speaks with great authority about this point, and I agree with every syllable of what he has said. One of the problems is that the—how can I put it?—deficiencies with which some individuals unfortunately suffer, such as illiteracy, of which I have a huge understanding, are not susceptible of being addressed through short sentences. The question is how best to ensure that they can be addressed—and it is not just a question of illiteracy; the deficiency could be drug addiction. One encouraging factor which lies behind this is the additional £532 million in drug rehabilitation support from the Department of Health and Social Care, together with criminal justice staff, to assist with the health and addiction side of it. However, my right hon. Friend made a powerful point. If we want to rehabilitate people, we will not be able to do so unless we address the issue of literacy. However, prison is not necessarily the best place in which to resolve it in the short term, as opposed to the long term.

Hang on, I haven’t given way yet. [Laughter.] I give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings.

My right hon. and learned Friend is such a tease.

As my right hon. and learned Friend will know, 6% of the offences that attract a 12-month sentence are indeed for the possession of an article with a blade or point, in other words a knife, and a further 9% are for common assault and battery. Those are the kind of sentences that we are speaking about here, and if you are a victim of assault, you do not really worry about whether your attacker is literate or illiterate; you just worry about having been attacked.

There are some important points to make about this. As my right hon. Friend will know, there is a whole suite and hierarchy of offences of assault. There is common assault, but if there is even a reddening of a skin, that becomes assault occasioning actual bodily harm, which carries a five-year maximum sentence—although, of course, this applies only to those who are given sentences of under 12 months. However, if the skin is pierced in any way or there is any serious harm, that is charged as grievous bodily harm, either simpliciter or with intent, and carries a maximum of life imprisonment. We must therefore be very clear on what we are talking about and what we are not talking about, and we are not talking about grievous bodily harm. Let me also stress that the two highest categories of offence that fall within the 12-month sentencing period are driving offences and offences relating to class B drugs. However, I take on board the important points made by my right hon. Friend, and I refer him to the remarks I made to our hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He is being very generous. The presumption of suspending the sentence does not apply in exceptional circumstances. Can the Secretary of State give us two or three examples of what he considers to be exceptional circumstances?

This is a formulation that is well understood by the courts. It applies, for example, in respect of possession of a firearm contrary to the Firearms Act 1968, as was. I once defended a young woman, 16 years old, who was in possession of a firearm—although, in fact, she was not. Her boyfriend, who had subjected her to coercive and controlling behaviour, had said, “You have to hold on to the gun, because I think the police will come and find me.” She had the gun in her house, but she did not touch it or do anything with it. The police came, raided her house, found the gun, and said, “There is a mandatory minimum sentence of three years.” She had never committed an offence in her life: she was of completely good character. Should the judge have sentenced her immediately to three years’ custody—it would have been at least five years if she had been 18 or over—or should he have considered that there were exceptional circumstances? In that case he found that there were, and that is the sort of case in which that might apply.

The evidence is clear. More than 50% of those who are sentenced to less than 12 months will go on to commit another offence within a year of release, and the cost to taxpayers of keeping someone in custody for that time is a staggering £47,000 per year, per prisoner. In the case of offenders who are given suspended sentences in the community—those are still custodial sentences which go on to their records as sentences of imprisonment—the reoffending rate is much lower, at about 24%. This type of community sentencing can have tough conditions attached to it, such as tagging, strict curfews—incidentally, we have extended the maximum period for which a curfew can apply to 20 hours out of 24 —and exclusion zones, which are designed to protect the public and keep offenders out of trouble. A requirement to receive treatment for addictions or mental health problems can also help offenders to address what are so often contributing factors to their offending. Critically, as this should be about punishment as well, that can also enable them to stay in work and participate in community payback, such as picking up litter, removing graffiti and otherwise repaying their debt to society.

Order. Just before the Secretary of State takes an intervention, I wish to remind hon. and right hon. Members that if they are going to intervene on a speaker, it is polite to stay to the end of the speech—as well as to be there at the beginning. I believe that the Secretary of State was about to give way to Neil O’Brien.

Are we really comparing like with like here? The statistics produced by the Ministry of Justice compare the effect of community sentences on reoffending from the start of the community sentence, but the end of the prison sentence, therefore completely ignoring the effect on reoffending of the actual prison sentence itself. Surely if we want to understand the effects of short prison sentences on the community, we must take into account the actual effect on crime of the prison sentence itself.

I have looked very carefully at the extremely rigorous analysis that my hon. Friend has provided. Having sat down, wrapped a wet towel round my head and looked at the stats, here is the position. Somebody who completes a custodial sentence and comes out is, for that 12 months thereafter, more than 50% likely to commit an offence, but for somebody who completes a suspended sentence order and comes out, the figure is around half that for the 12 months thereafter. [Interruption.] I just want to finish the point. This is not something that is peculiar to England and Wales; as I have observed from the data. this is a pattern that is seen in Australia, the Netherlands, France and Northern Ireland. In simple terms, it is because, with the technology that we have now, there is a sword of Damocles hanging over someone’s head. If, for example, the trigger for their offending has been that they drink too much and their index offence was that they thumped someone in the queue in Gartree in Leicestershire, by putting on that alcohol tag they know that if they breach that tag by drinking—I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) who rolled out those alcohol tags—it means that they can expect to be breached and brought back before the court where they can then go to prison. It is a sharp sword of Damocles that hangs over them.

I will make a bit of progress, but I will give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire.

As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, I support this move, and I said so when he made the previous statement to the House. However, he will have picked up, as I have, a sense that this is a diminution of the retribution element of sentencing. I wonder whether he would consider during the passage of the Bill looking at whether the alternative disposals to prison could be made in many ways much tougher to satisfy that requirement from so many victims that there needs to be a sense of punishment. For example: extending the time that people are on home detention and curfew; extending the time that they are on a sobriety tag from a maximum, I think, of 120 days to a year or 18 months. Many people would see a trade there—okay, he is not going to prison for three months, but he will be on a curfew for 18 months. They would see that as a better trade than like for like.

That is a brilliant point, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I think there is further that we can go. The position at present is that there is a maximum number of hours that a person can do unpaid work. In simple terms, that is designed to ensure that it is completed within a reasonable period of time, but, absolutely, we need to consider whether we have got it right. My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about the extent to which we can use technology to punish effectively. In the old days, the maximum period of time a person could be put on a curfew was about 12 or 16 hours, but we have extended that, which was opposed by those on the Opposition Benches—[Interruption.] You did. Extending the time is important because it is part of the punishment. Equally, those with alcohol tags effectively have someone supervising them—man-marking them—to ensure that they cannot do something that they would ordinarily like to do. However, we should consider whether to go further. My right hon. Friend, as always, makes an excellent point.

I will make a bit of progress and then I will take an intervention.

Requirement to receive treatment for addictions or mental health problems can also support and address what are so often contributing factors to offending, as I have already indicated. So, what is going wrong with some of these short sentences? One explanation is that when offenders are sent to prison for short periods, there is not enough time for our prison staff to work with them to tackle their addictions, improve their employability, manage their behaviour, and reduce their risk of reoffending. They are often more likely to meet hardened criminals keen to direct them ever further on the road to ruin.

It is important to look at the evidence through the lens of the new technology that is available to us—modern solutions that can support a modern sentencing approach, which were simply not available in our criminal justice system 10 years ago. Other nations have spotted that and we should too, which is why we are doubling the number of GPS tags available to courts to ensure that offenders comply with strict conditions imposed to curtail their liberty.

My only concern about the reply my right hon. and learned Friend gave me a few moments ago is that we are no longer making a comparison with the same cohort. In a previous analysis by the Ministry of Justice, we had a like-for-like cohort and we looked at the period from the end of the prison sentence and the start of the community sentence. Will he agree to rerun that analysis with a matched cohort, this time with a like-for-like comparison beginning at the start of the prison sentence, so that we have that incapacitation effect and can have a fair comparison?

I am certainly happy to look at the data, but whichever way we slice it, the central message is unassailable. Essentially, those who have a sentence of imprisonment that is suspended are less likely to offend—because of the sword of Damocles effect, as I have called it—than those who serve short custodial sentences. Of course I will look at the data, and I would be grateful for my hon. Friend’s assistance in doing so.

During my 17 years representing people before the criminal courts, by far the largest cohort was drug-addicted shoplifters. I am afraid I must ask the Lord Chancellor for some clarity about what he said. Many people I represented had 200 previous convictions, with 50 previous convictions for breaching community orders. I wonder whether, in the search for the perfect answer with the correct motivation, we are giving a clean slate to shoplifters to continue offending with no risk whatsoever of a custodial term. I cannot see how they would ever reach the exceptional circumstances test.

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who brings such expertise to the House and uses it in the public interest as a member of the Justice Committee and, indeed, by lobbying Ministers. It is precisely because of the circumstances of the people he has defended in the past that we have framed the Bill as we have. It has a really important aspect to which he did not advert. If someone is arrested, charged, convicted and disgraced for committing an offence that would attract a short custodial sentence while they are subject to an order, the presumption does not apply. He knows that all too often people in that group—I have seen them in court as well—will be subject to a community order or some other order. Community orders, as he remembers, can last up to three years. If anyone commits an offence during the currency of that order, the presumption does not apply. It is really important to make that point crystal clear.

The Bill sends a clear message, which goes a bit like this: either someone complies with a court order or they go to prison. That is a really important message that we send. We underscore the authority of court orders to give offenders a clear choice: either they do what they should do—repay their debt to society, rehabilitate themselves, and stay off the booze, if that is what the courts require—or they go to prison. It is up to them.

Let me move on. The tags enable the courts to monitor whether offenders are getting on with their lives by going to work and observing robust curfews of up to 20 hours a day, but we can also put in place exclusion zones to monitor whether offenders are staying out of areas where they are most likely to get into trouble—for example, a particular high street. They allow us to ensure that there is proper compliance with the punishments given out by the court—for example, unpaid work requirements. That means that offenders are visibly repaying their debt to the communities they offended against, but without it costing the taxpayer many tens of thousands of pounds to effectively pay for bed and breakfasts. If they breach any of those conditions, the probation service is quickly notified so that action can be taken.

Our high-tech alcohol tags have only been available for the past few years—my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire did more than any other Minister to roll them out. They take a reading of the offender’s sweat every 30 minutes to make sure that they are confronting the issues with alcohol that likely landed them in trouble with the law in the first place. The results speak for themselves: offenders who are ordered to wear those tags and have a complete ban on drinking stay sober, on average, 97% of the time. It not only means that they stay out of trouble, but gives them the opportunity to face up to their issues and turn their lives around. It is easy to see why: they know that within minutes of having a drink, any breach will be detected and a report will be sent to the probation service. The offender is then at risk of being brought back before the court and facing alternative disposal.

Offenders mandated by the court to wear tags have that sword of Damocles hanging over their head. They know that if they step even one inch out of line, they can be sent straight to prison by the courts. Essentially, the newer tags are the equivalent of expanding the workforce so that we can man-mark individual offenders. It is clear not only that we need this new approach, but that advances in technology mean that a new approach is possible.

I want to turn to the issue of exclusions, because they matter, but I sense that my right hon. Friend wants to intervene.

My right hon. and learned Friend is being so generous—it is kind of him. Given what he has said about technology, does he share the view that for the first time in offender management, whether post-sentence or during sentencing, we are able to insert certainty of detection of breach through technology? Thus far, detection has been uncertain, and offenders have been able to gamble with their freedom. With sobriety tags they cannot gamble, and we have seen that faced with the certainty of detection and the knowledge that if they breach, incarceration is certain, they make the right choice. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, they comply 97% of the time. As he moves towards this presumption, will he reassure Members on all sides of the House that that certainty of detection of breach will be reinforced as much as possible by the use of this technology?

My right hon. Friend gets right to the point. I would not be making this argument unless I had physically been to look at some of the tags and asked questions of the suppliers about what they can and cannot do. Let me tell him a little bit about the tags, although I recognise that he knows about them already. First, they can tell if a person is in an environment where others are drinking. In other words, a probation officer can say, “Hang on, are you hanging around with the wrong crowd, which is a risk factor for you?”

Secondly, the probation officer can tell within half an hour whether that person has had a drink. I know that right hon. and hon. Friends will be saying, “Hang on a second.” [Interruption.] Opposition Members are saying it too. They will be saying, “I bet you there’s a way round it, like putting some foil between my leg and the sensor.” Not a bit of it—that does not work. They will be thinking, “I could just snip it off.” No, because there is a circuit that then sends the alarm. Some offenders have even tried to put a sliver of ham between their skin and the tag—[Interruption.] Yes, or chicken skin. That does not work. These are highly sophisticated bits of equipment that were not available more than two years ago, and they work. Yes, each one costs about £1,300, but that is an awful lot cheaper than £47,000 a year.

