Thursday 7 March 2019
[James Gray in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Ninth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Controlling dangerous dogs, HC 1040, and the Government response, HC 1892.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir James. I accept—
Order. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but the knighthood has not yet appeared in the post. No doubt it is on its way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. It always has been, and I hope today will be no different. I see we are completely packed out this afternoon, with standing room only. We are discussing a serious issue, and the fact that parties have a one-line Whip on a Thursday probably does not help with attendance.
It is often said that the UK is a nation of dog lovers. As more than 9 million of us are dog owners, it is not hard to see why. Dogs are a huge source of love, comfort and companionship to so many of us. It is also good to see postal workers and others in the room. While we love our dogs, we have to remember that many workers have to come into or close to our homes, and we have to ensure that our dogs are under control. All those things need to be taken into consideration.
That love for our dogs is why it is so heartbreaking when relationships go wrong with dogs, when dogs are not treated with the care and compassion they deserve, and when they are not trained properly, or worse, when they are forced into aggressive and violent behaviour. Each year, thousands of dogs are seized under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Hundreds are subsequently put down. That might once have been described as a price worth paying to save people from vicious dog attacks, but I was concerned to discover that since the Act was introduced, injury and fatality rates from dog attacks have increased, not gone down.
More than 200,000 people are attacked by dogs each year in England alone. Between 2005 and 2017, the number of recorded hospitalisations rose by some 81%, from 4,110 to 7,461. It is heartbreaking to look at the hospital data, which shows that children under nine are statistically the most at risk. Metropolitan police figures for 2015-16 indicate that legal breeds accounted for 80% of section 3 offences under the Act, which relate to dogs dangerously out of control. Sixty-seven people have died following dog attacks in the UK since 1991. The issue is not only dogs on the dangerous dogs list; many of the bites are from dogs not on that list. We have to consider that, however well intentioned the 1991 Act, it is not addressing the totality of the problem.
The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs therefore launched an inquiry on 11 May 2018 into the adequacy of the Government’s approach to tackling dangerous dogs. It is good to see the new Minister in his place. We focused on the effectiveness of the breed ban and examined the actions needed to improve public safety and safeguard animal welfare. We received more than 400 written evidence submissions to the inquiry and held three evidence sessions in June and July last year. We are grateful to all those who gave us evidence in person or in writing, as well as to the substantial number of people who contacted the Committee in relation to our report and the Government’s response. Many were keen to help address the problems we face, and for that I thank them.
We have a great opportunity today to discuss how the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs plans to incorporate the Committee’s recommendations on dangerous dogs and make the system better for everyone, owner and canine alike. The lessons we learned during the inquiry and the themes I want to highlight today can only be summarised as legislation, trepidation and education. The existing legislation does not deliver the protection that society needs, and I will discuss that in a minute. The trepidation is that of the Department to change the status quo and act decisively in a number of ways. Education could save adults and children alike from dog attacks.
First, I will talk about the legislation. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was introduced to protect the public from dangerous dog attacks. The Act made it an offence to keep four types of dog traditionally bred for fighting, unless the dog was placed on the index of exempted dogs and kept in compliance with certain requirements. The dogs were the pit bull terrier, the Japanese tosa, Fila Brasileiro and Dogo Argentino. As of May 2018, 3,530 prohibited dogs were on the index, of which 3,514 were pit bull terrier-types. Only 16 of the dogs were not pit bull types.
Dogs suspected of being of a prohibited type may be seized by the authorities and held in police-appointed kennels pending examination by a qualified expert. Most dogs seized under section 1 are suspected pit bull terriers. If a dog is found to be a banned section 1 type, an owner wishing to keep the dog must go to court to determine that they are a fit and proper person and that the dog will not pose a risk to public safety. If successful, the dog is placed on the index of exempted dogs and the owner must comply with certain conditions, such as that the dog is neutered and microchipped, the owner purchases third party insurance and the dog is leashed and muzzled in public.
Section 3 of the 1991 Act makes it an offence for any dog to be dangerously out of control, regardless of its breed or type. That includes a dog injuring someone or an animal, a person believing the dog might injure them, and a person believing that the dog would injure them if they tried to stop it attacking their dog or animal.
During our inquiry, we heard substantial debate about the effectiveness of this breed-specific legislation and the impact on dog welfare. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 30 people died between 1991 and 2016 in dog-related incidents. The RSPCA told us that 21 of those dog-related incidents involved dogs of breeds not prohibited by law. One person dying from a dog attack is one too many. The Government are responsible for protecting the public from dangerous animals, so it is essential that the laws evolve alongside our understanding of what works. We investigated whether the Government’s current approach is having the desired effect and whether any changes are needed to ensure that the public are properly protected and that animal welfare concerns are adequately addressed.
The Committee looked at the effectiveness of breed-specific legislation, and identified several areas for improvement to protect the public more effectively. One of the saddest consequences of the 1991 Act is that, when someone has to give up a section 1 dog, the law does not allow the dog owner to be changed; the dog can be transferred only if the owner dies or is incapacitated. If a section 1 dog strays or was abandoned and is being kept in a rescue centre, or if its owner cannot care for it due to a change in circumstances, it cannot be rehomed and is liable to be put down. The dog will also be destroyed if the owner is judged not to be a fit and proper person.
At Battersea dogs home, I saw a dog that had been brought in because its owner could no longer look after it. As far as I could tell, it was a very good-tempered dog, but because it could not be rehomed it had to be checked by the police to assess whether it was of a pit bull type. When the policeman saw the dog, he decided that it was of a pit bull type, and it was put down. I felt that that was one dog too many put down, because its temperament was good. I will talk a little more in a minute about how, with proper care and attention, such dogs can be placed with an owner who understands the type of dog, can handle it and complies with the regulations regarding taking it out in public.
I apologise for being unable to stay for the whole debate; I need to speak in the House. As the Committee inquiry highlighted, the prohibition on the transfer of dogs is utterly ludicrous. There was a very high profile case in Bristol on this matter. The dog can be transferred if the owner dies, but not if they move abroad because of work, as happened in one case, or if they lose their home and have to move into a flat where they are not allowed animals. It seems completely ludicrous that in some situations the dog then has to be destroyed when it might be, as the hon. Gentleman said, a perfectly well-behaved, acceptable dog.
The hon. Lady is a very good member of the Committee, and I am delighted to see her this afternoon, even if only for a short while. She makes a really good point. We should look at the dog and its temperament. If the original owner could keep it, and take it out muzzled and on an a leash in public, why can it not be rehomed? As she stated, such a dog can be rehomed if its owner dies, but not if it goes into a rescue centre either because it was left to stray or its owner could no longer look after it. I am sure that the Minister, being a very sympathetic and thoughtful man, will give that due consideration, because that is an anomaly. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention.
This is an unfortunate situation, which is surely simple to resolve. The Government have the opportunity to improve the lives of these innocent animals. Our report called on the Government to avoid imposing an unnecessary death sentence on good-tempered animals. We therefore call on the Government to remove the ban on transferring section 1 dogs to new owners. That simple amendment could be accompanied by adequate checks and balances at animal rescue centres and appropriate safeguards to ensure that the rehoming of section 1 dogs is conducted responsibly and safely. They say, “It’s a dog’s life,” but in this case it really is. Good-natured dogs are being killed under section 1 of the 1991 Act. I understand that they have to be rehomed carefully, but if a dog can be rehomed after somebody dies, why can it not be rehomed when it has been brought in for other reasons? Two dogs could have the same temperament, but one would be destroyed and the other rehomed.
