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Community and Suspended Sentences (Notification of Details) Bill

Volume 745: debated on Friday 23 February 2024

Second Reading

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

I am delighted to rise to bring this Bill to the House today. It is an important but focused Bill that will amend the 2020 sentencing code to create a duty on offenders to notify the responsible officer of any change of name or contact details if they are sentenced to a community order, a suspended sentence order, a youth rehabilitation order or a referral order.

The Bill will place a new duty on offenders who are serving a sentence in the community and who are being supervised by the probation service or a youth offending team to ensure that any change of name or contact details is notified to the relevant responsible officer. That captures not just any formal legal changes of a name, but the use of an online alias. Offenders will need to notify their responsible officer of any change as soon as is practicable. My Bill will apply to adults and child offenders alike, so that we can create some form of consistency across all offenders who are on licence. Importantly, it will extend to offenders serving community sentences.

In 2022, secondary legislation was passed requiring offenders on licence to inform their probation officer if they changed their name or contact details. The Bill will help to ensure consistency across the sentencing framework and that offenders serving community sentences have their risks managed effectively. For those offenders who are serving community orders, youth rehabilitation orders and referral orders, the requirements contained in the Bill will last for the whole duration of the order while the offender remains supervised by probation or their youth offending team, until it reaches the end date set by the court, or is otherwise terminated. For suspended sentence orders, this requirement will last for the period when the offender must keep in touch with probation. Once the offender is no longer required to keep in touch with probation or the youth offending team, this requirement will also end.

Failure to comply with the duty will be treated the same as failure to comply with the requirement of the order. An offender could be taken back to court. When an order is returned to court, the court can make the requirements of the order more onerous, impose a fine or even sentence the individual to custody. The management of offenders in the community is of the utmost importance to protect people in Newport West and across the United Kingdom and to reduce reoffending.

It is vital that probation and youth offending teams have the information required to be able to effectively manage offenders in the community, and the ability to take swift enforcement action where needed. The Bill will improve the ability of probation and youth offending teams to monitor offenders. It will help to protect the public by ensuring that while an offender is serving a sentence in the community, the responsible officer has the information they need to keep an eye on that individual. As I have noted, that requirement already applies to offenders released from custody, so I believe it is important to ensure that the same requirement applies to offenders serving sentences in our community.

As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on safeguarding in faith communities, I have heard harrowing accounts of offenders who have changed their name—legitimately, at present—by deed poll and then gone on to commit harrowing offences again and again. That is not acceptable.

The people of Newport West elected me to this place in April 2019, and since then, I have sat through many a Friday sitting, listening to detailed and, on occasion, lengthy opening remarks on Second Reading. In the hope of getting this Bill speedily through to the next stage of its journey in this House with support from colleagues on all sides, I will bring my remarks to a close shortly.

In supporting the Bill, this House has an opportunity to improve the ability of probation and youth offending teams to monitor and support offenders in the community as effectively as possible. Most importantly for me, it allows us all to better protect the people who sent us here—the British people. Keeping our people safe, from Newport West to North Down and from Newcastle upon Tyne Central to North Devon, is our most important responsibility as Members of Parliament. With that in mind, I urge colleagues from all parts of the House to give the Bill their full support today.

I am very pleased to be supporting the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). I am what would be typically referred to as a Tory wet, which means that I do not think locking up everybody is always a panacea for everything. Community centres have an important role to play; not only do we have a particularly crowded prison estate as it is, but the prison estate is not the best place for the rehabilitation of offenders who have shorter sentences because their crimes are their first offence or relatively minor. If we are talking about a proper lag or villain, then let us lock them up for 20 years, but fundamentally we should be trying to get people into the habit of improving their lives. We should be creating productive citizens.