We have deliberately designed the Bill to ensure that there are exclusions from the presumption where offenders threaten the safety of others, or where a court order is already in place. Judges will retain the discretion to send offenders straight to prison where they pose a significant risk of physical or psychological harm to a particular individual or are in breach of a court order, such as for stalking prevention—as Members will know, we have introduced stalking prevention orders. That will give victims of domestic abuse the space and time they need to rebuild their lives, and will send a clear message to their tormentors that they can expect to go inside. That is really important, and I want to be crystal clear about that.

A huge amount of work has taken place over the past 10 years to protect women and girls. We have introduced the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, made the sentences for rape longer, and created the offence of stalking and stalking protection orders. Let me be clear: where there is a significant risk of physical or psychological harm to a particular individual, the presumption does not apply. There will also be no duty on a judge to suspend a sentence where further offences are committed while an offender is on licence or subject to post-sentence supervision, and a court may still impose a sentence of immediate custody where it deems there are exceptional circumstances that justify not passing a suspended sentence. As I have said, the presumption does not apply if a court has imposed an order, which sends a powerful message to offenders.

I turn to home detention curfew measures. As the House knows, HDC was introduced in 1999 to manage the transition of offenders from custody back into the community while maintaining significant restrictions on their liberty. When HDC was introduced, more than half of prisoners were serving sentences of less than four years; today, it is less than a quarter. Because sentences have grown longer, clause 8 will recalibrate HDC to restore eligibility to its original intention. This is a limited measure to adjust the HDC model, which has been successful in ensuring that offenders make the smoothest transition possible from custody into the community, while continuing to have their liberty appropriately curtailed.

I understand colleagues’ representations on the Bill. This is just a first step in the legislative process. The Government will of course continue to engage seriously with Members on their specific and important concerns as we look to strike the right balance in sentencing. We believe it is possible to create a Bill that will enable the courts to protect the public and to prevent more people from becoming victims, keeping the British people safe from the most dangerous offenders for longer, while ensuring that robust community sentences reduce reoffending and cut crime. I commend the Bill to the House.

We are here to debate the Second Reading of the Sentencing Bill, but it is impossible to consider the Bill properly without acknowledging what lies behind it: the prison capacity crisis. If prisons in this country were not at crisis point, I doubt the Government would have proposed the Bill.

The prisons crisis is very much the elephant in the room, and something that the Government are loth to discuss in detail—I notice it did not feature in the Secretary of State’s opening remarks—not least because, I imagine, they do not want to admit their failure over 13 years in government. This will not surprise the Secretary of State, but I cannot let him get away with that.

The true story of the Bill and its measures on short sentences and home detention curfew is that it is a rushed response to the Government’s own failure to manage the prison capacity crisis. The Bill is about reducing numbers, first and foremost, and not about getting the criminal justice system to function more effectively or reducing reoffending. There is a case for careful consideration of how best we reduce reoffending and make rehabilitation a true success story of our criminal justice system, but acting primarily because you are worried about the numbers and are about to run out of prison places is a very different exercise. The Government are acting out of desperation, not principle, and the public deserve better.

On the Government’s watch, we have now reached 99% capacity in the prison estate. Of the 20,000 prison places that we were supposed to see by next year, fewer than half are on track to meet the deadline, and the total will not be delivered before 2030. That has happened despite more than a decade of warnings that the demand for prison places was on course to exceed supply, from everyone from the Justice Committee to the National Audit Office. The situation has been so bad for so long that earlier this year, the previous Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), wrote to judges to make them aware of the significant population in prison, so that they could take it into account when passing sentences or deciding whether to remand people in custody.

As far back as 2016, the Government had pledged to build 10,000 new prison places by 2020. They did not get anywhere near that figure. In fact, the Public Accounts Committee found that they had managed to add only 206 places by that point. In November 2020, the Government pledged 18,000 new prison places, but still with no real plan for delivery. A year later, they said that they would make it 20,000 by the mid-2020s. According to the latest figures, no more than 8,200 places are set to be built by the end of 2025. That represents a shortfall of 60%.

That is an abysmal record—a total failure to deliver by the so-called party of law and order and by a Government who cannot seem to get anything built. Our prisons are completely full and now the Government have run out of space and time. As a result, we have the reforms on short sentences.

As the Secretary of State said, the Bill will introduce a presumption that sentences of 12 months or more will be suspended and instead served in the community. According to the Government’s own impact assessment, the reforms will mean that nearly 7,000 fewer offenders go to prison, and yet these are exactly the same proposals that the Secretary of State’s predecessor’s predecessor—there have been many—told us four years ago were not “the right way forward”. What has changed, Secretary of State? Does he expect anyone to believe that it is nothing at all to do with the prisons crisis?

The Government say today that these measures will aid rehabilitation and break the cycle of reoffending. They are right to say that the reoffending rate for those leaving prison after serving less than 12 months is 50% and for those on suspended orders with conditions it is 22%, but if that were truly their priority and if there were a newfound zeal to deal with this problem—it is, I acknowledge again, a real problem—perhaps they would have done something before now about the 80% of offenders who have a previous conviction or caution. And even if I were to believe the Secretary of State and accept that this desire to cut reoffending is entirely unconnected to the fact that he has run out of prison places, the truth is that the Government are introducing these changes without any thought-through or proper consideration of the infrastructure and resource that would support programmes such as suspended sentences.

The truth is that the Government will not break the cycle of reoffending without a functioning probation service. It is therefore astonishing that there is nothing in the Bill or any accompanying document that prioritises or appropriately resources the probation service. Under this Government, we have seen the botched privatisation of the probation service. In fact, it was so disastrous that the Government then had to renationalise the same service. Only these Conservatives could manage to make an absolute mess of both.

Today our probation service is understaffed, undervalued and overstretched. Workloads are soaring, almost 50,000 working days among probation staff have been lost due to stress and nearly 20% of the new trainee probation officers that the Government boast about recruiting have already quit. We have a probation service under huge pressure, and the problems of chronic understaffing point to a demoralised workforce and overstretched probation officers. In fact, the probation service is in such a poor state that in the 31 inspections since it was reunified in June 2021, only one has received a report of “good”. The rest were rated either as “requires improvement” or “inadequate”. The Government are simply failing to keep the probation service properly staffed, and these shortfalls could have dangerous consequences. Further pressures caused by the measures in the Bill and the end-of-custody supervised licence scheme have the potential to make matters much worse, and the Government’s strategy appears to be to take the pressure off the prison service, only to transfer it to the probation service instead. That is not good enough.

The Secretary of State has previously claimed that he is giving an additional £155 million a year to the probation service, but he knows—and I know, and this House will know—that that is not new money. It was announced in 2020 as part of the reunification of the probation service, to help the service at that point to recruit staff, bring down caseloads and deliver better supervision of offenders in the community. It is fair to say that that money has not yet resulted in a service that is functioning as well as we would all, I am sure, want to see, and now there is to be a huge increase in its workload as a result of the measures in this Bill.

The Government have provided no new funding, no new resources and no action plan to deal with the significant additional workload for the probation service. That is not credible, not reasonable and not safe. We will be tabling amendments in Committee to push the Government on their plans for the probation service, to ensure that it is working effectively and can deliver these new changes in a way that does not compromise public protection. We have all been witness to the tragic outcomes when the probation service fails, and it is paramount that the staffing and capacity issues in the service are urgently addressed before its workload is hugely increased by the measures in the Bill.

Let me turn to how the suspended sentences will work. In theory, both suspended sentences and community sentences should involve robust conditions that work to protect the public and change offenders’ behaviour, such as a curfew or being prohibited from doing a particular activity or going to a particular area, as the Secretary of State explained in his opening remarks. The Government have been particularly keen to talk up the benefits of unpaid work requirements such as cleaning up graffiti. None of this is new. These types of sentences have existed since the last Labour Government, but we have plenty of evidence that 13 years of Conservative neglect have completely squandered their potential, because we know there has been a huge decline in the use of community sentences during that time, reportedly because judges do not have confidence that conditions such as unpaid work will actually be delivered.

Let us look at the Government’s most eye-catching attempt at a rebrand, the so-called “rapid deployment” unpaid work pilots. These are just the latest example of the Government’s failure to deliver on justice and law and order. This scheme was supposed to see offenders, some of whom are on suspended sentences, deliver 20,000 hours of unpaid work in six months. Four months in and, according to the Ministry of Justice’s own management information, the scheme has managed just over 2,000 hours.

Given the Government’s track record, how can they reasonably expect the public to believe their promise that more suspended sentences will lead to meaningful, properly enforced community payback? Just as we will be pressing the Government on their plans for the probation service, we will also seek to push them to return to the House with proposals to make community sentences effective in respect of both reducing reoffending and, crucially, ensuring public protection.

I am surprised, and I believe the public will be too, that the Government are not specifically excluding any offence from the new presumption that short sentences will be suspended—not stalking, not domestic abuse and not even sexual offences. The main safeguards on which the Government are relying seem to be that the presumption will not apply in cases where an offender has breached an order, or where the court believes that suspending the sentence would put a particular individual at significant risk of harm.

We do not believe that is good enough. It does not protect the next partner of a known domestic abuser—an abuser she has not yet had the misfortune to meet—nor does it protect the many potential future victims of sex offenders and stalkers. We do not believe the courts should effectively be strongarmed into keeping out of prison people who commit predatory and abusive crimes in which vulnerable women are most often the targets. Again, we will return to this in Committee, having tabled amendments to ensure that the courts are free to send these potentially dangerous offenders to prison without having to shoehorn them into the arbitrary and inadequate exceptions that the Bill currently provides. I note with interest that some Conservative Back Benchers would like to see other exclusions in this Bill, and I am sure we will return to that debate in Committee.

We only have to look at media reports to know that not exempting domestic abusers from these proposals could have serious consequences, and I will put two recent examples before the House. Under these new measures, violent offenders such as Brendan Dugan, who launched a torture attack in which he bit his partner on the nose and strangled her until she thought she was going to die, could avoid being locked up. After a disagreement with his girlfriend, Brendan became violent. He threw objects around their home and then started his attack. He pinned her down on the bed with his knees and put a pillow over her head before she pushed him off. He then got on top of her again and strangled her for about 30 seconds, while telling her that he was going to kill her. This man received a 10-month sentence and, under the Government’s proposals, he could avoid prison time altogether.

Similarly, Lee David Smith was jailed for harassing, headbutting and threatening his ex-partner with a knife, as well as for threatening to burn down her house. He received a sentence of eight months and he, too, could avoid jail time under these new proposals. We think such cases are a good reason for further strengthening the Bill, and we look forward to those discussions in Committee.

Although the Government’s recently announced end of custody supervised licence scheme is not included in the Bill, I must take this opportunity, which I believe the Government have been seeking to avoid, to bring some much-needed scrutiny to this emergency measure that is already under way. We now know that the Government are letting thousands of people out early on so-called compassionate grounds. Compassion for whom? Stalkers, domestic abusers and other dangerous offenders. People whom a court has decided should be in prison. All of this, yet again, without a word on how the probation service is supposed to manage the flurry of new demand. I have already written to the Secretary of State to express my concerns about the Government’s absence of transparency on this matter.

The end of custody supervised licence scheme was announced to Parliament and the public in a statement to this House on 16 October, but without a word on when it was expected to start. It has emerged through media reporting and written questions in Parliament that the scheme in fact began the very next day. No details have been published on the workings of the scheme, including in which prisons it is operational, exactly which offenders are eligible and how the risk to the public is being monitored. No numbers of prisoners released under the scheme or of those recalled for breaching their licence conditions in the weeks that it has apparently been in use have been made available.

The Labour Government, unlike this Government, were clear and transparent out of respect for both this House and the public when they introduced the end of custody licence scheme in 2007. The then Justice Secretary announced, from the place where the current one now sits, that he had written to prison governors that day, and he in turn published the guidance that they were using for all to see and scrutinise. However, we have been told by the Minister with responsibility for prisons, probation and parole—the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar)—that there are no plans to publish the guidance issued to prisons. This is an astonishing failure, and the lack of transparency in this matter is a huge mark of disrespect to Parliament, the whole of the public and, indeed, victims of crime. Justice will not be delivered if men who have done real harm are quietly let out when a court intended that they should still be behind bars. Justice cannot be delivered in secret. The Secretary of State has had the chance to come clean on this issue for weeks, but instead he is hoping that no one will notice.

The Opposition believe that prison is where sex offenders, stalkers and domestic abusers need to serve their time, instead of in the community, where the risk to their victims and future victims is simply too high. Under Labour, courts will never be required to suspend the sentence of an abuser or predator who receives a custodial sentence. These offenders will not be allowed out of prison before their intended release date, nor will potentially thousands of offenders be released into our communities without Members of Parliament even knowing it is happening. Again, we will seek to amend the Bill in Committee to make that a reality.