The Government’s response noted that
“it would be irresponsible to amend the breed ban immediately without adequate safeguards”
and stated that the prohibition
“should remain in place for reasons of maintaining public safety.”
When we began looking at the matter, I originally thought that the Committee would call for the repeal of the breed-specific legislation. However, we fell short of that because, although 80% of dog bites and attacks come from dogs outside those specific breeds, the number of pit bull type dogs that bite is quite high given their total number. We therefore do need to have legislation in place regarding those dogs, but it has to be fairly administered.
What we want is for the legislation to be amended. Unfortunately, the Government told us that they do
“not consider that it is a priority to amend legislation at this time.”
We understand that any change in the law would have to consider the implications for public safety, the potential increased burden on the courts, and the extra work for rescue and rehoming centres. The Committee was clear that any amendments to the legislation would need sensible safeguards to be put in place to protect the public. However, those are achievable goals. Too often in politics we are faced with what appear to be insurmountable problems—heaven knows we are at the moment—but this is not one of them. This problem can be sorted. A simple change to the law would ensure that a good-natured dog, such as the one that I saw, could be kept safely. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity today to reconsider the Government’s position.
From looking at evidence against breed-specific legislation during our inquiry, the Committee was not convinced that there was enough independent evidence to justify the current approach to controlling dangerous dogs—something that we all want to see done more effectively. It was clear to us that, in order to do that, DEFRA needed more information. One of our key report recommendations was that
“the Government should commission an independent review of the effectiveness of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and wider dog control legislation… We expect this review to take account of the concerns and recommendations raised throughout this Report.”
Particular breeds are potentially very dangerous, but they account for only 20% of the bites and attacks. The Government need to review how we protect workers and others who enter homes where there may be other dogs that are potentially dangerous. Just sticking to the four breeds on the dangerous dogs list is not working.
Our second recommendation was:
“Defra should commission a comprehensive independent evidence review into the factors behind canine aggression, the determinants of risk, and whether the banned breeds pose an inherently greater threat… These results must then be used to inform the Government’s future dog control strategy.”
Any dog can bite, but the larger the dog, the more chance of the attack being a vicious one. Should we therefore ban every large dog that we come across? The answer is that of course we will not. In that case, do not just pick on particular breeds.
We were pleased that in their response to the Committee’s report the Government committed to commissioning research to review the effectiveness of current dog control measures. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to give a timescale for that. In November 2018, DEFRA commissioned Middlesex University to conduct research to assess the effectiveness of current dog control measures, and to identify and examine the causes of dog attacks, how to address dog behaviour problems, how policy might need to develop, and how to promote responsible dog ownership.
DEFRA committed to updating the Committee “later this year”—I wonder how late in 2019 that might be. I welcome the excellent news, but we cannot let the Government off the leash too quickly—sorry for that one. I ask the Minister to give us more details today about the review that he has commissioned of the dog control measures. What are its terms of reference, when will it be completed and who will be consulted? Will it examine whether the current Dangerous Dogs Act is fit for purpose?
There is much work to be done to create a truly fair system. I assure the Minister that the Committee will follow progress closely, and I promise that we will co-operate in any way to make the situation better. There needs to be more focus on the owner, not the breed. The destruction of a dog based purely on its breed is cruel and often unnecessary.
My second theme is trepidation. Although the Government’s response recognises the importance of improving the identification and control of dangerous dogs, they have so far lacked the confidence to take any decisive action. A degree of trepidation is understandable—some might even call it wise. It is always difficult when a dog is of good temperament but a potentially dangerous breed, because it might turn. When a dog turns after being allowed to live, there is always a big inquiry. I understand the trepidation and even have some sympathy for the Minister, but I still think that we need to take action.
No one wants to make the situation worse. The Metropolitan police told us that they would be open to a new approach to addressing dangerous dogs, but they stressed the importance of having a full system in place before any of the legislation is amended. Things are difficult for the police under the current legislation, because when they inspect a dog at Battersea, Blue Cross or any of the rescue centres that do good work, they have to decide whether it is of good temperament; if they say it is, but then it bites somebody, the responsibility will come back on them. That is why it is so important that the re-homing of these dogs be proper and thorough.
Our inquiry heard compelling evidence from the RSPCA and animal behaviourists, who argued that dogs should be judged by deed, not breed. The Government must do more to recognise in legislation the temperament of the dog. We also know that human safety is paramount, so we need effective dog control measures that focus on the deed, not the breed—I repeat that 80% of dog attacks are not carried out by any of the four dangerous dog breeds—and put reasonable safeguards in place for dogs that are judged to be dangerous. I emphasise that such measures need to address dangerous owners as effectively as they address dangerous dogs. Dogs are not born dangerous; they are made dangerous by not being cared for, and sometimes by actually being brutalised. Sometimes we do not recognise that enough.
That brings me to my final theme: education. A common theme throughout our inquiry was the need for a fundamental shift towards a more holistic approach to dog control that prioritises prevention through education, responsible ownership and early intervention. Witnesses from animal welfare charities felt that existing efforts fall short of what is required, and they called on the Government to develop a new approach—a call that our report echoes. It is clear to us from the evidence that human factors play a prominent role prior to the majority of dog attacks and that any systematic attempt to reduce the number of incidents needs to place a greater emphasis on education.
There are now charities that take dogs into schools, particularly primary schools. That should be encouraged, because some children do not have access to dogs and do not know how to handle them; they may approach them too quickly, grab their tail and ears or do things that they think are fine but that make the dog react badly. Unfortunately, there are some homes in which dogs are treated cruelly, but the charities that go into schools can make a real difference by showing children how dogs should be properly treated.
There is no requirement for schools to make use of the readily available materials on dog safety. That is a missed opportunity. Although education is not the Minister’s responsibility, I know that DEFRA works with the Department for Education and I think more could be done. Young children are at the greatest risk of dog attacks, and many suffer injuries that are horrific and in some cases avoidable. That is unacceptable, when education could help to prevent such life-changing injuries. I accept that we can never stop all dog bites, but we must do all we can to reduce the number of avoidable incidents. Teaching children how to stay safe around dogs is essential to that.
Our report further notes:
“A consistent approach is needed across the country to avoid the current post-code lottery of intervention.”
Naturally, resource implications differ among councils. Some councillors, of whichever political party, may feel that dealing with stray or potentially dangerous dogs is an essential part of a council’s work, while others may not feel the same. That inconsistency needs to be addressed.
Our witnesses told us that targeted initiatives to educate children on safe human-dog interactions are key. Some of them advocated adding such information to mandatory childhood education. The RSPCA said that having a Government policy would avoid the
“piecemeal and sometimes duplicated approach”
that is currently being delivered by the charitable sector across the country. Our report therefore calls on DEFRA to
“commission a childhood education plan from experts and charities to determine the most effective education measures and how these could be implemented consistently across the country.”
We also concluded, based on the wide-ranging evidence we received, that DEFRA
“should introduce a targeted awareness campaign to inform dog owners and the general public about responsible ownership and safe interactions.”
Most people who have dogs are good owners who know how to handle them, but there are some who choose to treat them badly. There are also some who, because of a lack of education, just do not have the ability to look after their dogs properly. Those are the people who need our help.
We recommend that DEFRA
“should further develop proposals to help local enforcement bodies increase engagement among hard to reach demographics. This should involve a thorough assessment of the merits of mandatory third party liability insurance and training classes for dog owners.”