I support the Bill very much; the hon. Lady has alighted on an important point. When somebody leaves a custodial sentence, there are rules and regulations in place to ensure that they do not change their identity or somehow get around the system in order to reoffend, although there will be some who go on to reoffend. There will sadly also be those who go on to reoffend after having had one of these non-custodial sentences. By applying to them the same regime that applies to people who have been in the prison estate, we are not introducing a new special punishment and they are not under any extra burden. They are being asked to comply with a perfectly sensible regime. I therefore very much welcome what the hon. Lady has done.

We will all know of at least one or two heartbreaking cases from our constituencies where the system has not worked quite as it should. When I first started in this place, I met the family of a constituent who had been murdered by somebody who was out on parole. There had been a similar issue with identity: documents had been lost; meetings were not taking place. This man had basically just disappeared into the ether of the system. I cannot guarantee that, had the safeguard in the Bill been in place, it would have saved my constituent’s life, but it certainly would have made it much less likely that a little boy was left without his dad and parents were left without their son.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing this Bill, and I look forward to supporting it.

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) for bringing this important Bill to the House today, and I congratulate her on its Second Reading. What my constituents in Truro and Falmouth want and care about above all else is the ability to live in a safe and hospitable community. The way that we deal with those who break that safety or our laws and disrupt our towns and villages is incredibly important to them; it is one of the most important things that they need to feel safe, and it comes up time and again when I am out and about talking to my communities. However, not everybody who commits a crime is considered dangerous, and I am therefore pleased that we have levels of punishments that are appropriate to each crime.

Before I go on to what this Bill might mean to the people of Truro and Falmouth and Cornwall and beyond, I want to say a little about women prisoners and offenders and why the Bill will be so important to them. In Cornwall, the nearest women’s prison is His Majesty’s Prison Eastwood Park, which is in south-west Gloucestershire. For those who are not from the south-west, that may sound close, but in actual fact it is nearly 200 miles away from Cornwall. A low-level woman offender who happens to have a small baby or child, or is pregnant, will potentially have to move 200 miles away from her children. Courts understand that these days, and they want to keep women who are not a danger to society nearer their families. Levelling up the submitting of names and contact details, as offenders would if they were in prison, is therefore another safeguard that courts will have in their back pocket in cases where they wish to give a low-level sentence to somebody who, for whatever reason, they need to keep track of.

Maternity imprisonment impacts an average of 17,000 children each year. By keeping criminals with a sentence of less than 12 months in the community, we are able to prevent hundreds of children from being brought into our prisons and growing up in those unsuitable and unstable environments. It is much better for children across the south-west to live in their communities and grow up with a parent who has clearly given back to the community, albeit through an imposed sentence. Making clear connections between crime, the community and the locals who are affected means that both parents and children will be more aware of the impact of crime.

It is no coincidence that our police and crime commissioner, Alison Hernandez, is leading the charge in Devon & Cornwall police with combined treatment orders, which deal directly with mental health issues, alcoholism and drug addiction for those with community sentences. They keep people out of toxic prison environments where such flaws are likely to be exploited and made unmanageable, and instead support the criminal in the community with regular treatment and programmes. Tackling these factors is essential to reducing reoffending rates and repairing the routes of addiction that may have contributed to people finding themselves in a position where lawbreaking became an option. Helping to rebuild lives is the best way of ensuring that they continue to feed back into their local community. The south-west was the first region to secure funding for mental health treatment requirements as part of a community order. That is because we work as a team in the area—again, led by Alison Hernandez. The work of the Plymouth team in particular, as part of the original pilot schemes, has been held up as good practice to the rest of the country.

There is an opportunity for community payback to expand, hopefully under the Immediate Justice funding of about £500,000 that will come to Devon & Cornwall later this year. Our police and crime commissioner is determined to get offenders filling potholes. Again, we will be working as a region, and we think that it will be rewarding work, building on the precedent achieved in Devon where it has been done by volunteers.

People may think that this does not matter to life in general, but community orders are seen as being important to the community in other ways. In Cornwall everyone knows everyone else, and if someone is seen to be having to pay back to their local community, there is a slight issue of peer pressure. People do not want to be seen doing this, so it can be used as a deterrent. It is different in cities, where people do not know others in their locality to the same extent.