The Bill also introduces measures to let serious offenders—those on sentences of four years or more—go home up to six months early on electronic monitoring if they are deemed “suitable”. Once again, we are assured by the Government that violent offenders, sex offenders and domestic abusers will continue to be excluded, but they have not told us exactly who this will include. What exactly does it mean for a person who is guilty of such a serious crime that our independent courts have judged that only a sentence of four years or more is appropriate to be considered suitable for release perhaps just 18 months later? What does this mean for victims? At the very same time that the Government are assuring them that their rights will be enhanced by the long-delayed and inadequate Victims and Prisoners Bill, victims can no longer be assured that people who have seriously harmed them will serve the prison term they were sentenced to. Once again, there is not a word from the Secretary of State on how the probation service is supposed to cope with all this.

The proposals for whole-life orders are in line with our commitments to tougher sentences for those who commit the most truly heinous murders, and ensuring that those convicted of rape and serious sexual offences serve more prison time. Those are measures that we will support as the Bill progresses. However, let us be clear that those provisions are not the main point of this Bill, and the Government should expect that we will stay focused on the short sentence reforms and early release provisions, as the Bill progresses.

We will not vote against the passage of this Bill today, even if we do believe that the Government owe it to this House and, more importantly, to all our constituents and victims of crime to be more honest about the real reasons why this Bill is before us. These are emergency measures dressed up as principled reforms, and the Government’s own failures have forced their hand. We have grave concerns that too many dangerous offenders have been kept in scope for suspended sentences and early release, and that the vital public protection work of our probation service has been overlooked, with potentially disastrous consequences.

We will be pressing the Government in Committee and beyond to ensure that this Bill has a plan for an effective probation service, that they make sentences in the community truly effective and that the courts will in no way be fettered in their ability to send domestic abusers, stalkers and sex offenders to prison, which is exactly where I am sure all of us in this House agree they all belong.

I shall be supporting the Bill without hesitation tonight, and I hope to do so without indulging in some of the party political knockabout that has bedevilled debate around sentencing and prisons for too long. Frankly, our political system has failed the justice system over many decades, so let us try to step back and put the Bill into context, because context is sometimes lacking in these debates.

For the first time ever, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 set down five statutory purposes of sentencing: the punishment of offenders, the reduction of crime, the reform and rehabilitation of offenders, the protection of the public and the making of reparation to victims. There will always be a balancing act between those statutory purposes, and the way in which the balance falls will vary, perfectly properly, according to the nature of the offence and the circumstances of the offender. As with all sentencing, that must ultimately be decided by our independent judiciary. It is perfectly proper that Parliament sets the legal framework within which the judiciary operate—that is a matter of public policy—but the application of those balances to an individual case will ultimately be decided by the judge or the magistrate, and we have a highly experienced Court of Appeal to put the judge right if he or she gets it wrong in a very small minority of cases. That is part of the checks and balances of our system.

It is equally clear to those of us who serve on the Justice Committee and those of us who, like the Lord Chancellor, have spent the whole of our working lives in the criminal justice system and the criminal courts of this country—both prosecuting and defending—that courts do not, and do not pretend to, sentence in a vacuum. Of course judges are aware of public opinion, so engaging in debate about sentencing policy is legitimate and justified, but we also owe it to the public to do that in a temperate, considered and evidence-based fashion. All too often, I am afraid, we get a bidding war as to who can have the toughest rhetoric around sentencing policy, but toughness has very little to do with delivering impacts on the ground. It is against that background that I think the proposals in the Bill are a sensible package.

Let us look at what the Bill does and does not achieve. The Justice Committee carried out a very detailed piece of scrutiny, and we have published a report, “Public opinion and understanding of sentencing”. In seeking to put some context into the debate around sentencing, we did not just leave it to the views of expert witnesses or our own views as politicians; we made a more extensive effort at public engagement than any Select Committee before us. For example, we commissioned a public polling exercise. Some 2,057 adults in England and Wales were asked about their knowledge of, and views on, sentencing. We also used Involve, a well-established participation charity, to facilitate a deliberate engagement exercise, and we had some 25 adults in England and Wales meet over three half-day sessions to discuss the aims and objectives of sentencing.

The public—perhaps no one can blame them—get very little information about how sentencing works and how the justice system works, so their information is very patchy. As an example, only 22% of respondents were aware that Parliament is responsible for setting the maximum sentence in law for a criminal offence. So if we are to have a proper debate about sentencing, that must be done from a properly informed basis.

We found that the public’s opinions, although sometimes having that lack of information about how sentencing works, showed a certain degree of consistency and common sense about what the objectives of it were. People certainly wanted to see the public protected. They also wanted to see justice done to the victim, and reoffending prevented. Those, again, are all parts of the balance.

It is interesting that when members of the public were asked in the abstract about sentencing, their views on sentencing were much harsher than when they were asked about the facts of an individual case. Some time ago—some Members may remember this—the Ministry of Justice had an online tool called “You be the Judge”. That consistently showed that when people were asked in the abstract what they thought a sentence should be, they would say, “Whack—go hard!” But when the facts of the case and circumstances of the offender were put to them—the very balance that the sentencer must always use—they adopted a much more nuanced approach. Once the public have the proper information, they are not simplistic in their views in the way that some politicians and some of the media like to suggest, so we owe them that proper and informed debate.

The other interesting point that arose was that the public think that prison sentences are much softer than they actually are. A majority of the people we spoke to actually thought that those sentences had got softer or lighter in recent years, whereas the evidence clearly demonstrates that exactly the reverse is true. Sentences for indictable offences have grown significantly over the last 10 to 15 years. We actually imprison more people as a percentage of those convicted of serious offences, and we imprison them for longer. That places very real pressures on our prison system. We must therefore be honest with the public about what the trade-offs are in this regard.

As the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said when he gave evidence to our inquiry, judges are aware that public opinion has hardened in relation to offences of a sexual nature and violence. That is reflected in what the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State is proposing to do in the Bill. The public expect that those who are dangerous will get longer sentences. I have no trouble with that at all, but, equally, £47,000 a year is an expensive amount to be spending. It is money well spent on the dangerous people—as the Lord Chancellor may have once said, imprisonment is really for those we are rightly frightened of; those who are a threat to us. But, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) said, many of the people we have in prison at the moment are there because of many failures in their lives. Those are sometimes self-inflicted, or sometimes a result of circumstances beyond their control that have led to poor mental health, illiteracy, poor education, alcohol and drug addiction, break-up in family relationships early in their lives and chaotic lives. All those things lead many of the people in prison—perhaps the majority—into prison.

That chimes with my own experience in 30 years at the Bar. I prosecuted and defended in serious criminal cases, as the Lord Chancellor has, and I have met some thoroughly evil people in my time; so, I suspect, has the Lord Chancellor—[Interruption.] I hasten to add that that is purely at the Bar and in the courts. I have also met an awful lot of people who came into that category of mixed-up people with failures in their lives. We need to be more nuanced, and in fact I think the public recognise that, when it comes to a sensible approach to sentencing.

I am a little surprised that some colleagues in the House have accused us of being a bit soft in relation to some of these matters. There is nothing soft about the Lord Chancellor’s experience. Dare I say to some of my right hon. and hon. Friends and other Members that the Lord Chancellor has locked up more dangerous criminals, or had a hand in doing so, than anybody else in the House? He need take no lessons from anybody about being tough on criminals. He has done it every working day of his life and has the greater credibility for it. [Interruption.] Terrorists, murderers—you name it. He has actually done the job, rather than pontificate about it from the green leather Benches. Against that background, we ought to give credibility to the proposals.

What, then, do we need to do? It is not a question of harsher sentencing or softer sentencing. That is a sterile debate. What we really ought to be talking about is smarter sentencing. That means locking up dangerous people for as long as necessary and being honest with the public about the cost, but it also means finding better and cleverer ways to deal with those who can be rehabilitated. Not everyone can be, but the majority probably can be. Given how overcrowded our prisons are at the moment—old, Victorian and with too many people in them—it is impossible to do the rehabilitative work necessary to turn lives around. We simply cannot get the education done, and we cannot get the drug and alcohol treatment courses done sufficiently to get people clean. We cannot enable them to come out and get a job, because we simply have too many people in there at the moment. That is not serving the purpose of imprisonment very well at all.

I might make one point in passing to the Lord Chancellor. I referred to the statutory purposes of sentencing at the beginning of my speech. Interestingly, there are no statutory definitions of the purpose of prison. Perhaps we should look at that as the Bill progresses. It might concentrate the mind as to what Governments and Oppositions constructively want to do and what we want as a society from the prison system that costs us so much. We might take that forward constructively—I hope on a cross-party basis—as the Bill goes forward.

Against that background, I want to turn very briefly to the measures in the Bill. Whole-life orders have been discussed. There is a balance to be struck, but my one concern—the Lord Chancellor will know it—is what is the incentive now for a person charged with murder, who is going to get a whole-life order, to plead guilty? That is a trouble because we all know that for a victim to relive an experience in court, or for a family to have the death of their loved one relived in court, eked out over many days, is a real trauma. Therefore, the discount for a guilty plea is an important part in the justice system. It not only speeds up the trial, but above all it relieves victims and their families of a trauma. I would be concerned if we inadvertently created a reduction in the number of people pleading guilty. It is not a high number for offences of this kind compared with other types of offence, but we should bear in mind any unintended consequences.

It seems eminently sensible to extend the home detention curfew arrangements, not least because when they were brought in they related to four years’ imprisonment. Because of sentence inflation—sentences have got longer—the percentage of the prison population sentenced to imprisonment of four years or less and qualifying for early release has diminished. What we are doing, in effect, is catching up with sentence inflation by making release on home detention available, which is eminently sensible. The truth is that if people can make it work earlier, it is all the better. The sooner we can get people reintegrated into society, the easier that will be. Our reports in the past have urged that more be done to ensure that people come out of prison with a place to live and an opportunity to get work. Release on home detention will ease that transition. At the moment, there can be something of a cliff edge. People come out with their discharge grant and very little else—they are on their own. That is why periods of post-sentence release are very valuable, and this is a sensible way to do that.

Finally, let me turn to the presumption in favour of suspending sentences of less than 12 months. The first thing to say is that it is a presumption. Ultimately, it will still be for the judge or magistrate to decide. It is perfectly reasonable as a matter of public policy to say that unless there are exceptional circumstances, short sentences shall be suspended. Ultimately, though, there will be cases in which the judge will, perfectly properly, decide that that is not appropriate.

Let me give one example. References were made to cases of domestic violence; clearly that is something we can look at. A very different case that is often raised with me is that of perverting the course of justice, when someone, for example, tells a lie about who was driving a car when they got a speeding ticket—something not wholly unknown even in this place. The person who gives the lying evidence to the court about that undermines the justice system, and it has been felt that the clang of the prison gates is necessary in those circumstances. There are not many of them, but that is exactly the sort of circumstance in which the presumption would not be used, as well as the other ones that are set out. The provision in the Bill does not change that, but it does mean that generally people would not be sentenced immediately.

The other important difference, to which the Lord Chancellor referred, is that we now have far better control over people when they are on suspended sentences than we did in the old days. The use of suspended sentences has dropped off greatly: I think that now only about 4% of sentences of imprisonment are suspended; it used to be much more. Now that we have much more effective tagging, curfews and alcohol treatment orders, I think we could use them more effectively, because they are a better means of control. So I think the approach is sensible.

On the reoffending statistics, I have to say that I understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) in his intervention, but when I looked at the stats it was pretty clear that they consistently show that there is a lower level, by about four percentage points at the very least, and that that applies whether the sentence is three months, six months or nine months.

Just to clarify the point, the statistics that my hon. Friend cites show that for those who were given a short prison sentence, the reoffending rate after they left prison was 75.6%, compared with 71.5% for those on a suspended sentence, but for somebody who has been in prison for, say, one year, their reoffending rate over that year while they are in prison is zero, so the right comparison is between zero and 71%. If we include the effect of the prison sentence rather than ignoring it, as the Ministry of Justice’s 2019 research does, there is an astronomical difference between the reoffending rate in toto over one year for those who were given a short prison sentence versus those who were not. There is a complete misunderstanding of what the statistics show us.

I am sorry to have to say that my hon. Friend is just plain wrong on that, because that assumes that there is an incapacitation effect, as is sometimes said—

But equally, there is perfectly good evidence to suggest that there is an incapacitation effect of properly worked through and imposed sentences in the community as well, so it is not a zero incapacitation effect the other way round. Plus, there are the other damaging things that are done in prison in terms of the inability to turn lives around, and the majority of people are going to be released.

The other problem, which is not picked up in my hon. Friend’s stats—I do not criticise him for it, but it is a fact—is that short sentences are clearly demonstrated to disrupt community ties. That is important because the three things that are generally said to be best to prevent reoffending are a steady relationship, a home or roof over your head, and a job. If anyone has those and they get a short sentence of imprisonment, the likelihood is that they will lose their flat and their job, and it is much more likely that the relationship will break up, and they then come out in a worse place to avoid reoffending than they started in.