We were struck by the evidence that third-party insurance is not actually that expensive. It could certainly greatly help to compensate workers and others who are bitten. Responsible owners act responsibly. We need to reach out to those who are not responsible.
The Government’s response stated that they
“will develop a plan of action with stakeholders on the most effective way to reach children across the country”.
I am aware that the new Minister is keen to bring sensible change in this area. I and the Committee will very much support his endeavours. Will he update us on the progress that the Department has made since January? The sooner we teach children how to be safe with dogs, the better. We could save a life. We could save many lives. It is worth taking action.
With young children at risk of serious injury, Ministers should support wider dog awareness training for schoolchildren. The report recommended a targeted awareness campaign for dog owners and the general public on dog safety. New dog control legislation should be introduced to consolidate the existing patchwork of legislation, with dedicated dog control notices to allow for early intervention in incidents. All dogs can be dangerous, and we cannot ban all dogs that might one day bite someone, but we can take every sensible step to ensure that the law and Government policy is fit for purpose and effective. That means recognising the threat and dealing with it comprehensively.
The Government’s current strategy for tackling dangerous dogs is well intentioned, but in some cases misguided. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and that DEFRA’s policy will be revised so that it is truly fit for purpose. I hope to meet the Minister and charities to facilitate a way forward, and to look at ways that a dog can be rehomed when the owner can no longer look after it. I do not want to hound the Minister, but we really need to see some action.
It is a great pleasure and privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I have two points to declare—they are not declarations of interest, but they are points of relevance. I have been the owner of two dogs, which came to me as a pair, inherited from a friend and constituent who died. One dog, whose name is Tweed, is a bull terrier cross—a rescue dog found wandering in the streets of Weeton in Lancashire, and taken to an animal shelter, where my constituent and her husband fell in love with her and took her home.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and the Committee on such a comprehensive set of proposals and summary of how they came to them. The proposals are quite specific. The report, published on 17 October, spurred me to ask the Prime Minister 10 days later what the Government’s response was going to be. Having said to the Prime Minister that I was going to give her some brief relief from Brexit to talk about dogs instead, I said:
“Last week, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, with its specific breeds definition, was not fit for purpose, as hundreds of pit bull-type dogs are confiscated yearly and destroyed, with no impact on dog bite numbers. Will she ask the Secretary of State...to act urgently on the Committee’s recommendations and not take the approach of the Lords Minister, who told the Committee that even a good-tempered dog had to be put down as ‘collateral damage’? My wonderful bull terrier-type dog was rescued from the streets, and to think of her being destroyed because her face did not fit in court is chilling.”
The Prime Minister was positive in her response:
“I had not looked at the detail of the Select Committee report on that particular issue, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State is a keen dog owner, as indeed is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is sitting next to me, and that the Secretary of State will be looking at this issue very carefully.”—[Official Report, 24 October 2018; Vol. 648, c. 273.]
I come to the debate today to ask the Minister what the Secretary of State has done to fulfil the Prime Minister’s assurance to me last October, and to make some observations on what has happened since.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton has drawn attention to the need for checks and balances and to the difficulties involved in any Government dealing with this broad range of issues. I want to be positive about one or two parts of the Government’s response, such as the approval for the need for a central database for dog bites and the speeding up of court cases, and their general support for and assurance with respect to the principles of education. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, that is for other Departments, and as a shadow Education Minister, I might be able to take it up with the Department for Education myself.
What I found distressing, disheartening and difficult to understand was why, having heard all the information, the response was so negative in this particular area. I place a great deal of store by what Select Committees do—I declare another interest: I was on several of them, for about 10 years. As the hon. Gentleman said, most of the time they are very cohesive and collaborative, and they and the Government should work on the basis of evidence-driven policy. Unfortunately, in this Government response, that approach seems to be notably lacking.
It is slightly beyond belief that nowhere in the response did the Government address the issues of consultation. That is what the Committee was asking for. I can well imagine the “Yes Minister”-style conversations that might have gone on in the Department: “We do not want to address the substantial evidence in the Committee’s report, Minister, that shows mission creep, which sometimes condemns a wide range of pit bull dogs in this area. Minister, we have a perfectly reasonable argument—there are so many other things to think about in the context of Brexit—so why do we not just try to ride it out, with the usual excuses about it not being a priority or not having enough legislative time?” Perhaps that is why that is exactly what they did.
On page 7, paragraph 22, on the very modest proposal by the Committee
“to amend the law to allow prohibited dogs which have no previous court approved owner to be rehomed, or to transfer a prohibited dog to people who have had no contact with the dog”
the Government said that that
“would require an amendment to the DDA and the supporting secondary legislation. The Government does not consider that it is a priority to amend legislation at this time.”
I can only say that given the stasis that there has been in the House in the last few weeks, they might want to revisit that particular reason for doing nothing. That was one of the Committee’s modest proposals.
We have had no consultation, as well as the complete ignoring of what the Committee had said, but, so that the Department did not appear to be ignoring the Committee’s thrust entirely, perhaps it thought, “What can we cherry-pick that suits us and means we do not have to do anything?” In paragraph 15, we have a classic twisting of something that the Committee never suggested, but which allows the Department silkily to slip in—tucked away, and without further justification of the policy—the fact that the Government “notes and agrees” with the Committee that it would not be right to implement the process immediately. The Committee never considered implementing it immediately, but on that basis:
“The Government considers that the prohibition on possession of such dogs should remain in place for reasons of maintaining public safety.”
That is an absolutely classic non-sequitur and it has not impressed the various animal charities that have given focused and comprehensive evidence to the Committee. In response to Members of Parliament on that debate and the Government’s response, Blue Cross said:
“We were… disappointed that Defra’s response failed to address some of the key welfare issues surrounding dangerous dogs and responsible dog ownership, and its refusal to consider repealing section 1 is an issue of great concern to Blue Cross and many members of the public.”
It went on to mention that even dogs that are in the index of exempted dogs are sometimes likely to suffer long-term welfare implications as a result of the conditions that are put on them and their owners.
Dogs Trust said something very similar. It is
“highly concerned about the impact of the current legislation on dog welfare”
and the protracted periods dogs could spend in kennels during the court process. It had serious concerns about how subjective the interpretation of the standard for identifying pit bull terriers can be, and about how a dog can be deemed dangerous based on physical appearance in itself. Battersea dogs and cats home said it was disappointed that the Government had chosen to disregard the Committee’s recommendation to review breed-specific legislation and whether breed is a factor in causing dog fights.
In the evidence session involving the Lords, the Minister’s colleague, Lord Gardiner, and the deputy director of DEFRA were quizzed very strongly on section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Their answers clearly did not impress the Committee, and in response the Committee stated at paragraph 22 of its report:
“We were concerned to hear that the Government considered the Dangerous Dogs Act to be successful on the grounds that it was impossible to tell how many attacks would have occurred without the law. This is not convincing… The increase in attacks—most of them from legal breeds—clearly indicates that the current approach is failing to protect the public adequately.”
The hon. Gentleman supplemented his concerns about the welfare of dogs with his concerns about the welfare of humans. This is not just an unevidenced and disproportionate application in the Act; it is missing some of the main points that are necessary to give the public confidence. That is why the Committee asked for the independent review of the Act’s effectiveness, which the Department has studiously ignored. It is also why the comments in the report came down rather hard on the Department. The Committee stated:
“We are concerned that Defra’s arguments in favour of maintaining Breed Specific Legislation are not substantiated by robust evidence. It is even more worrying that non-existent evidence appears to have been cited before a Parliamentary Committee in support of current Government policy. This lack of clarity indicates a disturbing disregard for evidence-based policy-making.”
