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Criminal Justice Act 2003 (Removal of Prisoners for Deportation) Order 2023

Volume 833: debated on Thursday 26 October 2023

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Order laid before the House on 16 October be approved.

Relevant document: 54th Report from the Secondary Legislation Committee

My Lords, I first thank my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and their staff for the expedited consideration of this draft instrument and for their report. I apologise that the Explanatory Memorandum which accompanied the order was not as full as the committee considered appropriate. I hope to deal with the points raised very briefly in a moment.

On 17 October last, I repeated the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor about several measures to reduce pressure on the prison estate, including a presumption against shorter sentences. Today’s instrument deals with one of those measures relating to foreign national offenders. At present, foreign national offenders can be deported no earlier than 12 months before the end of their minimum custodial period under the early release scheme, or ERS. This order increases that period from 12 months to 18 months. All such prisoners must however serve a minimum of half their sentence. We have around 10,000 foreign national offenders in prison at the moment, but over 3,000 of those are on remand. That leaves around 6,500, and this order brings within scope of the early release scheme a further 300 annually. That was the figure that was missing from the Explanatory Memorandum, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked me that very question in the debate following my Statement.

Therefore, we have an additional 300 prisoners within scope. That may not seem a very large number, but as the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee points out, in circumstances where available prison capacity is very tight and often less than 1,000 free spaces, that is a non-negligible contribution to the problem. However, it is quite difficult to say how quickly and in what number prisoners will be deported, because that depends on consideration of individual cases, on Home Office caseworker capacity—hence the need to consult the Home Office when asked the question—and on the number of appeals. None the less, it is an important contribution.

Clearly, as the scrutiny committee points out, a measure of this kind involves making a series of balances between the possible effects on victims and the possible effect on deterrence, as against the severe constraints on prison capacity and the cost to the taxpayer of holding those prisoners. These matters are weighed very carefully by the Government. It is the Government’s duty to reach conclusions on such matters and, as part of the wider policy, this instrument strikes the appropriate balance. Therefore, I beg to move.

My Lords, I am delighted to contribute to the debate on this order. Over the years, many of us have contributed to debates about the rise in our prison population and its adverse impact on the objectives of our prison service. We are told that the removal of foreign national offenders is now a government priority and that they are therefore expanding the early removal scheme. This would have been acceptable if the excuse of overcrowding were not used as the promotion of the policy.

Overcrowding has been in the headlines for many years, and successive Ministers in the Ministry of Justice have identified different solutions to the problem. They have claimed that 20,000 new prison spaces are being built, with the newest jail set to open in the spring.

We have argued, as has the Justice Secretary, that short sentences are not an appropriate punishment because those sentenced do not get the chance to reform themselves. Reliance on community sentences would be more appropriate for lower levels of crimes.

When the state sentences someone to a custodial option, it assumes full responsibility for that individual. How are we discharging those obligations?

Once removed from our prisons, individuals will not be subject to further imprisonment and are free individuals once back in their own country, but the reverse is also true: they will not be allowed to legally return here and will be liable to serve the rest of their sentences.

These measures are a piecemeal approach to penal reform and do not look at the real sources of prison overcrowding, which has ratcheted up our sentencing system. We have failed to address adequately the backlog of outstanding cases in our courts. Despite abolishing IPP sentences, the problem remains.

We welcome the intention against short-term sentences, but reconviction rates are still very high. My noble friend Lord Marks has already stated the need to concentrate on rehabilitation and greater use of community and suspended sentences. Remand in custody is still very high. The former Justice Secretary, David Gauke, has said:

“We are within weeks or days of no longer having any prison spaces.”

I tend to agree with him.

My Lords, we had an interesting discussion about this on Tuesday in the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, of which I am a member. As the Minister said, once again the Explanatory Memorandum was not all that we might have wished for. The committee now keeps a scorecard that shows which government departments are the most egregious in providing inadequate Explanatory Memoranda, so we will effectively have a league table, where some departments are up for promotion and some for relegation.