St Agnes parish council, one of the proactive parish councils on the north coast of my constituency, has taken advantage of payback schemes to improve local amenities. People have been sweeping the library building, and litter-picking, weeding and hedge-cutting around the library car park and on the verges. They have been painting benches, cutting back the ivy on buildings owned by the parish council, cleaning noticeboards and bus stops, pressure-washing to deal with slippery pavements, painting toilet blocks and the lych-gate at the Garden of Rest, cutting grass, painting the equipment in Beaconsfield play park, implementing the installation of water pipes, and maintaining the allotment site at Mount Hawke. Those are really useful jobs, and fabulously innovative when parish councils are strapped for cash. Local people who have fallen foul of the law but are not a danger to society are doing something brilliant for the local community. However, as I said earlier, the Bill will level things up so that these people are still recognised as being under a sentence, albeit not a custodial one.

I hope that the Bill will also help those who are covered by Clare’s law. People who are convicted of domestic violence but not seen as a danger to the rest of society are often not given custodial sentences, which is quite frustrating for me and for others in my position. Under Clare’s law they must be on a register, but sometimes, as we know, they change their identities and move to another part of the country or their locality. I should like to know from the Minister whether the Bill will help to strengthen Clare’s law for those who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

This is a very useful little Bill. It is hard to argue with any of it, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) for introducing it.

When I was reading about the Bill, I immediately thought of a case that I had encountered a couple of years ago—I was already a Member of Parliament at that time— which resonated with elements of it. That case originated in an email from an individual. The name that came up on my computer was different from the email address, which was itself different from the name used in the sign-off. Let us just say that the email in question was not necessarily sympathetic to what I thought was the fine work that I was doing in North Norfolk. As a fairly nice chap, which I consider myself to be, I wrote back to the individual and said, “Of course, I will meet you.” I did my own bit of research—MPs’ security is very pertinent at the moment—to discover, from the three different names that I was given, who that individual was. I do not want to give too much away—doing so would reveal that person’s identity—but I found out who they were, and they had served a prison sentence for a crime and were now out. I shall not go into the nature of their crime, but it immediately rang alarm bells, and I contacted the police to request their presence at my surgery.

When reading about the Bill, and how people on community sentences are weaved into it, I thought that that case was pertinent. There are individuals out there who are hiding behind aliases—effectively trying to be anonymous—to contact and meet MPs and other public officials, so this is a good Bill. It is ironic and incredible that in today’s life, in which everything we do is tracked by our smartwatch, mobile phone and Alexa—other brands are out there—people cannot be found. Of course, if someone is using an alias and trying not to be detected, those things can clearly happen.

One reason I thought this Bill so important is that it reminded me of the experience of my friends in the Probation Service. In his remarks, will the Minister set out whether the Probation Service can cope with the additional workload required by the Bill? Tomorrow is the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A year ago, I took generators to Ukraine. It takes about nine hours of solid driving to get from North Norfolk all the way across to Ukraine. When driving a Transit van that far, one gets to know one’s cab mates pretty well. I was sitting with a friend who is a probation officer. After hours on end, when every other possible conversation between two blokes had been exhausted—many of which cannot be repeated in the House—we started to talk about his life in the Probation Service. It made me realise just how tough and important a role that is.

In my previous career—I will openly admit that I was an accountant—I had absolutely no idea about the criminal justice system, and did not until I became an MP. The comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) about being a Tory wet were really interesting. I am probably a bit of a Tory wet, but I did not realise it. Before I was an MP, I certainly was not, but now, having learned about the criminal justice system, I have far more awareness of just what the hard-working men and women in our prison service do, and they are quite phenomenal in their roles. After that small conversation about the Probation Service with my friend while travelling to Ukraine a year ago, and with much more understanding of the criminal justice system today, I have far greater awareness of and respect for what those men and women do.