It goes on to talk about the independent review.
I said that there were aspects of the Government’s evidence that were chilling, and I want to quote one of them. It might be the same one that the hon. Gentleman, who chairs the Select Committee, referred to earlier—the case of the Battersea dog that was put down. On this occasion, after the Committee had heard evidence of how difficult it is to classify or identify pit bulls genetically, and that seizure could sweep up other dogs simply on the basis of appearance, the Chair of the Committee said:
“To get to the point about the Battersea dog that was put down, as far as you are concerned, that is just collateral damage. It was a pit bull type and it may have been good-tempered, but as far as you are concerned, just put it down. Is that where you are?”
Lord Gardiner, the Minister in the Lords, replied, “Yes.” So, it is not surprising that 80,000 people have signed a petition to this House—hopefully for the removal, but certainly for the examination, of what seems to be an extraordinarily defective part of the law.
The hon. Gentleman made the point that, when changing the law, Governments have to be very careful about unintended consequences and so on. However, it is worth remembering the climate that brought about the Dangerous Dogs Act. I will not go into the details, but in my view this is a perfect illustration of hard cases making bad law.
There is a way out for the Minister to rid himself of the incubus of complacency and callousness that he has been lumbered with in trying to defend the shameful response from his Department to the Select Committee’s measured and humane representations. The Department’s response largely ducks the Select Committee’s call for an independent evidence review on the factors behind canine aggression, because that would mean admitting the inadequacies in the evidence base for the original Act.
The defence given in the Select Committee’s report included a reference—the hon. Gentleman has referred to it—to the Middlesex University research that has been commissioned by the Department. Why not use this commission, which has already been set up, to widen the terms of reference for that research and review the adequacy of the breed-determinant evidence that justified four types of dog being included in the Act in the first place? That would cut the Gordian knot the Department has tied itself up in. Why not give a deadline before the end of the year for there to be some answers to what the Select Committee is asking? If the Minister and his Department need a face-saving mechanism and a deadline, let this be it. That would be far better than continuing the evidence-poor status quo on breed determination, which has condemned thousands of dogs in those categories for 30 years, and which the Select Committee’s report shines such a poignant light on.
This issue has aroused strong passions and it affects many personally. One of my constituents, Helen Harris, supports an end to breed-specific legislation. In an email sent to me on 1 March, she gives her perspective on what she saw when the Act was introduced:
“I worked in a pet shop in 1991 and we had quite a few customers with pitbulls and I remember the devastation this law caused. We allowed people to bring dogs into the shop and every pitbull I met was friendly and happy. Once the law came in and the dogs were no longer allowed off the lead in public places and had to wear a muzzle the dogs noticeably changed. I did not live with these dogs and only saw them when they were brought into the shop but they all went from calm happy dogs to very unhappy dogs in a few weeks, some of them were very hyperactive because of the decrease in exercise. They had done nothing wrong and did not know why they were being punished. Breed specific law is not working.”
I understand that that has to be weighed up against all the other issues, but this issue will not go away. Dogs might have been man’s best friend, but man has not always been dog’s best friend. In this case, the Department has certainly not been dogs’ best friend. It is crucial for us to reduce the terrible toll meted out to children and adults year after year, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but this is actually being aided and abetted by the misidentification of the causes of this particular position.
We are taking about statistics, but we should be talking about individual animals. Blue Cross cited the case study of a section 1 dog called Duncan:
“Duncan was brought to us as an injured stray. Unfortunately the Status Dogs Unit (SDU) confirmed he was of type and would have to be euthanised after serving his stray days. Staff who dealt with Duncan described him as a gentle giant who was very well behaved. He knew basic commands and had he been another type of dog would have made a great companion to someone. Duncan was put to sleep at our central London hospital after the mandatory period of seven days, during which no owner came forward.”
That should lie heavily on the Department’s conscience; the Minister should consider it.
My dog Tweed was fortunate, as she was picked up from the animal shelter within seven days. Duncan was not. Perhaps we need a Duncan’s law to rectify some of the problems and injustices that this excellent Select Committee report has highlighted.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am sure that hon. Members will remember that last July we had a similar debate in this Chamber, on breed-specific legislation and Staffies. Many of the concerns that have been discussed today were raised then. Following that debate, I am pleased to see such an excellent report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I thank its Chair, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), for clearly outlining the report and the Committee’s concerns about the current legislation. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) for making such an important contribution and for making some interesting suggestions to the Department about how we can move the situation forward.
There are two main issues in the report that we must address. The first relates to public health. The Government’s current approach to dog control is failing to protect people adequately. The second relates to animal welfare. Too many harmless dogs are being destroyed simply because they are a banned breed—because of what they look like—regardless of their temperament. There can be no denying that, since the Dangerous Dogs Act came into force nearly three decades ago, more people have been killed by dog attacks, and more people are being admitted to hospital due to dog bites. I have spoken to the Communication Workers Union, and I understand that about 3,000 postal workers are attacked by dogs every year. The union has very much welcomed the Committee’s report.
The hon. Members who have spoken have given examples of dogs that have been put down when they were in rescue centres. Last year I launched the Labour party’s animal welfare plan. When I visited the RSPCA’s Harmsworth animal hospital, I met Bailey—a really lovely dog who could definitely have been rehomed to the right owner. I actually asked whether I could take him home myself, because I could not bear the thought that that beautiful dog was going to be put down, but sadly that could not happen because he had been typed. Tragically, he was put to sleep the week after my visit. I personally find that very hard.
We had a consultation after we launched our animal welfare plan, and we had a huge response to it. Many of the responses referred to breed-specific legislation, which we had not actually put in the plan. Dog owners and rescue centres asked us to consider looking at the issue in any future policy documents that we put out on animal welfare.
We must be a lot more pragmatic when it comes to banning certain dogs based just on their breed. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, we must recognise that all dogs can bite. Any dog can be dangerous in the wrong hands, regardless of breed or type, or the fact that they look a certain way. Any action to tackle dog bites, and all other instances of canine aggression, as the hon. Gentleman said, must focus on the deed, not the breed.
The RSPCA told the Select Committee that it believes that breed-specific legislation is ineffective in protecting public safety, and results in the suffering and euthanasia of many dogs unnecessarily. It believes that breed-specific legislation should be repealed, and that issues surrounding human safety should be tackled using education and effective legislative measures that do not unnecessarily compromise dog welfare. The RSPCA told me that in recent years, in order to comply with the legislation, it has euthanised hundreds of dogs. We have heard that many other rescue centres have had to do the same. Many of those dogs, like Bailey, would have been suitable for rehoming.
DEFRA’s figures show that no dogs on the index of exempted dogs have actually been involved in an attack. As the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, this is not working. Why are we putting down healthy, innocent dogs from rescue centres simply because they are a particular breed when we have no evidence to prove that there is a problem? We must look at the reform of dog control legislation. We should introduce education to ensure that high-risk behaviour towards dogs is avoided. All severe and fatal dog bites must be properly investigated.
I visited Battersea dogs and cats home and, like the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, saw a beautiful dog that the home said was perfectly able to be rehomed, waiting for the police to come to take it away to be euthanised. Battersea said very strongly to me that the Dangerous Dogs Act is completely ineffective at protecting the public. It is arguing for the abolition or reform of BSL, and has called it a sticking plaster that does not prevent harm. It wants the Government to amend the legislation to ensure that dogs are not put down simply because of the way they look.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South said, the current law is not supported by scientific evidence. The Select Committee criticised the Government about that, stating that their lack of clarity when it comes to robust evidence
“indicates a disturbing disregard for evidence-based policy making”.