There is, then, good sense in the policy. Of course, we can always examine the stats, but there is a good public policy reason for the change, because it actually reduces reoffending, and if it reduces reoffending, that is in the public good, because fewer people reoffending means fewer victims of crime, and fewer victims of crime is in the public interest and is a sensible use of money. I say that as somebody who has never been a soft touch when it comes to these matters in my professional life. I say it in a hard-headed fashion as somebody who spent their life doing this, and I know that the Lord Chancellor has come to the same conclusion.

I urge Members to support the Bill. It strikes the right balance. These issues are always difficult and sometimes emotive, but I hope that I have demonstrated that balance on the basis of the evidence that I have picked up as Chair of the Select Committee, and I hope we can find common ground on which to take the Bill forward. We have had a very piecemeal approach to sentencing policy over the years, under Governments of all persuasions; we probably need a more holistic approach. The Bill does sensible things and I hope the House will support it.

It is a pleasure to make a brief contribution to this Second Reading debate. I hope to add to points that I have raised during the progress of the Victims and Prisoners Bill. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). He always makes substantial contributions, on these matters and others, to which it is always a pleasure to listen.

In January 2020, my constituent Mike O’Leary was murdered in what prosecutors during the subsequent trial labelled a “carefully planned execution”. His body was desecrated in an attempt to hide the crime. The key bit of evidence that secured the guilty verdict was found only in March 2020, when a search of the murderer’s property found tissue matter that matched Mike’s DNA: a piece of small intestine in an oil barrel.

As I have said in previous debates, it is difficult to imagine the suffering of the bereaved family. Losing a loved one is bad enough, but being unable to process grief with a proper burial or cremation brings extra suffering, as does knowing what was done to their remains. The family have been extremely brave. Discussing the history of the case with Mike’s mother, Val, will haunt me. I knew Mike’s sister, Lesley, many years before entering this place—she has become an active campaigner on victims’ issues—as well as Mike’s wife, Sian, and their sons Wayne, Simon and Phillip. I pay tribute to them all for their strength and courage.

The family have thrown their energy at the campaign for a second Helen’s law. Ministers will remember the campaign for the first Helen’s law, led by the family of Helen McCourt, who was murdered in 1988 at the age of only 22. Her body has never been recovered. Her mother, Marie, successfully campaigned for a law—the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020—to make it more difficult for perpetrators to obtain parole if they do not reveal the location of remains. I met Marie and her husband John to discuss her campaign for a second Helen’s law. They are also an incredible family and a source of inspiration; they find the strength to carry on despite the worst that life throws at them.

Both the families that I have mentioned support a new crime of desecration or concealment of a murdered body, to reflect the extra suffering caused for bereaved families. Another option would be for the Government to revise the sentencing guidelines so that perpetrators of such heinous crimes receive an extra penalty. The families tell me that there is currently no consistency in sentencing. In some cases, murderers receive longer sentences than the killer of my constituent despite there having been no premeditation or effort to destroy or conceal the body. I am sure that Members across the House would agree that desecration or concealment of a murdered body is an additional cruel act that deserves additional punishment and should be reflected in the law. Regrettably, such acts are becoming more prevalent. The law must be used as a disincentive. The Bill is the perfect opportunity for the Government to act, and I hope that Ministers will use it to make it clear that those who commit evil acts of that nature will be punished accordingly.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), who spoke with great conviction on behalf of the families he referred to. I too met Helen McCourt’s mother, Marie, and was involved in work on Helen’s law during my time in government. Such harrowing cases really do shape the minds of those in the Government, be it in the Home Office or elsewhere—the Lord Chancellor will have his own experience—with respect to the human consequences not just of sentencing, but of criminal acts and of the pros and sometimes the failures of the criminal justice system. I will touch on some of those points today.

This is the third criminal justice-related Bill that we have debated in the Chamber in recent days, following the Criminal Justice Bill last week and the remaining stages of the Victims and Prisoners Bill earlier this week. The House will know how strongly I feel about these issues, particularly having been an early advocate of a victims Bill. In debates on criminal justice and sentencing, we must always put victims at the heart of our discussions and reflect on the impact of crime and criminality, and on the effect that the most appalling, abhorrent crimes have on victims and their families.

It will therefore come as no surprise to the House that, although I welcome parts of the Bill, I feel that there is a contradiction in it. On the one hand, it rightly toughens up and strengthens sentences for some crimes—I am very much for that—but on the other, it risks letting some types of offenders off the hook. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) mentioned something that we should reflect on as the Bill passes through the House: which offenders will be listed for early release?

I feel strongly about the whole issue of perpetrators of violence—violent and sexual offenders—full stop, but in particular about those who harm women and girls. The Lord Chancellor has already touched on one of the most appalling cases I had to deal with as Home Secretary, which was the murder of Sarah Everard. The circumstances behind that—the Angiolini inquiry is still taking place—should remind us why we need a system that works in the right way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) spoke about transparency in the system. We need much more transparency in decision making. I say that on behalf of the public, who will have certain views about us—what we stand for and the legislation that we pass in this House. We owe them a better understanding of how the sentences given in our courts are shaped and how our criminal justice system works. As Home Secretary, I sat on the Criminal Justice Board with my Ministry of Justice counterparts, representatives of the legal profession and the Lord Chief Justice, as well as the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon. So much takes place that rightly never sees the light of day, but we should do much more to educate and raise awareness of sentences and the justice system.

When we debate these issues, it is important to remind the House of our public service responsibilities when it comes to law and order. We all stand united on protecting the public. This Bill and previous legislation, in which we have all been involved, will stand the test of time on that. I believe fundamentally that the Government’s first duty should always be to protect our public and the security of our country, and the criminal justice system is vital to that. During the Bill’s passage, we should reflect on what I call institutional state failure, which leads to repeat offences and the cycle of people going in and out of prison. Members have already discussed getting people back into work and off addiction, and dealing with literacy problems. We all stand by that.

However, when it comes to sentencing, we must do everything possible to make sure that we keep the public away from violent criminals and dangerous sex offenders. That must always be a priority. In recent years, we have made significant changes and investment and given significant support as part of that work. The investment in 20,000 more police officers has been vital. We now need to make sure that those resources and specialist work to tackle dangerous criminals and sex offenders dovetail with the criminal justice system. That means more prison places as well. We also need a Crown Prosecution Service that can support more investigations.

I have had the privilege of working with police officers, and meeting and supporting victims of crime. We want to support the extraordinary work of those employed in the criminal justice system, including on the frontline, by ensuring that they have the resources so that crimes are fully investigated and punished. A great deal of work has taken place. On organised crime gangs, county lines have been dismantled, knives have been taken off our streets and we have brought in violence reduction units, which take targeted action in towns across the country to deal with crime and antisocial behaviour. A range of interventions are already making a difference. We must build on those. Notably, in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, we strengthened the punishment and monitoring of sex offenders. That has already been referred to in the debate. We put vigorous sentences in place for serious offenders and stronger punishments for criminals. Those stronger sentences did not exist back in 2010.

I therefore welcome many areas of the Bill. It builds on the Government’s overall record on keeping the public safe. The measures in the Bill on whole life orders and the sentencing of serious sex offenders are absolutely right and welcome. That is what the public expect, and it is right for public protection. The more time such offenders stay in prison, the better all round for public safety and protection. With the expectation that some offenders will spend all their sentence behind bars, I would like some assurances from the Government during the progress of the Bill and when the Minister winds up today, on how we will ensure that the courts still impose lengthy sentences on those offenders. The message about public protection is crucial. With offenders serving all their sentence in custody, courts should not reduce the tariffs to take account of that, and they must take into consideration the nature of the crime and the impact on the victim. Sentences are there to ensure that offenders receive their full sentence.

I have concerns about some provisions in clause 6 on the “Duty to impose suspended sentence order for sentences of 12 months or less”. We have discussed the types of sentences, but as Members know, an offender must already pass considerable thresholds before they are sentenced to immediate custody. Criminals have to commit certain and serious crimes before judges and magistrates send them to prison. That is how the system works.

In my time in Parliament, not only when I was in Government but as a Back-Bench MP, many cases were brought to my attention of offenders committing serious and multiple offences, and yet avoiding custody. From the victim’s perspective, that is unjust. Victims see the system failing them, leaving others susceptible to such crimes as well. In fact, coming back to the point about transparency, many victims simply did not know that their offender had been caught until they read about the nature of the offence, or the sentence, when reported in the news. That is simply not right or fair.

I have also seen statistics on people convicted of sexual offences not getting custodial sentences—sometimes leading to them reoffending. We must absolutely stop that. In one year, something like 43% of people convicted of sexual offences did not receive an immediate custodial sentence. Figures I received back in 2018, for between 2007 and 2017, showed that 13,000 convicted rapists and sex offenders were not sentenced to serve immediate custody. That is shocking in its own right, and even the laws and measures that have come into force since do not address public concern.

However the Bill develops with any amendments, our job is to address public concern, and give people confidence that the system is working for them. We need to ensure that offenders, such as sex offenders who have committed some of the most egregious and appalling offences, including against children, are not just let off prison. They should not be free to be in the community; they should receive the right type of sentences so that people are kept safe. That is a point I want to make strongly in this debate.

Members will also be aware of other concerns that have been expressed to them or that they have heard in other debates, such as those about shoplifting. Other such crimes are having an impact on communities. I am not just speaking about antisocial behaviour; I am speaking about theft and criminality that blight communities. All such criminality frustrates the public when they do not see offences picked up or cases necessarily followed up by the police. That is not acceptable, and we must do more as a party and as a Government to create better public confidence in our criminal justice system. I give a plug to Essex police in particular, who do great work in that area—it is about working to give the public greater confidence.

The whole issue of rehabilitation in prison has been mentioned. Personally, I feel that is one area where there could be much better cross-Government working, whether with Work and Pensions or Education. I have sat on various taskforces in Government where all such issues have been brought together to create an effective and integrated cross-Government approach. We must do more for those individuals. It is simply not good enough for prisoners leave prison on a Friday afternoon and then go on to sofa surf. They do not have accommodation. We need the right approaches in place to make sure that they can rebuild their lives.

As the Bill proceeds through Parliament, we must do better on sentencing outcomes and on outcomes for victims, as well as making sure that people do not go on to reoffend. As a state, we must deal with the institutional failure that has existed for too long to make sure that we can build better pathways for those individuals while making sure that dangerous and persistent offenders are sent to prison and punished for the crimes they commit.

It is a product, I suppose, of living in an age infected with contagious liberalism that people in this place and elsewhere spend a lot of time speaking about freedom. I care about freedom too. I care about freedom from disorder and about freedom from the fear and actuality of crime. I think it was Burke who said:

“The only liberty that is valuable is a liberty connected to order”.

Disordered society is most terrible for those who live on the frontline of crime: those who have to cope with disorder; those who do not live the gated lives of the bourgeois liberal elite.

I approach the Bill with that in mind. Are the repercussions of the Bill likely to lead to a more ordered society, likely to protect people who might otherwise become victims of crime? There is much to welcome. The first part of the Bill deals with serious crime and the sentences it attracts. I am pleased by the further development of longer sentences for people who do terrible, wicked things. There is a caveat, because as you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Home Secretary has always had the power to intervene personally and become involved where he or she believes that a sentence needs to be reviewed or extended, and has done so on a number of occasions to make sure that someone who might otherwise be released stays in prison. Will the Minister say whether that power will be curtailed or affected by the measures in the Bill? Will the Home Secretary still be able to intervene on those rare occasions on which they feel it is right to do so?

That is the best bit of the Bill—the part that deals with those serious crimes in the way I have described. Much of the rest of the Bill is lamentable. I am not going to vote against Second Reading because I think it provides an opportunity for further scrutiny and consideration. However, I am disturbed by the idea of turning all sentences of 12 months or less into suspended sentences. That is not quite what the Bill does, but it is its essence.

Let me explain why. Criminal justice has three primary purposes. The first is retributive. Let us be clear about that—the first principle of criminal justice is to punish people for a harm that they have done. That might be a terribly unfashionable thing to say, but it is what the majority of people in South Holland and The Deepings think, as well as the majority of people in Witham, Grimsby and even Bromley and Chislehurst. I will return to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill)—for I know Bromley and Chislehurst rather well, as I suspect he knows.

If that is the first purpose of criminal justice, does the Bill aid that purpose? To answer that question we have to consider this: is it more of a punishment to lose your liberty—to be incarcerated—or more of a punishment not to? Is it more of a punishment to be deprived of the opportunity to do all the things that you choose to do, or is it more of a punishment not to be? I have to say that in my view—and it is not just my view; it has been the view of almost every society in every civilisation over all of time—the principal way of punishing people is to incarcerate them, to deprive them of their ability to behave in the way they want, freely and openly.

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful point with which I substantially agree, but does he accept that with the rise of technology, there are many different ways of depriving people of their liberty? If we can come up with ways of depriving them of their liberty that also make it less likely that they will reoffend at the end of their sentences, does that not serve a dual purpose, being both the absolutely right moral judgment as a punishment and a way of reducing the number of future victims who will subsequently need to be served by the criminal justice system?