My first trip of this year, on 3 January, when we were in recess, was a visit to HMP Bure, a category C men’s prison in my constituency, right on the border. It is home to 643 prisoners and is run by Governor Rhoden and the other fine men and women who work there. All the strands I have talked about today were conceptualised when I went on that visit, because I realised just how tough a job those working in prisons do, and that rehabilitation is so important. I had been completely unaware of what those incredibly hard-working and decent men and women do behind the scenes. For a few hours, I got to see what prison life is like, what prisoners do and how their rehabilitation works. I admit that I had not taken into account that I would see prisoners on bicycle mechanic courses, art courses and welding courses, which prepare them for life outside prison, and give them a skillset, so that they can find employment.

Again, I want to place on the record—I have said it a few times—my thanks to the hard-working men and women at HMP Bure. They are not respected enough in society, or paid enough, for the hard work they do, and the conditions are not always good. One of their biggest concerns is their retirement age. There is campaign to lower it from 68; perhaps the Minister could comment on that. Is it in the public’s interest or fair that police officers retire at one age and prison officers at another, much older age, which is 68 for new intakes? These people are on their feet all day long, and often put themselves at high risk. In a civilised society, we need to look at their retirement age.

I am astounded to hear that it takes only nine hours to get from Norfolk to Ukraine, given that it takes five hours to get from Westminster to Cornwall, but that is a different matter.

I agree with all my hon. Friend’s points about prison officers. Does he agree that asking somebody who needs to use their physical strength in their job to work until they are 68 is often quite a big ask?

I do, which is why the retirement age needs to be looked at properly, in the context of the retirement age for those in similar roles in society, such as police officers. Getting from Norfolk to Ukraine involves nine hours’ driving a day over about two and a half days—my apologies if I did not make that clear. I went through Holland, Germany and elsewhere. It is a long way; let me put it like that.

I will finish there. I again thank the hon. Member for Newport West for introducing a very interesting Bill. It feels like complete common sense, and I hope it is supported.

I am back again—this time on the Front Bench—for a third outing today. I apologise for my ubiquity. It is a pleasure to support this Bill, which was presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). I congratulate her on her success in the private Member’s Bill ballot.

It really is a great day for the Welsh. By the sound of it, this will be the third Bill from a Welsh Labour Member of Parliament to gain support from across the House and receive its Second Reading today. For those who say that MPs from the devolved nations do not play a role in this place, the proof that they do is the fact that these three Bills have reached this stage today. I thank everyone across the House for their support for our Bills, and it is a pleasure to support my hon. Friend’s Bill from the Front Bench.

I thank Members who have contributed to the debate, including the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), who, like me, has been on his feet a lot today, and the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who I would never have guessed was an accountant in a previous life, as he revealed in the debate. He spoke with a lot of compassion and sense, and he mentioned probation, which relates to a point that I want to make in my brief remarks. Twenty years ago—I was here—the last Labour Government introduced community orders and suspended sentence orders in their current form. They were designed to be robust alternatives to prison in cases of less serious offending. It has been disappointing to note that the use of community sentences has declined sharply, particularly in the last decade, and particularly between 2012 and 2022.

In 2017, a survey of magistrates found that over a third were not confident that community sentences were an effective alternative to custody, and two thirds were not confident that they cut crime. It is plain to see that more must be done to strengthen the confidence of the courts and the public that sentences served in the community are effective, appropriate and, above all, safe. That is particularly pressing given the Government’s proposals in the Sentencing Bill—we are waiting for Committee of the whole House, hopefully soon—for a new presumption that all sentences of less than a year will be suspended unless there are exceptional circumstances, such as the breach of a previous order, or a risk to an individual.

The Bill before us makes an important contribution to that effort. It will require offenders serving community or suspended sentences to alert their probation officer or youth offending team if they change their name or contact details. The question is how these necessary measures will be properly enforced while the Government continue to load more and more pressure on to the probation service, without giving it any additional resource. Sentences served in the community can be effective only if there is a functioning probation service rooted in the area that can enforce sentences and keep offenders on the right track.