I think that is extremely worrying.
It is absolutely right that we have proper engagement processes and education in place to help the public to understand dog behaviour and responsible ownership much better. The Chair of the Select Committee talked about getting people into primary schools to teach children about how to behave with and understand dogs. That is incredibly important.
I have a dog—my family has always had dogs—so I know at first hand that being a pet owner is terribly rewarding but a huge responsibility. Anybody taking on a pet needs to recognise that. The dogs that I have had have always been large dogs, from Irish wolfhounds to Dalmatians, and I currently have a Labrador. It is really important to train and socialise big dogs properly, because in the wrong hands every dog has the potential to injure either people or other animals. We must focus on ownership, rather than on the type of dog.
Prevention through education, responsible ownership and early intervention is clearly a better, more holistic approach than slapping a blanket ban on certain dog breeds and saying that that is the way to protect the public. As the rising figures show, it is not. Evidence presented to the inquiry shows that human factors play a prominent role in many dog attacks, so we must ensure that dogs have responsible owners.
I want to talk briefly about livestock worrying, which the Committee’s report touches on. This is an issue about which the National Farmers Union, and farmers generally, are very concerned. It is a particular problem in my constituency in Cumbria. It is thought that, in 2016, 15,000 sheep were killed in livestock attacks. The cost to the farming sector is about £1.6 million a year. Sheep worrying can have a devastating impact on small hill farmers, such as those in my constituency. Responsible ownership is critical. Livestock worrying often happens because a dog has escaped or because the owners simply do not believe that their dog will be dangerous when it is around sheep. People say, “My dog is Labrador; it is not going to do any damage.”
I thank the shadow Minister for talking about sheep worrying. Many members of the general public do not always understand that the dog does not actually need to be dangerous; it just needs to run through the sheep. The sheep will run from it and very often wind up in a ditch. The sheep might be heavily in lamb. If there are several dogs together, they actually think that they are playing half the time, and although they may not actually be vicious, they still have a hugely detrimental effect on that flock of sheep.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In an area such as Cumbria, where I live, many visitors are perhaps not used to being with their dogs in the countryside and around sheep. The education aspect of the issue is absolutely critical, because I do not think that those people appreciate the damage that can be done simply by allowing a dog to run amok among a flock of sheep. We really need to raise awareness of the issue and look at how we can tackle it. I know that the all-party parliamentary group on animal welfare produced an excellent report last year on livestock worrying, and I ask the Minister to look at it and consider its recommendations on how to tackle the problem.
The Select Committee’s report is very clear in its recommendation that changing the law is widely desirable but also achievable, and that it will protect the public much better than the status quo. Let us get the legislation right in order to protect both the public and dogs. We need the right education in place, and we need to focus on how we can tackle irresponsible dog owners, not just the dogs. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I hope that he has paid close attention the recommendations of this excellent report. It would be good if we could finally start to move the issue forward.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for determining as the subject of the debate the EFRA Committee’s report on controlling dangerous dogs and the Government response to it. I am also grateful for the thoughtful and considered contributions that have been made in this debate, which although not one of quantity, has certainly been one of quality. I know that those contributions have been made with conviction, first-hand experience and considerable passion, not least that of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Paris), which is characteristic of him.
I will provide some information on the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Government’s position on breed-specific legislation. The 1991 Act does two things: it provides offences in connection with fighting dogs and offences in connection with dog attacks on people and other animals. Section 1 prohibits four types of fighting dogs: pit bull terriers, Japanese tosa, Fila Brasileiro and Dogo Argentino.
Pit bulls have been associated with a number of serious attacks on people and it was decided that action should be taken against their ownership. Fundamentally, the 1991 Act is about public safety. Under that Act, it is an offence to breed from, sell or exchange those dogs. Courts can allow owners to keep prohibited dogs if they are not a danger to public safety, taking account of the dog’s temperament and of the intended keeper, who must have had substantial prior responsibility for the dog.
The Minister is addressing the crux of the matter. When courts deal with dangerous dogs that have owners, they look at the temperament of the dog and say, “That dog can be kept by the owner as long as it is properly muzzled, leashed and handled.” The problem occurs when the same type of dog, with the same temperament, turns up in a rehoming centre that can no longer look after it. It has to be checked, but nobody will actually take the case to court, meaning that the dog will potentially be destroyed. That is exactly the type of dog that could be saved if it still had an owner. Instead, it is put down because it has gone into a rehoming centre. That is the real problem.
I thank my hon. Friend for clarifying. He spelled that out very well in his speech and, with his permission, I will come to that specific point later, but I think it is important to set the context before getting into the meat of the issues that have been raised.
Prohibited dogs that owners are allowed to keep are placed on the index of exempted dogs, which is managed by DEFRA. In addition to restrictions on certain fighting dogs, under section 3 of the 1991 Act it is an offence to allow any dog to be dangerously out of control in any place. Severe penalties are in place for allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control. Those penalties were increased in 2014 to three years for allowing a dog to attack an assistance dog, five years if a dog injures someone and 14 years if someone is killed. We realised from the tragic cases that we had seen that the sentences needed to be more in line with the crimes committed.
Both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) were absolutely right to raise the issue of postal workers. We need to get the balance right between public safety and animal welfare. The number of attacks on postal workers is absolutely to be regretted. It is unacceptable that people are unable to go about their business because of fear or actual attacks. We therefore work closely with police and local authorities to see how we can best respond to those attacks. I am sure that many MPs have worked with their local postal workers at Christmas or at other times of the year to better understand those situations and to make representations.
The Government are committed to public safety and to tackling the issue of dangerous dogs. We believe that communication and co-operation between the police and local authorities is vital. That is why we have endorsed initiatives such as the early intervention and partnership working scheme, Local Environmental Awareness on Dogs, or LEAD—that is not one of my hon. Friend’s puns, but the name of the scheme.
The scheme encourages police and local authorities to co-operate and share information when there has been a minor incident, provide advice to a dog owner on dog control issues, improve public safety around dogs and help to improve dog welfare. There have been strong endorsements of the initiative. The then deputy chief constable of North Wales police and recently retired National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on dangerous dogs, Gareth Pritchard, said:
“Problems regarding dogs can cause a great deal of anxiety in some communities. The new LEAD initiative aims to allay some of these fears to help educate dog owners and residents further by promoting responsible dog ownership.”
The Government also support an increase in awareness at all levels across society. We are aware, for example, that many police forces and welfare charities, such as the Dogs Trust, visit schools to raise awareness of responsible dog ownership. We fully endorse that work and I will come to how we will do more on the back of the EFRA Committee’s excellent report. I want to make clear that the Government are keen to tackle irresponsible dog ownership. As I have explained, a number of changes were made to the laws and powers available to enforcement agencies in an attempt to improve responsible ownership of dogs. The Government acknowledge that the number of people admitted to hospital as a result of being bitten by a dog has risen from 6,836 in 2013-14 to 8,014 in 2017-18.
A number of concerns have been raised about whether it is fair to put particular focus on pit bulls, but as a nation we are not alone in doing so: France, Spain and Germany have also put restrictions on keeping a number of types of dog, including pit bulls. It is also worth looking at some of the evidence that I have seen and that has been submitted to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton in his capacity as Chair of the Select Committee, about section 3 incidents—the particularly difficult ones—involving pit bulls. There were 92 such cases in 2015-16, and those pit bulls were not on the dangerous dogs index. In comparison, there were 84 attacks by Staffordshire bull terriers.