In this case, I am interested whether the Minister can tell us whether the nationalities of the prisoners involved are preponderant in two or three countries. I think that Romania and Albania were suggested as possibles during our discussion on Tuesday. If that is the case, what discussions have we had, if at all, with those countries and their judiciaries and police forces about the imminent arrival of some of their citizens? If another country were to do the same and had a large proportion of our citizens in prison who were about to be sent back to our shores, some sort of communication between the different national authorities would seem appropriate.

My Lords, I support the Motion. However, people should not be confused that the removal of these foreign national offenders means that they will not return; it does not stop their re-entry into the country.

I am concerned by the small numbers relative to the size of the problem: there are 88,000 people, so to remove 300 at most is not an awful lot. What worries me most is that the biggest problem is the state of sentencing and the law around it. The drift is always upwards. I have yet to hear a political party of either persuasion argue for lower sentences.

That may sound odd coming from someone of my background, because I have always supported the fight for serious offences getting serious sentences. However, during my time in policing, we have seen a rise from well below 50,000 people in prison to 88,000. Surely at some point someone must do something about the major cause, which is the law saying that high sentences are OK and judicial sentencing councils being pressured to increase sentences to the maximum within that.

While I support this Motion for what it can do, I worry that it is not sufficient. I know that the Government are doing other things too, but without addressing the sentencing aspect in those cases where it should be addressed, it will not have the effect we desire.

My Lords, we in the Opposition support this order. It is sensible, and it is one element in a raft of measures recently announced by the Lord Chancellor. It is designed to address the overcrowding crisis in our prisons.

I thank the Minister for his recent letter, which I received yesterday, which stated that, as a result of extending the early removal scheme from 12 months to 18 months, around 300 more foreign national offenders will be brought into the early removal scheme window at any one time, as he explained in his introduction. We look forward to seeing the other measures proposed by the Lord Chancellor being brought forward through new primary and secondary legislation.

However, this crisis was predicted by the National Audit Office, the Justice Committee and the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and I am sure that HMPPS has been well aware of this impending crisis for many years. Though the crisis was predicted, the proposed changes, including this one, were neither planned nor consulted on.

As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said, 20,000 new prison places were promised by the Government for the mid-2020s. This target will not be met, and the Government have had to revise their timetable on several occasions. Three proposed new prisons are stuck in the planning system, and there is growing scepticism that the Government will be able to meet their revised timetable.

In some establishments, prisoners are locked up for up to 22 hours a day, and prisons are so understaffed that many of the activities so important to rehabilitation are simply not happening, such as trips to classrooms for education, to the library, or other activities, all of which aid rehabilitation. Of course, for some prisoners, these activities are a condition of their eventual release. The tragedy of the situation is that we are now seeing reoffending rates increasing: 25% of male former prisoners will reoffend within one year of their release.

I turn to today’s order to extend the early removal scheme. After 13 years of Conservative rule, the number of removals of foreign national offenders has dropped by 40%. The Government may point to Covid, but in 2022 the Government were removing around half the number of foreign national offenders that they were pre-Covid.

In the other place, my honourable friend Ms Cadbury quoted a prison governor who warned:

“I expect it will require significant numbers of new Home Office staff for this initiative to be effective”.

We understand that the Home Office already faces problems with staffing. How many additional staff will be needed to put this proposal into effect?

In last week’s Statement and in this statutory instrument’s Explanatory Memorandum, there is no clear information about the estimated costs, including those of any legal challenges to deportations.

An incoming Labour Government would recruit an additional 1,000 Home Office caseworkers to reverse the drop in removals that we have seen since the party opposite came to power in 2010. It would create a returns unit to triage and fast-track the removal of those people with no right to be here.

I do not think I am breaking a confidence when I say that last week I had a brief discussion with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, and my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton about last week’s Statement. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, fairly pointed out that the Statement was similar to that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, when he was Lord Chancellor in 2007. While the details of the proposals are different, the overriding objective of creating some headroom in the prison estate is the same. Of course, in 2007 there were about 80,000 prisoners and now there are about 88,000.

The point that my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer made is worth repeating. He said that, notwithstanding the temporary benefits of the proposals made by the Statement, overall prison numbers will continue to go up. That is for a variety of reasons, including the lengthening of some prison sentences. I hope the noble Lord thinks it fair for me to recount that brief conversation.