That is a plausible argument, except that having a tag on your ankle is not a deprivation of liberty in quite the same way as being in prison. Being able to go on eating fast food, watching telly and doing all the other things that you might do at home is not quite as much of a deprivation, is it?

Moreover, we have heard this so often before. It is true that technology has moved on and the tags are of a rather different kind, thanks to the work that was referred to earlier, but when tags were first introduced we were told that the technology was such—these things were so secure—that no one would be able to evade their application or use, only to find that all that was wanting. My hon. Friend will therefore forgive me for a certain degree of scepticism—not cynicism. I am cynical about nothing. However, I am sceptical about this.

The second principle of criminal justice is to provide respite for those who have been victims of crime, and others who might be, by taking people off the streets. That is to put the victims and others out of harm’s way by removing the harm—literally taking the harm beyond their purview—which is what prison does. It may be that if these tags work perfectly—if these people are constrained in the way suggested by the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend—I suppose the victims may be protected anyway; but I suspect that people in my constituency and elsewhere who have been victims of some of the crimes concerned would say, “I want these people to be as far away from me as possible, and as far away as possible from my children, my home and my community. I do not want to know these people or see them daily, because they have done harm witnessed by those who live in my locality.”

The third principle of criminal justice is that once you have caught someone, convicted them and sentenced them, you might take steps to prevent them from committing crime again. Of course I understand that. There has been a long-standing debate between those on the retributionist side of the argument, like me, and those on the rehabilitationist side of the argument, like my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who believe that crime is essentially an ill to be treated, and that the circumstances of the criminal—those were my hon. Friend’s words—are more important than the event of the crime.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will gently withdraw the incorrect attribution. What I said was that, as part of the balancing exercise, the sentencer must take into account both the nature of the offence and the circumstances of the offender, which is wholly different.

My hon. Friend did indeed say that, and it is the argument that I have heard repeatedly over decades—that if only we could understand more about the circumstances of the offender, we could dig down to why they ended up like this, and perhaps we could make the world a better place. It is a lovely idea and we can see the sentiments that drive it, which are probably quite noble in many ways.

Frankly, however, these are the arguments that have permeated the debate since the Children and Young Persons Act 1969—my hon. Friend will remember that, but it was before my time—when intermediate treatment orders were introduced. Remember those? The Government then said that, because the circumstances of the offender were of such concern—because these people had had such shabby and difficult lives—they would impose an intermediate treatment order, which is a community sentence in the modern idiom. So young thugs, vandals and villains were sent off on holiday in the Brecon Beacons and such places, while their contemporaries who were law-abiding and just as poorly off—working-class fellows who had done nothing wrong—were lucky if they got a weekend at Margate. That is the kind of thinking that, unfortunately, has punctuated the debate on criminal justice for far too long.

Crime is not an illness to be treated; it is a malevolent choice to be punished, and that is what the public expect. In the paper on this subject by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, to which he drew the House’s attention a few moments ago, he makes this very clear on page 33:

“Lord Burnett of Maldon, Lord Chief Justice between 2017 and 2023, speaking in December 2020, said:

‘To my mind, there has been a perceptible hardening of the public and political attitude to crime, particularly sexual and violent offending, which has resulted in a general shift in the balance between culpability and harm when determining sentence.’”

In other words, to put it in a nutshell, people want those who do harm, damage lives and spoil others’ chances to be treated more severely, not less severely. Frankly, I do not think the Bill meets that test. I do not think that the emphasis on recidivism at the heart of this Bill—as I have said, it is understandable and perhaps even noble—will be welcomed by the vast majority of people, whose position has hardened in precisely the way my hon. Friend’s Committee’s report suggests.

My perspective on the people who commit these crimes is as follows. Let us look at what crimes most commonly attract sentences of 12 months or less. The most common is theft from shops. We have an explosion in shoplifting, as has been highlighted by Members on both sides of the House. It is something we should take seriously and act upon. That is about 13% of short sentences. Then there is common assault and battery. Yes, I agree that it is not grievous bodily harm, as the Secretary of State rightly said, but I suspect most people would feel that common assault and battery should result in a custodial sentence. That is 9% of sentences of 12 months or less. Then there is assault of an emergency worker. Can we think of anything more appalling than that—a fireman or ambulance crew turns up at an emergency and is assaulted by someone? My goodness! That is about 3%. Breaching a restraining order is 7% and possession of an article with a blade or point—in other words, a knife—is 6%. That is the list of sentences that most commonly attract 12 months or less in prison, which is the kind that are now to be suspended.

This proposal neither passes the test necessary to fulfil the key functions of the criminal justice system, nor passes the still more fundamental test of being likely to restore—I say “restore” rather than “maintain”, because I think it is a matter of restoration—public confidence in law and order. If we want once again, as we should in this place, to reflect and give life to public sentiment, frankly, this Bill will have to be amended very significantly indeed.

Disraeli said that

“justice is truth in action.”—[Official Report, 11 February 1851; Vol. 114, c. 412.]

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is a deductive thinker: he likes to look at the evidence and deduce an outcome. I am more of an inductive thinker: I believe in arguing from first principles, so the truth really matters to me. On that basis, I say to Ministers, “Let us amend this Bill. Let us take the best parts of it, and change those things that will not pass either of the tests I have set out.” I therefore reserve my right to oppose it on Third Reading, but knowing this new Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), and knowing our excellent Secretary of State, I rather suspect that they have heard those arguments and taken careful note of them—for I know too that they are the kind of politicians who want to do the right thing, rather than the easy thing.

I rise to support the Bill. If the House will indulge me, I will quote the great Sir Winston Churchill, who, when he was Home Secretary, said in this House in July 1910:

“I shall certainly be very glad to be able to announce…the first real principle which should guide anyone trying to establish a good system of prisons should be to prevent as many people as possible getting there at all.”—[Official Report, 20 July 1910; Vol. 19, c. 1344.]

Of course, we know that he also recognised the need for punishment in the criminal justice system. Notwithstanding that, he emphasised that the punishment should fit the crime, which is the direction in which this Bill goes.

In that famous speech in 1910, Churchill also said:

“A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the State, and even of convicted criminals against the State, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes, and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man—these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.”—[Official Report, 20 July 1910; Vol. 19, c. 1354.]

The language is rather Edwardian, but what he was saying, of course, was that how a nation treats its criminals—its prisoners—is indicative of the measure of that nation.

Those of us who have been in the criminal justice system for so many years want to ensure that punishment fits the crime, but also to ensure justice for all. The Bill puts public protection at the heart of sentencing: for the worst murderers, the only proper penalty is life imprisonment without the possibility of release by the Parole Board. I note that whole-life orders will be the default sentence for any murders involving sexual or sadistic conduct. When I was Attorney General, one of the cases in which I appeared personally before the Court of Appeal involved an application in part to see if a whole-life order was possible, even for something less than murder—it was a case of multiple rapes. That application turned out not to be successful, but I give that as an example of why I approve of the process in the Bill whereby those persons who commit heinous sexual or sadistic murders should receive whole-life sentences.

I note that under the suspension provisions of the Bill, judges will have the discretion to impose immediate custody in other types of cases under 12 months, and that those offenders who pose a risk of harm to a particular individual—for example, in domestic abuse and stalking cases—will rightly be excluded from the presumption. There may be further consideration of this matter in Committee. I cannot help but draw attention to the fact that at the moment, a very large number of racially aggravated offences are taking place around the country, antisemitic incidents in particular. That may be something that Ministers wish to consider further.

The reality is that the Bill can attract support across the board, although I am not sure about the position of many Opposition Members. After all, some 70 Labour MPs signed a letter to stop a deportation flight to Jamaica containing up to 50 foreign offenders. It is right that we bear in mind that the general public expect criminals to be punished according to the offences that they have committed. All sexual and serious violent offenders should be and will be excluded from the scheme—something of which we can all approve.

As a Government, we are currently overseeing the largest expansion to the prison estate for many years, building six new prisons. No one can say that we are not tough on crime. We have created 20,000 prison places, over 5,000 of which are already active, and we have provided £400 million for more prison places. It is right that we need more prison places, so I support that. It is worth noting in this context that crime is down 50% across the board and that there are 20,000 more police officers.

In short, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Bill has my support.

I strongly welcome many aspects of the Bill, particularly the whole-life orders. They would have completely changed the treatment of Colin Pitchfork, who is widely remembered by my constituents for the rape and murder of two children. The reforms in the Bill will ensure that such people never see daylight again, and quite rightly too.

I strongly support the measures in the Bill to toughen up on sexual offences. They are long overdue and reflect the public mood to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) referred. The reforms in the Bill build on successive waves of reform over recent years, including the very welcome move to end early release at the halfway point. There is much to welcome in the Bill, and I admire much of the work of our brilliant and learned Lord Chancellor, one of the most learned people to have occupied that role.

However, there is one aspect of the Bill with which I have a serious problem. I will, of course, vote with the Government this evening—I have always voted with the Government to date, and I hope that I never find myself doing anything other than that. The issue that I am concerned about is the presumption against sentences of a year or less. There is a pragmatic argument that I am ready to hear on this measure, which says that we must do this simply because we need the places. The argument that I cannot accept is that this can make the public safer.

Let me walk hon. Members through the logic. The Ministry of Justice has conducted a study and has matched different offenders into two cohorts. They are like-for-like: people with a similar background who have done similar things. The claim that there is 4% less offending comes from looking at those two cohorts: those who have had a sentence of less than 12 months in prison and those who have had a suspended sentence. It is claimed that there is 4% more offending from those who have had the prison sentence. However, that looks at one year from the start of the suspended sentence, but from the end of the prison sentence.

If we take an offender who has a one-year prison sentence and if, instead of looking at it from the end of that year, we look at it from the start, the comparison is with someone who cannot harm the public because they are in prison. Therefore, instead of comparing the 75.6% reoffending rate after those offenders leave jail with the 71.5% reoffending rate from the start of community sentences, we should—I heard the promise of the Lord Chancellor that he would do this analysis for us, and that is very welcome—compare that 71% reoffending rate of those on suspended sentences with the zero reoffending rate of those who are locked up for a whole year, or the much lower rate of those who are locked up for part of the year. Most normal members of the public would think, “It is very surprising that we would be safer if people who commit serious crimes are out there wandering around in the community, rather than if they were in jail.” Of course it is not intuitive because it is wrong. I am prepared to hear a pragmatic argument, but this junk analysis cannot stand. It is utterly bogus and an abuse of the statistics. It is unbelievably unacceptable.

I am ready to hear a pragmatic argument about prison places. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) said, sentences of less than one year are not for trivial offences. These days, a person has to go some distance to get sent to jail. Many of those offenders, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) said, will have had many previous cautions, suspended sentences and community sentences. In a published paper on super-prolific offenders that I wrote a few years back, I laid out the staggering number of community sentences and suspended sentences. People were getting their 50th and 51st community sentences. This is soft justice, and it does not work. It is a danger to the public. Sometimes a short prison sentence is the right thing.

To rehearse what these people have done: 17% are in prison for violence against the person, 2% for sexual offences, 2% for robbery, 20% for theft, 9% for drug offences, 7% for possession of weapons and 9% for public order offences. These are really serious crimes, and the public do not think we are being too harsh; they think we are being too soft.

Let us put the saving on jail places—the one argument for this that I can accept—into context. Short sentences are absolutely not driving the upward pressure on prison places, quite the reverse. The proportion of people in jail on a tariff of one year or less has fallen from 13% in 2008 to just 6% now. It has halved, so the increasing number of people not getting short sentences has been driving down the prison population.

The estimate in the Government’s impact assessment is that this measure will save, in the central scenario, 600 prison places. Let us compare that with some of the other factors in play. Since 2019, the number of people on remand has risen by about 6,600 prison places, which is 10 or 11 times larger than the saving we are making, and that is because of delays in the courts. I hope we will look at that again.

To put it in further context, the number of foreign national offenders in our jails—foreign national offenders comprise about one in eight of all the people in our jails—has risen by about 1,200 prison places since 2019, which is twice as large as the saving we are making through this measure. In fact, the saving of 600 prison places is much smaller than the 1,900 additional places that the Ministry of Justice brilliantly created between last autumn and this summer through things like the rapid deployment cells.

If we look at it in that context, it cannot be impossible for us to find a better alternative to this measure. I understand that there are exemptions, and that those on orders will not be subject to this measure, but the problem is that many people with many previous convictions are not on an order.

By reading between the lines of the Lord Chancellor’s statement, I detect a willingness to look at this again for knife crime offences, and I hope we will have a much more wide-ranging review of the policy because, ultimately, I do not believe for one second that it can make the public safer, that it is what the public want or that there is no alternative. We have already shown that we can move quickly to increase the number of prison places.

We could look quite radically at things like jury trials to speed up our courts and the archaic practices that are causing the huge growth in remand that is driving us towards these decisions. We could look again at what we can do with rapid deployment cells to get more capacity. I am happy to look at anything, whatever it takes, but I do not believe this measure is at all desirable, even though it is part of a Bill that contains many things that are desirable.