We could say, “Well, there is not much difference,” but I think we would all accept that the number of Staffordshire bull terriers in the UK is sizeable—around 300,000, according to the latest estimates—whereas, although we do not know the exact number of pit bulls, there are about 3,000 on the DDI. We probably need to get more evidence, but the evidence that is to hand points to the fact that there is a greater likelihood of incidents involving pit bulls.
That is what the Department says, but is it not ludicrous that it does not openly address the issue—it is an issue, and one that was put forcefully to the Committee—that it is very difficult for police on the ground to determine genetically what is a pit bull and what is not? The Minister spoke about Staffordshire bull terriers. What is the logic for having an investigation into attacks by pit bulls, which are covered by the Act—albeit many of us dispute that—and not into attacks by Staffordshire bull terriers?
Order. Interventions should be brief.
If the Minister looks only at the issue of the breeds in the 1991 Act, he will of course come to the same conclusion, because he is not examining the broader evidence.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. When I appeared before the Select Committee, I said that we should remember that the Dangerous Dogs Act is trying to deal with two things: fighting types, which are bred specifically to fight, and dangerous dogs. That is my worry. The hon. Gentleman might have had cases of this in his constituency and, as I said at the meeting, I certainly did in Macclesfield, where a few years ago pit bulls were being trained to hang from tree branches. That is not what most people do with a normal dog. Certain types of dog are bred for a specific purpose, and that needs to be tackled, because there are people who carry out that practice, which I abhor. Dog fighting is a separate issue, and we could have a separate debate on it. The legislation tries to recognise both those aspects. I understand his point, but I hope that he understands at least that there are differences in why dogs are being bred. As long as dog fighting goes on, there will such challenges.
We understand the concern about dog control and the need to reduce the number of dog attacks. People are of course not the only victims of dog attacks; other dogs and animals can be the victims of such attacks. Dog attacks on livestock have caused suffering to animals and misery for farmers, and we want to reduce all such attacks and to improve responsible ownership of dogs. That point was made well by the hon. Member for Workington and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton.
I emphasise that section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 also applies to attacks on other dogs, livestock and any other animal, and the High Court and the Crown Prosecution Service have made that clear. There has been a lot of talk about amending the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, but our advice is to use the Dangerous Dogs Act because it is more up to date and applies anywhere. We are working with the CPS and the police to ensure a universally accepted position on that, which we will promote.
The Government do not want to reduce dog ownership. Dogs have been a part of our lives for hundreds of years, and we certainly do not want to change that. However, owning a dog comes with responsibilities. Ownership means that we have to provide a dog with its welfare needs—at all times—and that a dog must be trained. The owner is responsible for looking after the dog as well as its behaviour. The more irresponsible ownership of dogs we have, the more calls we and local authorities receive to introduce restrictions such as banning dogs from parks and beaches. The Government therefore agree with the vast majority of good, proper owners and stakeholders that we need more responsible ownership of dogs if we are to see a reduction in the number of dog attacks.
Last year, the EFRA Committee conducted its review into controlling dangerous dogs. The review focused on section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. The report was welcomed by the Government and, again, I take the opportunity to thank my hon. Friend, the Select Committee Chair, and the rest of the Committee for publishing the report. We are all in agreement that we are not looking to increase the number of types of dogs that are named in the legislation, nor are we looking to remove any types.
The report made 16 recommendations to improve dog ownership and reduce dog attacks. The Government responded positively to the recommendations, which reflects how in tune the Government, the Committee and most stakeholders are on the issue of dangerous dogs. There are, obviously, a few exceptions, which came out in the debate today, but on the vast majority of issues we all want to see positive progress. The EFRA Committee’s report was published in September 2018 and the Government’s response was published by the Select Committee in January this year. Last month, the Committee had another sitting, also on dangerous dogs.
I will take this opportunity to update hon. Members on the Government’s progress with some of the recommendations. Rehoming of pit bulls is an emotive and difficult issue. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton—instead of Tiverton, I keep almost saying Tytherington, which is in my constituency—I do not want to see healthy and well-adjusted dogs being put to sleep. For the reasons I have set out, however, we are subject to what is legally possible. Recent case law has interpreted the legislation, so the court may decide to give possession of a pit bull to a person who has had some contact with it, such as taking the dog for a walk. Ultimately, the courts will make the decision on whether the dog is safe, and the prospective person is fit and proper.
The difficulty is putting a stray dog that has no owner with a person the dog has not met before the court case. That is not feasible under the law. We continue to discuss with stakeholders what can be done, and we will involve my hon. Friend in those discussions, as I promised following my recent evidence to the Committee. We are happy to meet him and relevant welfare groups for further discussion and greater clarity. It is a tricky area, but the case law needs to be explored fully. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept the invitation to meet as sincere. He knows that I want us to do all we can to address the concerns that he has expressed.
In the course of the debate, a number of specific issues were raised. If the owner of a dog dies, it can be transferred under article 12 of the Dangerous Dogs Exemption Schemes (England and Wales) Order 2015. If an owner moves and abandons a dog, it can be rehomed to a person who can be considered the person in charge of that dog for the time being—but remember that abandoning a dog is in the first place a criminal act. If someone got to know the dog before the owner moved—this is important, with an educational aspect—that person could apply to be the person in charge of the dog, and the new person would need to be considered fit and proper by the court. There are opportunities therefore for such dogs to be rehomed. We need to look through all such opportunities.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) asked why we are not recommending a change in the law. That would require primary legislation and, as I said, there are concerns about public safety. We need to explore the issues that we have just discussed. However, I point out that while there may be disagreement on that issue, the Government are absolutely committed to the welfare of dogs and cats: we have looked to increase sentences for animal cruelty, and are trying to find the right legislative vehicle to do so quickly; third-party sale has been banned; and we are reviewing our approach to the licensing of rehoming centres. All those issues are being taken forward with conviction.
Continuing the theme of preventive action, the EFRA Committee recommended more research on the causes of dog attacks. In December 2018, therefore, DEFRA in collaboration with Middlesex University commissioned further research into responsible ownership across all dog breeds, with a budget of more than £70,000. Middlesex has five main researchers to consider different approaches and the effectiveness of existing dog control measures.
The research seeks to identify and examine factors and situations that might cause dog attacks, and how to promote responsible dog ownership. The initial stage of the project, which is a literature review, is nearly complete. Middlesex has started initial stakeholder engagement to inform a number of focus groups, which is the next phase. We expect an interim report at the beginning of September, with a final report at the end of the year. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. The project, as I said, will include a review of dog control measures.
Related to that research is the need to educate children in particular, and the public more widely, about safety around dogs. The Government are committed to developing a plan of action with stakeholders on the most effective way to reach children across the country, in order to make them aware of dog safety. We have had early discussions with stakeholders and are developing the delivery plan, which is due later this year. We are working with the Department for Education, and are keen to ensure that that links with our wider work on communications and engagement about how to take forward responsible ownership and purchasing of dogs, and education regarding them.
Hon. Members can be assured that the Government will continue to take forward the actions I set out in response to the EFRA Committee with speed and conviction. I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for bringing this debate forward and giving me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position and proposals.
I thank all Members who have spoken. I thank the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) for his thoughtful contribution and support for the report, as well as the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Workington (Sue Hayman). From the tone of the speeches, it is apparent that there is cross-party support for some change to the Dangerous Dogs Act. I thank the Minister for his very humane response, because this is a humane issue.
