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Justice: Non-custodial Sentences

Volume 751: debated on Thursday 23 January 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of non-custodial sentences on the safety of the public.

My Lords, those who commit serious and dangerous offences should expect to receive long custodial sentences and this Government have ensured that tough sentences are available. Less serious offenders can be effectively and safely punished in the community. However, we have amended the law so that sentences served in the community combine punishment with effective rehabilitation. Since 2010, those who break the law are more likely to go to prison, and to go to prison for longer.

I find that very hard to believe. How can the Government claim to be tough on crime when a Ministry of Justice Answer in the other place revealed that in 2012, of 16,000 criminals convicted of rape, sexual assault, manslaughter, grievous bodily harm and robbery, all crimes characterised by violence, according to the government figures 9,600 of them—that is, 60%—walked free without even a custodial sentence and sometimes without even a tag, while nearly 40% of those convicted actually served less than 24 months in prison? These are serious crimes. How can people feel safe in their home or on the streets of Britain in the light of these statistics?

My Lords, this Government take the view that the sentencing of a particular offence is best left to the individual judge, who has knowledge and appreciation of the particular facts surrounding the commission of an offence. There are guidelines and, as the noble Lord will be aware, recent sentencing guidelines on sexual offences provided by the Sentencing Council, an independent body. If he cares to read those sentencing offences guidelines, he will realise how lengthy the suggested sentences are. If, in a particular circumstance, a judge passes a sentence which is unduly lenient, of course the Attorney-General can take that unduly lenient sentence to the Court of Appeal for review.

My Lords, while there is concern that those sentenced to a non-custodial alternative may reoffend, is it not right that the courts should send to prison those whose reoffending makes any other course unacceptable, and that those who are sent to prison should stay there no longer than is strictly necessary?

My Lords, I speak as someone who sat as a recorder—a part-time judge—throughout the period of the previous Government, and deciding whether or not to send someone to prison is the most difficult task that we perform. Sometimes people have to be sent to prison; on other occasions, it is considered possible and sensible, in the long term, to provide them with the opportunity of rehabilitation within the community. This Government are committed to providing constructive things for people to do while they are being rehabilitated in the community, and I agree with my noble friend.

My Lords, can the Minister update the House on the progress of the pilots for sobriety schemes as alternatives to custodial sentences for alcohol-fuelled crime?

I believe that there will be an announcement shortly on that but I am unable to give the noble Baroness precise details at this moment. When information is available, I will write to her.

My Lords, given the risks to the public, highlighted by my noble friend’s supplementary question, and the potential difficulties in managing offenders whose risk category may change, why are the Government not properly piloting their controversial changes to the probation service, as urged by the most recent report of the Justice Select Committee? Is there not a real risk of the Lord Chancellor proceeding in haste and the community and victims of crime repenting at leisure?

My Lords, the Government believe that it would not be desirable to introduce a sentencing reform in one part of the country but not another. To do so would risk postcode justice, with some offenders getting different sentences to others. Similarly, having competing services in any one area of the country is not a viable approach if we want to extend supervision to short-sentenced offenders. In every other respect we are carrying out extensive local testing of the reforms in no fewer than 14 probation trusts. The 21 CRCs—community rehabilitation companies—that we are creating will remain in public sector ownership until the conclusion of the competition. This gives us further opportunities to carry on testing and refine the system.

I congratulate the Minister on his first appearance at Question Time. There is a very good rehabilitation scheme run by National Grid, which trains young first offenders who are becoming very valuable members of society because they have been given a way of earning a living in a respectable and efficient way to the benefit of us all. I think that he should be aware of this scheme, which was started by National Grid and is now supported by many other companies. Does he believe that this sort of rehabilitation continues to be valuable?

The Government consider it to be valuable, and it is our intention that a range of different requirements will be placed on those who are subject to supervision in the community. It is hoped that a number of suggestions, from both public and private providers, will assist in the rehabilitation revolution.

My Lords, rehabilitation in the community depends on well trained probation officers. Will the Minister tell the House whether there are any plans to insist on compulsory training of members of the private sector community rehabilitation companies that will be responsible for the supervision of medium and low-risk offenders in the community in future?

I know that the noble Lord takes a great interest, and has great expertise, in this subject, and I can assure him that that is very much the intention. It is intended to set up a form of probation college that will maintain standards and ensure that all those involved in the project have suitable experience.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that rehabilitation is not an event but a process. Will he say what other criteria the Government are using to assess the success of rehabilitation, other than non-offending?

Non-offending is clearly extremely important. One of the difficulties that the Government have identified is that those who receive sentences of 12 months or less have not been getting the support in the community that they should. This will change as a result of government initiatives. Other factors, such as obtaining employment and making sure that they have appropriate skills, are equally important for the long term.