I am sure that the Minister can see that our probation service is already critically understaffed, undervalued and overstretched. Probation workloads are soaring. Almost 50,000 working days among probation staff have been lost to distress, with 68% of probation officers rating their case load as unmanageable. More and more experienced prison officers, who were also mentioned, are leaving the service, and there are over 1,000 vacancies for probation staff. A recent watchdog report warned that such understaffing is having a devastating effect on delivering the good outcomes that the Bill is intended to support. In September, the annual report of His Majesty’s inspectorate of probation said that 31 inspections of probation delivery units had been completed since the probation service was reunified in 2021, and only one unit was found to be good. The rest were rated either “requires improvement” or “inadequate”.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West for bringing forward the Bill and urge all Members to support it as a necessary step forward. I challenge the Government to ensure that the probation service is given the resources that it needs to ensure that the reforms are successful, and that the public remain protected, as they and the courts expect. I call on the Government to affirm their commitment to enforcing the crucial measures in the Bill when it becomes law.

I thank the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) for bringing forward the Bill. I am grateful for the support of the Opposition. I will address some of the comments that the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) made, although I do not necessarily agree with his characterisation of the probation service.

Let me start with the main thrust of the Bill. It will place a new duty on offenders who are serving a sentence in the community, and who are being supervised by a probation or youth offending team, requiring them to inform the responsible officer if they begin using a different name or change their contact information, including telephone number or email address. We have a separate youth justice system, but it is of equal if not greater importance that youth offending teams are able to keep tabs on children and have the right information about them to do their job. We welcome the fact that this policy applies equally to offenders of all ages, and will create consistency across offenders on licence and offenders serving sentences in the community who are overseen by probation services or youth offending teams.

The offender will be required to comply with the requirement while their order is in effect and has not been revoked or discharged. For suspended sentence orders, the requirement will last for the period for which the offender must keep in touch with probation. For offenders serving community orders, youth rehabilitation orders and referral orders, the requirement will last for the whole duration of the order, while the offender is supervised by probation or their youth offending team, until the end date set by the court is reached, or the order is otherwise terminated.

Sentencing in individual cases is a matter for our independent judiciary, and the courts have a broad range of sentencing powers to deal effectively and appropriately with offenders. They can impose discharges, fines, community sentences, suspended sentences and imprisonment. This Government are clear that delivering public protection means imposing custodial sentences when the offence is so serious that custody is justified. It is worth noting, however, that even when that threshold is met, the court should consider whether a community sentence would be more suitable in a particular case. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) talked about some of the challenges on the women’s prison estate, including the prison’s distance from home. Clearly, that is a factor that the judiciary can take into account.

My hon. Friend also mentioned Clare’s law. My understanding is that the Bill does cover those covered by that law, but I will double check, so that I do not mislead her or the House. I will write to her and place a copy of the letter in the House of Commons Library.

In many cases, there is persuasive evidence that suspended and community sentences can be more effective than short custodial sentences in reducing reoffending. More than half of people given a custodial sentence of less than 12 months reoffend within a year. For offenders punished with suspended sentence orders that are served in the community, the reoffending rate is much lower. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) was making that point when he said that sometimes prison does not work and, in fact, makes things worse.

Under our sentencing framework, there is the flexibility to choose from and balance a range of community-based requirements, such as unpaid work, drug and alcohol treatments, curfews and electronic monitoring, with the intent of punishing the offender, ensuring reparation to the community, and addressing any criminogenic—that is a new word for me—or rehabilitative needs of the offender that might give rise to an increased likelihood of reoffending. Rigorous community offender management is vital to build confidence in the orders made, and to deliver effective rehabilitation while keeping the public safe.