In the Select Committee we have tried not to be too demanding. We perhaps started out wanting to repeal the Act entirely, but did not end up with that conclusion. I restate that similar dogs to those that go to rehoming centres and are put down because they cannot be rehomed are allowed to be kept, under licence, but the original owners. Blue Cross, Dogs Trust, Battersea dogs home and the RSPCA need to be confident that there is a system that allows them legally to rehome that dog. That is why I look forward to meeting the Minister and officials to try to get a legal basis for that.
I do not think the Government are necessarily hiding behind breed-specific legislation, but those four particular breeds, mainly pit bulls, account for 20% of attacks. The other 80% are by other dogs. Therefore it is about education, management of dogs, responsible dog ownership and getting to those sectors of society that create dangerous dogs. They may not be pit bull types, because it is the way they are treated that makes them dangerous.
There is a lot of work to be done, because we do not want more postal workers to be attacked or for the number of dog bites to keep going up as they have. Again, I thank the Minister for his engagement. The Select Committee, the Opposition and the Government can make the law work much better, and I hope that fewer dogs of good temperament will be put down in future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Ninth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Controlling dangerous dogs, HC 1040, and the Government response, HC 1892.
Short Prison Sentences
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the cost and effectiveness of sentences under 12 months and consequences for the prison population.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this debate, which follows several others with a similar theme in the past few weeks, including a debate on the effectiveness of short sentences led by my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), and one on the recall of women prisoners led by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). That shows the appetite across the House for discussing these important issues.
As a member of the Select Committee on Justice, I am proud of our “Transforming Rehabilitation” report, which was published last summer and included a recommendation that the Government should introduce a presumption against short sentences. I welcome the recent news that the Secretary of State wishes the emphasis to move away from the short sentencing model, but although the policy direction of the Ministry of Justice seems centred on sentences of six months or less, I believe we should consider the costs and consequences of sentences of up to 12 months, and enshrine a presumption against them in law.
In 2017, more than 37,000 people entered prison to serve a sentence of less than 12 months. The short time available often means there is little opportunity adequately to address the needs of that population, with limited access to offending behaviour programmes, education and work. Research by the Revolving Doors Agency showed that nearly half of all people sent to prison are sent there for less than six months, and that the overwhelming majority are imprisoned for non-violent offences.
I do not dispute that offenders who have committed serious or violent crimes, or those who pose a risk to society, should often be given a custodial sentence, but four out of every five people sent to prison last year had committed a non-violent crime. Most reasonable people expect jail terms to deliver rehabilitation for offenders and a clear means to reduce reoffending, as well as punishment.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this significant debate and making such a powerful speech. I have information that replacing custodial sentences of less than six months for theft and non-violent drug offences with effective community sentences could save the public millions of pounds.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important intervention. She is absolutely right that handing out short sentences is a false economy. I will say more about that later, but as she rightly identifies, it is clear that the current system of short sentences is failing with respect to rehabilitation and reoffending.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. One thing that troubles me is the use of short custodial sentences after a pattern of repeat offending, where people go from fines straight to custody, with little evidence that community penalties, and particularly supervision orders, have been tried along the way. Does she agree that it would be useful if the Government had a particularly careful look at why that is happening and whether there is a lack of confidence in community penalties among sentencers?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about escalation to prison sentences instead of increased use of community sentences. Community sentences have halved in the past decade. Again, I will talk a little more about that, because it is really important that we have robust and effective community sentences, and that sentencers have the confidence to hand those sentences out.
The Secretary of State has admitted that shorter sentences do not work. The Ministry’s data shows that adults released from custodial sentences of less than 12 months had a proven reoffending rate of 64%, compared with the overall rate of 29%, yet it has been shown that offenders serving a community sentence typically have a reoffending rate seven percentage points lower than similar people serving prison sentences of less than a year. Those with suspended sentence orders have a reoffending rate nine percentage points lower. The emphasis needs to be on better rehabilitation in the community.
It is clear from the issuing of four urgent notifications on squalid prisons and countless news reports about falling standards that the prison system is failing offenders and the public. It is uncomfortably apparent that committing offenders to custody can cause further issues, which may arise only during an offender’s stay in prison. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons recently published a report on standards at HMP Durham. Nearly a third of prisoners surveyed said they had developed a drug problem while in prison, 66% of prisoners said they had mental health problems, and many more said they felt depressed or suicidal on arrival in custody. Some 70% of prisoners at HMP Durham were in custody on remand or following recall, and three quarters of the population had been at the prison for less than six months. Those are precisely the kinds of prisoner so disproportionately and negatively impacted by the current model of short sentencing.
Like a lot of the prison estate, HMP Durham is a Victorian building in need of repair, where prisoners are kept in rooms that are falling apart, and often unclean, and are provided with little stimulating activity or purposeful rehabilitation. Sadly, HMP Durham is not alone. A year ago, I visited HMP Rochester with the Justice Committee. That Victorian prison is not fit for purpose, so it was issued with a closure notice, which was later rescinded due to MOJ cuts. When we visited, we were told that lessons had to be cancelled when it rained because there was a leak in the classroom roof, and the drug rehab programme had stopped because the prison thought it was closing down.
More recently, we visited HMP Birmingham—a prison so bad that the private contractor, G4S, had to hand back control to Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. The recent inspections at HMPs Nottingham, Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth and Bedford all showed that problems with safety and overcrowding are particularly acute at local prisons, where large numbers of people are often held for short periods. A reduction in the use of short prison sentences could significantly reduce overcrowding, particularly in local prisons, which in turn might help restore the standards of decency that the Minister has called for.
In monetary terms, it costs nearly £40,000 a year to keep someone in prison. The point at which prisoners enter the prison system is often the most costly and labour intensive and, given recent falls in prison officer numbers, it can often divert resources from where they might be needed elsewhere on the prison estate.
On the day before International Women’s Day, it is important to recognise that restricting the use of short custodial sentences is particularly important to achieve a reduction in the female prison population. In 2017, some 7,185 women in England and Wales were sentenced to immediate custody. Of those women, 68% were sentenced to less than six months and 26% to less than one month. Women’s offending is often linked to underlying mental health needs, drug and alcohol addiction, and domestic abuse. Many have caring responsibilities, and at least 17,000 children are affected by maternal imprisonment each year. Despite those children having committed no crime, their lives are often uprooted. They end up in care, having to lose their home, their school and their family. The human and emotional cost is immeasurable.
Will my hon. Friend therefore join me in welcoming the inquiry being undertaken by the Joint Committee on Human Rights? The Committee is looking specifically at the impact on children of their mother’s imprisonment, whether the law should be changed or strengthened to protect children, and whether sentencers should have a different presumption in those circumstances.
I absolutely agree. We know that parental imprisonment is considered an adverse childhood experience, which we hear so much about at the moment. That inquiry is really timely. It is important that we look at this issue very carefully and question whether prison is the right place for women to be much of the time. Women released from prison are likely to reoffend, and reoffend more quickly, than those serving community sentences. Some 48% of women are reconvicted within one year of leaving prison, which rises to 61% for sentences of less than 12 months.
Reducing reoffending has a clear cost benefit not only to Ministry of Justice budgets, but to police budgets, local services and beyond. The failures in our prison system, not least due to the 40% real-terms cut forced on the Ministry’s budgets and the profound problems with the privatisation of the probation service, have left that system in disarray.