I hope that the Lord Chancellor and the Government will look at this again and that, by Third Reading, we will have a better Bill that every Conservative Member can wholeheartedly and proudly support.

There are parts of this Bill that I am sure my constituents will welcome, including the stronger sentences for serious criminals and the inability of people to be released early on parole, but there are areas that my constituents and I have serious concerns about, particularly with regard to the presumption of suspended sentences for crimes that attract a sentence of 12 months or less. I am particularly concerned about home detention. The word “home” is not about detention. Home is about home comforts; it is about people being able to do what they want to do, whether they have a tag on or not.

We know that repeat criminals, which most people who have home detention and home curfew are, have clever ways of working the system. In Grimsby and places like Grimsby, somebody who has a tag will find a way, through coercive control, of getting their partner to commit crimes, or get criminal associates to come to their home so that they can carry on their criminal behaviour. I also have constituents whose children and grandchildren have been coerced into committing criminal behaviour, because they are the ones who do not have a criminal conviction—yet. Quite often, those who are seen as minors will not have anything serious done to them with regard to sentencing, and they are being encouraged, either through payment or perhaps a lack of violence, to continue the criminal activity.

I am particularly concerned about some of the examples that have been given, and I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for speaking to me about this yesterday. Yes, if somebody works hard for a living and they have made some mistakes and need help, we do not want to prevent them from being able to live in their house or apartment. We do not want them to lose their job or to be unable to carry on positive, healthy relationships with people, but my concern is that people who are on benefits and who are not working in legal jobs will be able to be at home doing pretty much whatever they want and working the system. My constituents would like to see those people doing visible community service to pay back to their victims and repair what is going on in the community. We need it to be long-term: community service orders of 200 hours are, frankly, derisory; community payback sentences should be 1,200 hours. It should be a year long so that it is inconvenient and involves things that people do not want to do.

We also need to stop the merry-go-round, operationally, that follows legislation. People in Grimsby know that offenders such as these often end up on a merry-go-round involving every state-funded service, but they do not take them seriously or do not take an active part in them, because they know that they do not have to. That costs the taxpayer huge amounts of money, but this is about not just the monetary cost but the cost to the community.

We have just passed the Victims and Prisoners Bill. What about the victims here? My constituents want to see that somebody is being inconvenienced and having to work hard to pay back. We have heard that people’s circumstances can result in their becoming a criminal, but lots of people come from those same circumstances and do not make the choice to become criminals and it is about time we started thinking about them. We need to make it clear to people that criminal behaviour is unacceptable, and ensure that they go out and visibly do good activities, with people watching them and keeping control of them. The reality is that if somebody is at home, they are on the internet, watching television, meeting their criminal friends and laughing at the rest of us.

What my hon. Friend is talking about is stigma. There must be some stigma. Stigma is very unfashionable in the modern age—even to mention it is probably regarded as politically incorrect—but we have to stigmatise people who do really bad things among their contemporaries. If we do not do that, they will carry on with impunity.

My right hon. Friend is, as always, absolutely spot on.

We need to start having these kinds of discussions. In my constituency of Great Grimsby, we have people who are repeat offenders in aggressive retail crime who are getting away without having to do anything positive to pay back society. Colleagues talked earlier about people who have a reading age equivalent of nine or 10 and who must improve their literacy. I have worked in further education for over two decades, and what happens with state-funded organisations is that people will be told, “Go and see a person who will help you with mental health issues. Go to a person who will help you with learning to read and write. Go to the probation office to register where you are.” These people do not go there. They cannot be controlled in any way, so it becomes extremely expensive and is a derisory way of using taxpayers’ money.

I and my constituents want there to be no home detention so that people have to get up in the morning to go and do their community service. They should be seen to be doing it, and they have to be doing it for the amount of time that they would have been inconvenienced by being incarcerated through any other sentence. Otherwise, it will not work. We will end up with an extremely expensive system where nothing works properly. Instead of sending people to go and improve their literacy, we should get them to work off their crime and learn how to read and how to interact with other professional people and what it means to be socially positive in those situations. They should not be sitting in pretend classrooms for hours and hours not doing anything.

We know that positive work and having positive role models in society is what will turn people round, but the proposed approach to sentencing will end up being an extremely expensive way for people to play the system and continue the merry-go-round. I would like the Lord Chancellor and the Front-Bench team to think seriously about what the majority of people in our communities would like to see.

I will concentrate in my speech on two issues: first, sentencing; and secondly, suggestions to stop reoffending, particularly among the young. This is not a catch-all but just an idea, which could come with other ideas.

I welcome the parts of the Bill that will ensure those who pose the greatest danger to society will be locked up and off our streets. The end of the automatic 50% remission for those who commit heinous crimes is also to be welcomed, but why does this not apply to everyone? If someone is sentenced by a judge to a term, it should be served in full. Surely we want prison to be a deterrent, so letting those convicted of a crime out halfway through their sentence makes no sense, nor is it a deterrent.

We have a crisis in our prisons, exacerbated by the fact that there are not enough prison places, and magistrates and judges have to consider carefully whether to send those who commit lesser crimes—although such crimes are not lesser to those who are affected—to prison or to give them a suspended sentence, a community order, a tag or perhaps all three. As has been said succinctly by at least two colleagues tonight, a repeat shoplifter, for example, cannot go on stealing while they are in prison. I am very concerned about the presumption against prison for those sentenced to less than 12 months for many reasons, not least the pressure on the probation service, which does a wonderful job. Frankly, I do not like statistics, and I guarantee that the victims of crimes, however great or small, will feel differently about that presumption. I recall as journalist covering a story about an old lady who had been robbed. She was aged 80 and had been married for 60 years. Her husband had died, and a burglar took all her belongings out of her house. She died of a broken heart a month later.

Only recently, to much sneering from those on the Opposition Benches, I advocated national service for those who need a hand up. This is an example of where a 50% measure could be used. A young person serving a sentence of, say, three or four years, if behaving properly, could be offered, at the halfway point, two more years in jail or two years in the armed forces. I trained young men myself for two years, and it was surprising how easy it was to turn the often rudderless into fine young soldiers who we were proud to serve with—and, if necessary, die with. In many cases, the family unit is so broken that the state should step in—a move that I, as a Conservative, instinctively disagree with unless the circumstances are exceptional. Nowadays, I feel that they are in some cases. For many of our struggling young, all they need to turn them into law-abiding citizens—I have seen it—is leadership, discipline and a structure to operate in. This is not rocket science.

In 1994, the Airborne Initiative was launched in Lanarkshire, Scotland. For 10 years, specialist social workers and outdoor recreation experts took hundreds of male criminals aged between 18 and 25 and combined outdoor physical activities with counselling for youths who had not responded to conventional punishment and rehabilitation. A former colleague in this place, Sir Jim Spicer, brought the initiative to the former young offenders prison on Portland. I recently opened a new jail museum there, and when I interviewed all the old prison officers, they all said that the borstal system worked. In some cases, it was abused by rotten officers, but, in the most part, it was proven to work. The young people were given the discipline and the structure, and they did not come back.

Sadly, the successful Airborne project—a five-day residential course on Dartmoor—was stopped. I believe that it went to HMP Feltham, where I am not sure if it still runs. That simple initiative worked, and the Government would do well to expand the project, particularly for young people across the prison estate and those who have committed lesser crimes, to give them a chance to learn how to get on with others in challenges and all the other things that outdoor activities provide, just as part of their rehabilitation.

I wish it were not true, but we, the Conservative party, should not be in the position we find ourselves in. If we cannot keep our citizens safe from those who would do us harm, something has gone seriously wrong.

For the public, there are probably two things that matter most when an offence is committed against them: whether the criminal is caught and, if they are, what sentence they get. Thanks to the Government’s substantial investment in policing, we now have almost 21,000 more police officers than in 2019, with close to 800 of those in my local force, Thames Valley. It is of course relatively easy to see the impact of those extra officers, but perhaps less straightforward to appreciate changes in sentencing policy. The Bill adds some welcome clarity to sentences, especially for the most serious crimes, which will help to increase confidence in sentencing.

I should point out that prior to my election to this place I spent 12 years as a magistrate. In that time, I sentenced many offenders, imposing everything from a discharge to a custodial sentence. I also had the privilege of serving for approximately 18 months on the Sentencing Council. Those experiences taught me one crucial thing: sentencing is an art, not a science. It is imperative that all the facts and circumstances of every case are considered in their own right. That can be done only by the judge or magistrates who have heard the details of the individual case, and about not only the impact of the crime on its victims, but the reasons why the offence was committed and the background of the offender, not as an excuse for their criminal behaviour but to try to prevent a repeat of that behaviour.

As the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), outlined, there are five purposes of sentencing, which are set down in statute. I fear that too often we focus only on the first of those: punishment. Although that must absolutely be a very significant element of a sentence, I suggest that it cannot, in a civilised society, be the only one. I believe that in order for us to see less crime and far fewer victims, reform and rehabilitation are crucial. There will be some cases in which that is almost impossible, but in the majority of cases there is hope—there is the prospect of an offender turning their life around, living a life free of crime and making a positive contribution to society.

I was also previously a member of the independent monitoring board at HMP/YOI Feltham, a member of the Youth Justice Board and a non-executive director of what was then Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. What all that means is that I have been into many, many prisons over the past 18 years. In every single one of them, I have been impressed by the brilliant staff and the amazing efforts that they make day in, day out, both to protect the public and to reform the lives of their inmates. But I have also been acutely aware that, quite simply, prisons are often not the ideal place to achieve rehabilitation. There are many reasons for that, but among them is the fact that there is often a shortage of appropriate staff to provide training and new skills, or simply that a programme that an individual prisoner needs is not available in their particular prison. That is especially the case with short custodial sentences.

For those reasons, I welcome the Bill’s shift to a presumption to suspend custodial sentences of 12 months or less. Let us be absolutely clear: a suspended sentence is still a punishment. It will invariably contain conditions and requirements. It is simply inaccurate for the tabloid newspapers to claim, as they so often do, that someone has walked free from court with a suspended sentence, as if there had been absolutely no consequences for the crime. That simply is not the case.

Let us also remember that any suspended sentence can be activated. The offender can be sent to prison immediately if they commit a further offence while serving their suspended sentence or, indeed, if they breach the conditions or the requirements attached to the suspended sentence order. There is, then, the absolute safeguard that, where necessary, somebody can be sent into custody. In fact, I worry slightly about whether the ability to do that might ultimately end up undermining the intent of the Bill. If we find that, in fact, an awful lot of suspended sentences are activated, Ministers may at that point need to think about how to address that problem.

I am pleased to see that the Bill extends the use of home detention curfew for those serving sentences of four years or more. In my very short time as a Minister in the Ministry of Justice, I asked officials to look into that. I am glad that it has been followed through and is now in the Bill, because HDC can be incredibly useful in easing the transition from custody to life back in the community. The simple reality is that the longer somebody has spent in prison, the more they need that period of transition, so the extension of eligibility is sensible.

I should also point out that it will, of course, be necessary to ensure that the probation service is properly resourced to support the additional offenders who will be serving their sentences in the community. Probation staff do an outstanding job, as I have seen for myself on many occasions. We must make sure that there are enough of them and that they have all they need to do an effective job in helping to reduce crime.

Although the increased emphasis on suspended sentences and an expansion of HDC are welcome steps, we could be even more innovative in our approach to sentencing. For example, we could use technology much better, with far more comprehensive use of GPS tags for the right offenders. I worked with the Centre for Social Justice to devise a new sentence called the intensive control and rehabilitation order, and I invite Ministers to peruse that at some point.

I have a couple of concerns about one or two aspects of the Bill, particularly the impact on young adults of the decision to make whole-life orders the starting point for certain offences. It is now widely accepted, including by the Ministry of Justice, that maturity is a process that continues until at least the early 20s. That has not yet been completely reflected in the criminal justice system and we need to do more work on it, especially on sentencing.

That aside, I believe there is much to welcome in the Bill. It clearly demonstrates that the Conservative Government are determined to tackle crime and provide the most appropriate sentences for offenders. I look forward to its rapid passage on to the statute book.

I find the wording of the Bill quite curious. I will limit my remarks to issues relating to suspended sentences under 12 months. The sentencing code is amended to add:

“The court must make a suspended sentence order in relation to the sentence where this section applies unless the court is of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances”.

As a lawyer, I know that if we had 10,000 lawyers here, they would give us 10,000 different definitions of what “exceptional circumstances” means. But the court can take into account those that

“relate to the offence (or the combination of the offence and one or more offences associated with it) or the offender”—

so, if a court finds a fact about the offender or the offence that falls within the general definition of exceptional circumstances, it can impose an immediate custodial sentence—and

“justify not making the order.”

I hate to break it to colleagues, but that is actually what happens in the courts now; there is very little difference. This is an attempt, rightly or wrongly, to encourage some magistrates in some parts of the country to impose fewer immediate custodial terms.