The shadow Minister mentioned the probation service. I can reassure him that we share his commitment to making sure that the probation service is effective and is funded appropriately. We value its work, which is why we are investing an additional £155 million a year in the service, so that it can recruit record levels of staff, and are investing up to £93 million in community payback as a way of complimenting that. I would like to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who raised the same points. In December 2023, recruitment numbers for band 4 probation officers were up 6.3 % on the previous year, and the numbers for band 3 probation officers were up 2.1% over the same period. We are confident that our probation service can deal with this issue.

However, I must point out that in the Bill, the duty is on the offender, not the probation service. Colleagues will see the words “duty of offender” repeated throughout the Bill. It is loud and clear that it is the responsibility of the offender to comply, and if they do not, they will have to bear the consequences.

As well as the investment in the probation service, there has been £532 million invested through the Department of Health and Social Care to increase substance misuse treatment provision in all local authorities in England. Of course, that will be devolved in Wales. Dedicated criminal justice staff have been recruited to increase the quality of treatment and assessment delivery. We believe that this approach dovetails with ensuring that community sentences support people with other issues.

The effectiveness of community sentences relies on probation and youth offending teams being able to manage offenders in the community successfully. That means having the right information about them. We agree that the Bill helps to strengthen the means that probation and youth offending team services have at their disposal to monitor offenders, but I reiterate that in the Bill, the duty rests with the offender. The Bill builds on secondary legislation passed in 2022, requiring offenders on licence to inform their probation officer if they change their name or contact details. We welcome the Bill from the hon. Member for Newport West, and we will continue to do all we can to assist its passage. In my view, these provisions are robust, and while the name or contact details change could be for valid reasons, they require any difference from what is being kept on file to be reported. They capture not just formal, legal changes of name by deed poll, but—for example—the use of an online alias, another issue that my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk highlighted.

As I have set out, we recognise the importance of ensuring that the public are protected, that rehabilitation can be effective, and that there is confidence in non-custodial sentences. That means ensuring that offenders managed in the community are being properly monitored by the probation service, with the ability for that service to take robust enforcement action where necessary. We agree that this Bill will make sure that our probation and youth offending teams undertake that monitoring effectively by ensuring that, while an offender is serving a sentence in the community, the responsible officer has the information that they need to keep tabs on that individual.

I will end by again congratulating the hon. Member for Newport West on bringing this Bill before the House. I am grateful to the official Opposition for their support of the Bill, and I place on record my thanks to the officials at the Ministry of Justice for assisting the hon. Lady in drafting it.

With the leave of the House, I rise to close the debate. I thank everybody who has taken part today for the atmosphere of co-operation and consensual politics—it is very different from what happened earlier this week. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson); I agree with him that the “lock them up” philosophy is not always the way forward, and community sentences are a vital part of our punishment options. I was recently fortunate enough to go to Cardiff Prison with the Welsh Affairs Committee, where we saw for ourselves prisoners who might be in for just seven days. Seven days is not long enough to do anything useful in terms of rehab or breaking the cycle of offending, so the points that the hon. Member made were very important.

I thank the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for her very important points about female offenders and the distances involved. We do not have a single prison for women in Wales—I am not saying that we should have one but, like her constituents, those women in Wales have a long way to travel. That means women being apart from their families. That is disruptive, and it is very costly to visit. If anyone is in any doubt about female prisoners, they should watch “Time” with Jodie Whittaker; it is a very powerful series.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) made an important point about aliases and social media. I am sure we have all had issues with people who have had different names on emails; it is a concern that I share. He also highlighted the importance of staff working in the criminal justice system. I, too, pay tribute to those staff and thank them for all their efforts.

I thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan)—I hope he can put his feet up on the plane to Dublin after this, because he has been very busy today. I also thank the Minister and the team in the Department. The Minister rightly highlighted that the responsibility for reporting a change of details is on the offender; it is very important that we know that. Finally, I thank the Whips, the Public Bill Office and Adam Jogee in my office. This week has seen our Parliament—the mother of Parliaments—at a low point, but I wish the media could be here to see and feel the atmosphere today. I am not a fan of adversarial politics; I believe consensual politics is the way forward. That has been the case today, and I thank the House for it.

I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).