It is in the light of that that I will comment on Sir Bob Neill’s speech in the other place. The gist of it was that, while he supported the Government, he was sceptical about the ever-increasing length of prison sentences. He said that, while prisoners have done wrong and need a degree of punishment, ever-increasing sentences are not the answer. He went on to say:

“We have to use prisons sensibly, and be honest about the fact that a degree of rationing is required”. [Official Report, Commons, 24/10/23; col. 774.]

I think the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, was making the same point in his intervention just now. What evidence is there that ever-increasing sentences reduce crime and reoffending? In my experience, Ministers point to public demand for ever-lengthier sentences and not the evidence of their benefit in reducing crime and reoffending.

At yesterday’s Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee meeting the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, questioned a policy which could be characterised as foreign prisoners potentially getting less time in prison in order to ensure that UK prisoners can continue to be sent to prison. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, mentioned other questions that came out of that scrutiny committee meeting, namely which nationalities are most likely to be impacted by this change in the regulations. He suggested it might be Romanian and Albanian prisoners. Of course, we have good relations with both those countries, and I hope the Minister will be able to say that we have well-established lines of communication for discussing that question and the impact of any increased number of removals.

In the light of the concerns raised by the scrutiny committee, can the Minister reassure me that sexual and violent offenders will not be allowed to be freed to their home country up to 18 months early? This may—I think it would—worry the victims of those offenders. They need reassurance, which I hope the Minister can give, that this will not be the case for those particular categories of offenders. I also hope the Minister can also reassure us that this scheme excludes those convicted of terrorist offences.

In conclusion, we in the Opposition support this order. It is, in a sense, an admission of failure by the Government. This is a predicted and avoidable failure. Nevertheless, for this scheme to work, to achieve the extra 300 removals foreseen, it will need to be adequately resourced and have the laser-like focus of the Ministers concerned.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their interventions on the matter of this order. A number of very wide-ranging points have been made. I thank particularly the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for his comments on sentencing more generally, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, and just now by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for their points on where sentencing is going in general terms. It is a very important general question, which the Government are keeping under review and which I am sure public opinion will discuss. But I think today is not the time to go into detailed discussion of sentencing policy.

As far as the prison estate is concerned, we hope that the package of measures that the Lord Chancellor announced the other day, including a presumption against shorter sentences, will over time progressively reduce those pressures. It is fair to point out, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has just mentioned, that every Government for the last 15 years or so has faced these pressures. They have been extremely difficult to deal with, particularly in the recent past because of the sharp increase in remand prisoners and severe difficulties in the planning process—but for which we would be in a very much stronger position. None the less, the Government are keeping the matter under close review.

As regards the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, I hope that, when this league table becomes known, the ministry for which I am responsible manages to keep at the bottom of the table. It is the sort of table one wants to stay at the bottom of, rather than at the top, unlike most league tables. In relation to the specific point made about arrangements with Albania, Romania and other countries, I will, if I may, write to the noble Lord setting out the position, which is affected not only by the early release scheme but by reciprocal prisoner transfer agreements to take each other’s washing in, if I may put it loosely and inappropriately.

Respectfully, as regards the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, my understanding is that those removed are not allowed to come back. There are rearrested if they do, and if they are caught they have to serve the whole of their sentence, so there is a very considerable risk there. In relation to the number of Home Office staff needed, I cannot say. It is a matter for the Home Office how many staff it will need in precise terms. I am assured that it is recruiting the staff it considers necessary, and if I have further information that I am able to supply, I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, appropriately. I note the estimate put forward by the Labour Government—if there were ever to be one, which remains a totally hypothetical possibility at this stage.

In relation to prisoners who do not qualify for this, and that the reassurance the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked for, the scheme certainly does not apply to terrorists. I anticipate that it does not apply to serious sexual offenders and violent offenders, whose release under the scheme would not be appropriate. Again, I will confirm the exact position in writing so that I do not misrepresent the position while I am on my feet at the Dispatch Box.

I hope I have covered, albeit very briefly, the wide-ranging points that have been made and I commend the order.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.