The Bill will not stop custodial sentences being imposed for offences under 12 months. As I said in my intervention on the Lord Chancellor, it would be utterly bizarre if that were the case. Over 17 years, I represented thousands of people in the criminal courts and the vast majority of cases were drug and shoplifting related. I represented people with 400 or 500 convictions—the full gamut of offending—who never complied with an order in their life and literally had hundreds of failure to comply with court orders. What magistrate in the world is going to think, “I know what we’ll do, we’ll impose a suspended sentence”? If a characteristic of the offender is that they do not carry out the order imposed on them, the magistrate is not going to impose it in the first place.

If there is something particularly abhorrent about an offence—this is why I have some sympathy with what those on the Opposition Front Bench were saying—there will be an immediate custodial term. What I do not like is the debate that we should treat some crimes differently from others. Yes, there is a full range of seriousness in terms of offending, but if we are getting to the point where we are saying that for some you can get an immediate custodial term and for others you cannot, then I think that is nonsense. We have to be realistic.

When we are dealing with people in the criminal justice system, we are dealing with broken, fallible individuals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) said, we are dealing with people and their lives and motivations, and all the other things that go into making them, at a certain time and point, commit a criminal offence. In this Chamber, we never, ever discuss what, in my opinion, could deter crime: work when children are growing up, a stable upbringing, and a set of values that they can carry with them through their lives, whether through education or parents, of whatever type. That is what matters.

Having a debate and judging whether we as a Parliament are successful on criminal justice by how long we send people to prison is utterly preposterous. What is the point in that? It is like we discuss money in this place: “We’ll send you to prison for 15 years.” “No, let’s go to 16 or 17 years.” That is not the point. The point is to allow our independent judiciary, within the sentencing framework we set down—bearing in mind that none of us will be in that court, none of us will know what motivated the person and none of us will know the circumstances—to make the decision that they want to make.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) made some very telling points. We cannot run away from the fact that this legislation is about prison numbers. However, it is fair to say—I repeat something that has been said—short-term custodial sentences are decreasing. One thing I am proud of is that under this Government longer-term sentences of 10-plus years for the most serious offences are increasing. We are having an impact on the most serious offending.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is that non-custodial sentences are, frankly, often pathetic? They are not inconvenient enough, or do not make such a change for people that they are deterred, without custody, from offending.

I agree. We cannot have a debate about criminal justice simply on the basis that everyone should be sent to prison; there has to be some form of alternative sentence. My experience over 17 years, however, is that none of it works—little or none of it—because this is about the individual.

I have not met an individual—unless they are suffering from severe mental health problems—who does not know what they need to do with their life to be a better person or to not commit crime, whether that is to stop taking drugs or drinking alcohol, or whatever it is. The vast majority of people who appear in court are not demented fools; they are intelligent, articulate people who are choosing not to make the correct decisions that could put their life on a more even footing. The range of sentencing options, such as a curfew, or all the types of modern technology we talked about, are nonsense. They will not make a blind bit of difference to anyone’s behaviour.

The point I am making is that the criminal justice system is, by its very nature, fallible. It will never be efficient or give us the outcomes that we want. The idea that any MP in this place could set up a structure that will deal fairly with every offender that appears before the courts is absolutely for the birds. My view is that the Bill does not make much difference to the position we are in. It is not something that colleagues should get overly concerned about, because having spent 17 years in front of magistrates, I can tell the House that they will still send people to prison on the basis of this Bill. A few people might well get a chance, with a curfew or something like that, but they will breach it in five minutes and will be sent to prison.

Under the Bill, someone is forgiven for the first breach, but they go to prison for the second breach. Whatever happens, they will go to prison at some point, because most of them breach the order that is imposed in the first place. I support the Bill because I support—

Is my hon. Friend saying that the Bill is inconsequential? If it is inconsequential, why do we need it? The Bill is either as bad as I think it is, or it is as harmless as he thinks it is. Either way, we do not want it.

Frankly, it allows our independent judiciary and magistrates, sitting throughout the country, to make decisions based on the individual circumstances of the case. I think it still allows them to impose an immediate custodial sentence in the vast majority of circumstances. I have read out the legal test, which can be applied any which way we want.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong to steer our independent judiciary away from this? Many people in the judiciary complain like mad if we suggest higher sentences or greater automaticity. They say, “No, we must have judicial freedom and independence.” Should we not be giving them the same for short sentences? Also, does he agree that sometimes a short prison sentence—say, a year—can give a community great respite from an individual who often causes huge terror and misery in that community?

I agree. That is why such sentences exist and have been used for the past 30, 40 or 50 years. Since the ’90s onwards, prison sentences have gone up on a steep curve, but what can we do if someone shoplifts repeatedly? This is the other fantasy about people in the grip of drug addiction who are shoplifters. There is a common sense approach: “Let’s put in place a rehabilitative order.” But they are not in any position to apply for that rehabilitative order. If we let that person out of custody, they will commit a criminal offence.

The Minister wants to wind up, so I will bring my remarks to a close. The only point I am trying to make is that, for me, the legal test that goes along with the suspension allows the courts in 99% of cases to still impose the sentence they think is appropriate.

I will try to be brief, and will pass quickly over clause 1 of the Bill, other than to welcome it. It delivers on our manifesto commitment to have tough sentences for the most serious crimes. Also, it finally delivers on the contract that was struck with the British people back in 1965—when capital punishment was repealed, the quid pro quo was life imprisonment. That, however, has never been the case—life imprisonment for serious murder—so the whole life order delivers on that original contract. I welcome the clause for that reason alone.

I move on to clause 6, which much of this interesting debate has been about. It is absolutely right to say that there is a balance of competing forces. The criminal justice system has to balance punishment with the reduction of reoffending. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) that there is a moral perspective to punishment: society expects that people who commit crimes will receive punishment and wants them to see the physical consequences of crime. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) is right, too, that when a perpetrator is behind bars, a community experiences physical relief, and that is a common good. But—and it is a big “but”—those benefits have to be balanced with systems that lead to a reduction in future reoffending.

Although we have been arguing a little about the details behind the evidence, the overwhelming weight of the evidence that I have seen is that short-term prison sentences do not lead to reductions in reoffending—in fact, quite the opposite. Although there are benefits to prison sentences, and I have named a couple, there are costs as well. One is that we perhaps turn a small-scale offender into a much more detailed offender because they will meet and mix with the wrong kind of people, and lose their jobs, homes and relationships—all the binding elements of community membership. When they come out, they are statistically more likely to reoffend. That is a cost of prison, and we should not shy away from that. We should recognise it.

I have looked up the data about the effectiveness of sentencing options on reoffending from the Sentencing Council, an arm’s length organisation, which says:

“The evidence strongly suggests that short custodial sentences under twelve months are less effective than other disposals at reducing re-offending. There is little evidence demonstrating any significant benefits of such sentences. Indeed, there is a reasonable body of evidence to suggest short custodial sentences can make negative outcomes (such as reoffending) worse.”

I will not. I am so sorry, but I have only a couple of minutes.

The quote gets to the nub of the matter. I am a deductive reasoner; my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, who is no longer in his place, says that he is an inductive reasoner. Just because someone is an inductive reasoner does not mean that they no longer look at the data. We need to do both. It is because I have been looking at the data that I support the Bill.

I will be relatively brief. As a member of the magistracy who spends time sentencing—in fact, I was sentencing last week on a whole range of issues that come before the Merseyside bench—I am acutely aware that the British public, including my constituents, want to ensure that the criminal justice system is fair and proportionate and fair to victims as a principal concern. Today we are debating a Bill that will strengthen those principles by making sure that the most serious offenders receive tougher sentences that reflect the severity of their crimes. The Bill will remove from society those who pose the greatest danger to the public while also reducing the rate of reoffending by lower-risk criminals.

Too often, I see familiar faces in the courtroom and I want the Government to do much more to take steps to break the cycle of reoffending. That is not just a matter for the criminal justice system; it is for every part of the Government, in particular the Departments for Work and Pensions and for Education. We can do much more to break the cycle.

The Bill introduces a presumption that sentences under 12 months will be suspended, punishing and rehabilitating offenders by using technology to deliver and enforce tough curfews and work in the community, where they can begin to repay their debt to society. Of all the announced measures, the presumption against an immediate short-term custodial sentence in favour of a suspended sentence or community order is particularly relevant in magistrates courts. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) said just a moment ago, that is essentially the approach that we already take in the magistrates court, where, even if the custody threshold for an offence is exceeded, the practice is for magistrates to consider in the first instance whether a suspended sentence or community order would be far more appropriate.

Magistrates consider a range of facts and sentencing, and they do not sentence in an isolated form. The first thing they do is look at the antecedents of the criminal before them. If that criminal has a long list of previous convictions, they are more likely to go back to prison because that is the way magistrates operate in their courts. Magistrates follow very detailed sentencing guidelines. They work tirelessly to ensure that there is consistency across all courts and to consider the statutory aggravating and mitigating factors, and they look carefully to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. However, it is important that magistrates retain the discretion for immediate custody if neither a suspended sentence nor a community order is suitable. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is aware of that.

I will conclude by touching on two other brief points. First, on prison capacity, I recognise the importance of extending the prison estate, and the Minister has very kindly notified me that Thorn Cross Prison in my constituency is likely to see an increase of 76 prisoners as a result of the increased use of rapid deployment cells once planning permission has been granted. Can the Minister confirm that an appropriate increase in staffing will follow? That prison has had significant issues with drugs being delivered into it. When the Lord Chancellor was prisons Minister, he spent time meeting my constituents to consider that particular area. Can the Department confirm that the relevant experienced prison officers will come alongside the additional prisoners?

Can the Minister also confirm that there will be no change in the type of prisoners that are held there? There had been discussions about holding sex offenders who are coming to the end of their sentences, but it was then decided that that would not happen. The prison is in very close proximity to a school, so I would be very grateful if the Minister ensured that that does not happen.

I welcome the provisions in the Bill, which will put public protection at the heart of sentencing. The Government are taking an evidence-based, long-term approach to sentencing to ensure that we are tough on violent crime, committed to reducing reoffending, and doing what is needed to keep the public safe.

We have had a good debate on the Bill, started by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), and the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood).

There have been a number of interesting contributions, starting with the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), who made a typically thoughtful contribution to our proceedings. He is against politicising the issue of sentencing, but I am sure that he would agree that that does not mean that His Majesty’s loyal Opposition should not scrutinise the Bill in depth, or look in detail, as we intend to do in Committee, at the matter of early release of offenders involved in crimes such as domestic abuse and sexual offences. He accepted, I think, that the prison estate had been allowed to deteriorate so far that, in its current state, rehabilitation has, in his words, become almost “impossible”. His suggestion of a statutory “purposes of prison” definition was an interesting one that we in the Opposition would certainly be interested in discussing with him further.

That was followed by a speech from the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who I thought also made an extremely thoughtful contribution to the debate. She agreed on some points with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, and we would very much be interested in exploring that further with her as the Bill progresses, particularly the issue of which offenders are listed for early release.

We then had a contribution from the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes)—he and I are old jousting partners from the days when he was on the Opposition Benches and I was on the other side—who described the Bill as “lamentable” and said that he was in despair about it. He said that, when it came to crime and punishment, he was on the retribution side and was less committed to the rehabilitation side of the argument. I know that he is a big fan of poetry, so I am sure that he will recognise a bit of poetry if I quote it at him:

“I never saw a man who looked

With such a wistful eye

Upon that little tent of blue

Which prisoners call the sky”.

Prisoners go to prison as punishment, in our view, not for punishment. We might not see eye to eye with the right hon. Gentleman on what he said but, as ever, it was an interesting and thoughtful contribution.

We heard a contribution from the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis), who quoted Churchill extensively and said that the language was “a bit Edwardian”. I wasn’t sure whether he pointed that out because it was a bit too modern for him. He went on to say that 20,000 prison places have been created. We challenge that. I will not go into it in great depth, but in our view it will be only 8,000 by 2025 in net terms, which is 60% short of the Government’s plans.

The hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) was critical of the methodology the Government have used to justify the presumption of suspended sentences for under 12 months. He admitted that people were spending too long on remand in prison, which is a source of a lot of problems in the prison estate. Many of those people turn out to be not guilty at the end of the process. That is a particularly pernicious fact, and it is a result of the Government’s failure to deal with the backlog in the courts.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici) called for visible community service and expressed concern that taxpayers’ money was being wasted on many of the current schemes because of the failure to operationalise them properly. Ministers will have heard her remarks.

The hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) said that he was concerned about the presumption of suspended sentences for under 12 months because of pressure on the probation service. He is right about that. If the probation service cannot provide a full service to those who are allowed out on early release, it is difficult to see how the measure will help to reduce crime. He called for the return of national service and borstals. We used to call them colleges of crime when I was growing up. He provided anecdotal evidence for their being an effective means of dealing with youth justice. I would be interested to see harder scientific evidence in that regard. In his very last remark, he said that something has gone seriously wrong with our criminal justice system.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) made an extremely thoughtful contribution and told us of his experience from 12 years as a magistrate and from serving on the Sentencing Council. He said that sentencing is an art, not a science. His expertise showed in his contribution, which was interesting to listen to. He told us about his short time as a Justice Minister. That might be the only example of a decision by the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), that should not have been reversed after her departure. Given the quality of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, he was possibly the best ministerial appointment during her short tenure.

The hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly)—again, he brought great experience to the debate—said that he had sympathy with some of the points the Opposition are making about short sentences and so on. I agree with him that we should focus on the early years. We used to say when we were in government,

“tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”.

He is absolutely right—until we get into the weeds of the causes of crime, we will never break the offending cycle.

The hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) said that the danger of short-term sentences was that they would turn small-scale offenders into greater offenders. He cited evidence for that in his very effective contribution.

The hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) told us of his experience as a magistrate and of the need to break the cycle of reoffending. He asked for reassurance that there will be additional prison officers in his local open prison when numbers are expanded there, and he was quite right to do so.

Another day, another Department of Justice Bill before the House—or, as I call it, the Department of Justice Delayed. As our debate draws to a close, let us consider the gravity of the task at hand. This Bill is supposed to be rectifying problems in our criminal justice system, which is beleaguered by overcrowded prisons, an overstretched probation service and the dire consequences of the past 13 years of mismanagement. Over those 13 years under the current Government, we have observed the unfolding of what can only be described as a penal catastrophe. For over a decade, they have promised a robust and rigorous approach to law and order, but when it comes to justice it is the evidence that matters, and the evidence is clear beyond reasonable doubt.

We were assured that there would be 20,000 new prison places by the mid-2020s, but as of today, less than half are on track to meet that deadline, and the totality of that pledge will not see fruition before 2030. The prison estate is at 99% capacity because the Government have failed time and again to act on warnings about capacity and overcrowding, and now they are using this rushed Bill as a sticking plaster over a gaping wound. The job is certainly not done: the situation has reached the desperate state where judges are compelled to delay sentencing hearings for people on bail, leaving convicted criminals to roam our streets. The Bill is not a proactive measure, but a reactive one—a response to a crisis that has been foretold and ignored. It seeks to introduce a presumption that sentences of 12 months or less will be suspended; as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood said, that is something we will explore in great detail in Committee.

I will not detain the House much longer, because I know there is a statement to follow, but the Government’s narrative is one of a pivot towards rehabilitation and community sentencing. However, the reality is a narrative of necessity. The Government’s own impact assessment estimates an increased caseload of 1,700 to 6,800 cases due to more suspended sentences, and at least 850 due to the expansion of the home detention curfew, yet there is no corresponding increase in support for the probation service, which is already on its knees. How can we expect a system to rehabilitate people when that system itself is in need of urgent repair?

The proposed changes to short sentences raise grave concerns. No offences have been ruled out of scope, regardless of their nature. That means that even known stalkers, sex offenders and domestic abusers could be managed in the community, posing a risk to new and past victims alike—as my hon. Friend the shadow Justice Secretary rightly pointed out, it could be new victims who are targeted by those offenders. That is not what justice looks like. My hon. Friend mentioned cases of violent offenders who could avoid being locked up under this proposed legislation. I will add another example: that of John Gallagher, who strangled his partner and punched her in the head several times. She was screaming, thinking that she was going to die. He said to her, “If I can’t have you, no one can,” before trapping her in a bathroom overnight. This man received a nine-month sentence; under the proposed legislation, thanks to this Government, violent offenders just like him could avoid prison.

The Government have been quick to proclaim their commitment to protecting the public from serious offenders. They speak of extending whole-life orders and ensuring that those convicted of the most serious crimes serve their full sentences. Those are measures that we can support, but beneath the veneer of the tough rhetoric, there is an inconvenient truth: the prisons that are required to house those offenders are not materialising. The Government have not just moved the goalposts, but taken them down entirely. In their place, we are being offered a vision of electronic monitoring and home detention curfews—a vision in which serious offenders could be released up to six months early. The Government assure us that violent offenders and those convicted of sexual offences will be excluded, yet fail to provide clarity on what constitutes “suitable” for release. The ambiguity surrounding this crucial definition is not just a matter of semantics; it is a matter of public safety. What does it say about our commitment to victims and to public safety that those who have inflicted great harm could be deemed “suitable” for early release?

Now we learn of the Government’s scheme to release offenders early on compassionate grounds, but it is a policy shrouded in secrecy, lacking the scrutiny of this House. This clandestine approach to justice is unacceptable. The British public deserve transparency, especially on matters that will have a direct impact on their safety and wellbeing. Let us not forget the Government’s botched privatisation and subsequent renationalisation of the probation service, which has done nothing but exacerbate the problems in our justice system. Probation is in such a dire state that of the 31 inspections by HM inspectorate of probation since reunification in 2021, only one has received a good rating. That is a damning indictment of the current Government’s ability to protect the public and rehabilitate offenders.

The Labour party offers a different path—one of strategic foresight, and one that ensures that decisions about the running of prisons and probation services are driven by public safety, not political expediency. We take a different view from the Government. We believe in a justice system that is fair, robust and, above all, transparent. We recognise that to break the cycle of reoffending we must invest in our probation service and make it a beacon of rehabilitation. We understand that to truly protect the public, we must ensure that prisons are places where offenders can be securely housed and effectively reformed, within a justice system that stands as a testament to our values, not a monument to failure.

As this is the first time I have faced the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) across the Dispatch Box, I would like to start on a point of agreement. I agree with him that this has been a strong and thoughtful debate, and I am grateful to all those who have spoken.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor said when he opened the debate, the Bill builds on our record of cutting crime, and it will protect the public and cut crime even further. The most dangerous offenders will remain behind bars for longer, and we will take action to prevent those who have committed low-level offences from falling further into lives of crime. Right hon. and hon. Members have raised a wide range of points and questions. Unfortunately, in the time I have I will not be able to respond to all of them, but I am of course happy to engage with Members individually later—[Interruption.]

Order. There are a lot of Members entering the Chamber, for reasons that are apparent, who have not taken part in or heard this debate. I hope the House will do the Minister the courtesy of listening to his winding-up speech.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will respond to Members I do not mention individually either in writing or in person, especially on any points that I miss.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), who opened the debate for the Opposition, started her remarks by saying that the Government are doing nothing to address prison places. It is true that the prison population has risen under this Government, and that is because more people are going to prison for longer under this Government. It is not true to say that the Government are doing nothing about prison places. We have set about the largest prison building programme since the Victorian era. We have set about building 20,000 new prison places, backed by £4 billion of investment, and we have delivered 5,500 of those places already, with a further 2,000 coming on line later this year. By the end of 2025, we will have delivered over 10,000 places in total. We are building six new prisons. HMP Five Wells and HMP Fosse Way have opened in the last two years. HMP Millsike is under construction in York, and three further prisons in Leicestershire, Buckinghamshire and Lancashire are going through the planning process.

The hon. Member went on to attack us over probation. She is right that some prison capacity measures will increase the demand for probation, but we are committed to ensuring that probation has the resource it needs to meet demand. This year we have already increased funding for the probation service by £155 million, to recruit staff, bring down case loads and better deliver the supervision of offenders in the community. We continue to focus on recruitment and retention, and we have accelerated the recruitment of trainee probation officers to increase staffing levels, particularly in areas with the most significant staffing challenges. As a result, we have increased staffing in the probation service by over 4,000 people since 2020.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood finished her speech with the claim that Labour is in favour of tough sentences, but the fact of the matter is that Labour has opposed every single measure this Government have introduced since entering office. It was Labour that introduced the halfway release point for serious offenders under section 244 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, and it was Labour that voted against us when we toughened sentences for serious offenders.

Labour voted against our Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, preferring to keep dangerous criminals on our streets rather than behind bars. That Act introduced whole-life orders for child killers and life sentences for drivers who kill while intoxicated, ended the automatic release of dangerous and violent sexual offenders, and gave the Secretary of State the power to refer to the Parole Board high-risk offenders who would otherwise be automatically released. Labour voted against all of that, so we will take no lessons from them.

The hon. Member for Cardiff West ran through the list of speakers. I will not do the same, but I will pick out a few. The Chairman of the Justice Committee and my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), gave a characteristically knowledgeable, thoughtful and balanced speech, substantially supported by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler). He set out the statutory purpose of prison, and he suggested that we should have smarter sentencing—we will look at that. He also made the sensible point that short sentences disrupt community ties, relationships, jobs and home life, and that the loss of these can lead to greater reoffending.

On short sentences, I make it clear that we are not abolishing sentences of immediate custody. There is no proposed ban. The courts will retain wide discretion to impose immediate custody in many circumstances, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) correctly observed. Where a sentence is suspended, the courts have a range of robust powers to ensure that offenders are effectively managed, including electronic monitoring to ensure that curfews of up to 20 hours a day are observed, and exclusion zones so that they stay out of areas where they are most likely to get into trouble. There are also various high-tech solutions, such as alcohol tags that are so sophisticated they can take a reading of an offender’s sweat every 30 minutes to make sure they are confronting the issues with alcohol that landed them in trouble in the first place.

It is also true that more than 50% of those who are sentenced to less than 12 months will go on to commit another offence within one year of their release. When offenders are given suspended sentences in the community, with conditions, the reoffending rate is much lower at around 24%. The Ministry of Justice’s own robust evidence suggests that similar offenders, given community sentences or suspended sentence orders, are four percentage points less likely to reoffend than those sentenced to short custodial sentences. That might not sound like a great deal, but it could mean that up to 21,000 fewer offences are committed, meaning that fewer of our constituents become victims of crime.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) rightly mentioned remand and how the significant rise in remand is contributing to prison demand. There are various reasons for the increase in remand, but the court backlog driven by the pandemic and the subsequent Bar strike are substantial reasons. We are doing everything in our power to bring down the backlog, but he will understand that the judiciary is fully independent. It is not within our gift to dictate which cases are taken to court. Nothing in this Bill diminishes our efforts to reduce the backlog and reduce demand pressure. I will be happy to meet him to discuss this further.

Protecting the public from crime is our top priority. The most effective way to do that is to reduce the amount of crime being committed, which is why we are introducing the presumption to suspend short sentences. The Government are taking resolute, evidence-based action to ensure that low-level offenders break the cycle of offending, because reoffending devastates communities and creates more victims.

The measures concerning whole-life orders were welcomed on both sides of the House. These measures will ensure that the very worst murderers will spend the rest of their lives in prison. There will be no possibility of release by the Parole Board for such offenders. By making those changes, we are sending the very clear message that for the most heinous, horrific cases, a whole-life order will be the correct sentence. That can only be prevented if the court believes that there are exceptional circumstances—and they would have to be exceptional circumstances—that would make such a sentence unjustified.

Murders of a single victim that involve sadistic or sexual conduct will also be punishable by the imposition of a whole-life order—again, unless there are exceptional circumstances. Such offending is so serious, and causes so much anguish to victims’ families and wider communities —as we have seen following the brutal killings of Zara Aleena, Sabina Nessa and others—that it is only right for such perpetrators to be locked up for the rest of their lives.

A number of Members referred to sexual offences, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel). I will focus on rape. Rape is a uniquely serious crime and one that causes terrible trauma for its victims, so it is right for those found guilty of rape, and other equally serious sexual offences, to be subject to a punishment that reflects the severity of their offending. These measures will ensure that rapists serve the whole of their custodial sentences behind bars. They will no longer be subject to any automatic or discretionary early release, but will have to spend every single day of their custodial term locked up, as directed by the court. That will be followed by a robust period on licence during which such offenders will be supervised by the probation service and will be subject to a possible recall to custody if their risk cannot be safely managed in the community.

It is clear from the debate that there are strong views on the Bill, but it is the first stage of a legislative process, and we welcome engagement from Members on both sides of the House as we seek to strike the right balance in sentencing. I personally can see the merit in ideas such as reviewing some measures and perhaps even a power to switch them off, and it is right that we consider the use of these measures carefully. Having heard the points raised by several Members about knife crime, I will look closely at that issue.

Our aim is to ensure that we can keep the most dangerous offenders in prison for as long as necessary to keep the public safe from harm, while ensuring that sentences do not trap the redeemable in a revolving door of offending. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Sentencing Bill:


(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Proceedings in Committee, on Consideration and on Third Reading

(2) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House shall be taken in the following order: Clause 1; Schedule 1; Clauses 2 to 6; Schedule 2; Clause 7; Schedule 3; Clauses 8 to 11; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill.

(3) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion five hours after their commencement.

(4) Any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion six hours after the commencement of proceedings in Committee of the whole House.

(5) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House, to any proceedings on Consideration or to proceedings on Third Reading.

Other proceedings

(6) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Aaron Bell.)

Question agreed to.