Last Friday, the National Audit Office published yet another critical report on the Government’s transforming rehabilitation programme. It stated that not only has the Ministry of Justice failed to achieve the wider objectives of its original reforms, but that those failures were leading to significant numbers of prisoner recalls and that through-the-gate was wholly ineffective. The NAO report suggests that the Ministry of Justice will pay at least £467 million more than was required under the original community rehabilitation company contracts in completely avoidable bailouts. Worryingly, the full costs will not be known until at least December 2020. It is clear that the current model does not work for taxpayers or offenders.
We need meaningful community sentences, far more robust than the CRC-monitored rehabilitation that we have at the moment where offenders too often just have supervision on the telephone rather than face to face, and missed appointments go unchecked. The Government make the right noises, but clear action is required. As the Prison Reform Trust’s latest Bromley briefing succinctly states:
“Short prison sentences are less effective than community sentences at reducing reoffending Yet, the use of community sentences has more than halved in only a decade”,
falling from 193,000 to 91,000 over a decade.
The Ministry of Justice’s own research has shown that community sentences are particularly effective for people who have committed a large number of previous offences and for those with mental health problems. For those with more than 50 previous offences, the odds of reoffending are more than a third higher when a short prison sentence is used rather than a community sentence. Another piece of research by the Ministry of Justice, published in 2017, found that providing treatment for drug and alcohol addictions in the community has also been shown to reduce reoffending. More than two fifths did not reoffend and there was a 33% reduction in the number of offences committed in the two years following treatment. As much as the instinct is to think that repeat offending must mean harsher sentences, that is not what the evidence suggests we should do. Policy must be evidence-led if we are to expect results, and the current approach is too costly and too ineffective to continue following the short sentencing model.
There is the question of the cost of the failures around short custodial sentences not only to prisons and wider Ministry of Justice budgets, but to other Departments and society as a whole. Short sentences can see prisoners lose their homes, their jobs and their family ties. Combined with the failure of the through-the-gate initiative, the impact and effect of prison last much longer than any original custodial sentence.
To be given a custodial sentence is one thing, but to have all the means to reduce the propensity to reoffend and to get back on with life removed in the short time that someone is in prison is quite another, and it has far longer and wider-ranging consequences than the original sentence. One of the most fundamental issues is that of housing. The link between rough sleeping and prison leavers is deeply concerning, and short sentencing does nothing but exacerbate the issue. The latest figures from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network show that 36% of rough sleepers in London have been in prison—up 3% on last year.
Colleagues have also repeatedly raised concerns and frustrations with Friday releases from prisons as prisoners are unable to contact housing providers until Monday morning or get a prescription to deal with an addiction. If someone does not have a place to stay, it is far harder to register with the council or a jobcentre, and offenders are more likely to end up sleeping rough. The most vulnerable might simply immediately return to crime.
The issue is summarised perfectly by a case study from the social justice charity, Nacro:
“C was released on a Friday after serving a 4 week sentence with a history of homelessness. Given the short amount of time spent in custody, it was not enough time for us to source stable housing for him on release. C had to present at the local authority to make a homelessness application and was told to come back the next week for an appointment. C slept rough that weekend.”
Short sentences do not work. They very often increase rather than decrease reoffending rates. They can tear families apart and put pressure on a crumbling prison system with very little benefit. They have failed. The Government have been making the right noises, but I hope they will now follow in the direction of Scotland and seek to enshrine in law a presumption against short sentences of 12 months or less, backed up with robust, effective and properly funded community sentences.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing the debate, and I extend my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee. She also had the support of the Justice Committee. The debate stems from our “Prison Population 2022” inquiry, which looks at the make-up of the current prison population and how it might develop in future. We also produced a report on transforming rehabilitation. I am glad to see the Minister in his place. I appreciate his evidence in relation to our two inquiries. It is also good to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain).
I very much agree with the thrust of what the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge said. Our reports were cross-party and both were unanimous. There is a growing recognition in the House that we need to revise our approach to some aspects of sentencing policy and the way in which we use imprisonment. I am fortified by the nearly 30 years I spent in the criminal justice system as a practising barrister before coming here. I prosecuted as much as I defended. I therefore had a hand in convicting people who sometimes went to prison for long periods of time—deservedly so—and sometimes people who went to prison for short periods. I also defended people who sometimes went to prison for long periods, having been convicted after due process, and deservedly so, and also people who sometimes went to prison for short periods.
I defended and prosecuted people who were sometimes fundamentally dangerous, and in a few instances really quite evil, but in very many instances people who were foolish and had made a series of chaotic and disastrous mistakes in their lives. Some were greedy, some were naive and some were easily led. There was a mixture of reasons. Some needed to be kept out of circulation for some time, but they were a minority. The vast majority were going to have to return to society at some point once they had served their sentence. Regrettably, we have a system that does not do all that it could to make sure that those people change their lives when they get back into the community.
I see our proposals and those put forward by the Secretary of State, which I warmly support, to look again at the way in which we use shorter custodial sentences as absolutely not going soft on crime—quite the reverse. Preventing reoffending is the best possible way of reducing the number of victims. The less reoffending, the fewer victims there are likely to be. That is a desirable state of affairs.
There is a place for punishment in our justice system. People who break the rules against society have to be brought up sharp and must recognise that it is not acceptable. However, the punishment has to be constructive as well as condign. That is why we need to make sure there is room in our prisons for those who have committed serious offences for which prison is the only appropriate penalty. That will always be the case, but there are many for whom that is not the most appropriate and constructive way forward. We need to be more up front about recognising that.
The debate has a focus on cost-effectiveness. That is worth mentioning because, as well as having a background as a criminal justice practitioner, I am also influenced by being a Conservative and believing in the good use of taxpayers’ money. The way we currently deal with people going through the prison system, particularly in relation to shorter sentences, is not a good use of taxpayers’ money, for the reasons that have been set out.
It is exceedingly expensive to keep people in custody. Sometimes it must happen, with the public policy justification of protection of the public and prevention of crime. However, there are other proper purposes of imprisonment; not just punishment, deterrence and public protection. A recognised purpose of sentencing—I hope that in due course it will be enshrined in statute as a purpose of imprisonment—is reform and rehabilitation. The vast majority of people whom I dealt with were not beyond reformation or rehabilitation, and I think that is true of human society as a whole. However, we do not carry it out effectively, for the reasons that have been set out, and we spend significant amounts of public money. The consequence is high rates of reoffending, which hurts the economy.
As to the social and economic cost of crime, the total cost is about £59 billion. I think that, broadly, the cost attributed specifically to reoffending is about £15 billion to £18 billion. That is the economic cost. There is also a social cost to the victims of reoffending. Both those costs should be treated as important, but at the moment we are not getting there. Were we to make more effective use of our resources, by concentrating on those who need to be inside for a period of time, we could do the proper rehabilitative work that is needed in many cases. There may be some who it will be impossible to turn around, or who it will never be safe to release.
However, such people are a small minority of the population. In the vast majority of cases, if there is sufficient time, there can be rehabilitative work. That can involve education and training—getting people literate so that they can hold down a job—and dealing with what are sometimes significant addiction problems of one kind or another. That weaning-off cannot be done in a short period, and neither can the acquiring of skills to get back into society. Frequently there are underlying mental health or personality issues that need treatment, and those cannot be dealt with in a short period either.
Short sentences do not permit any of those things to be done, and they often disrupt such ties as the offenders have in the community, as the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge pointed out. The Minister and others have rightly observed that the best way to keep people out of trouble and out of offending is a home, a family and a job. The things we equip people with should mean that when they come out they are better placed to achieve those things, but if they already have them, a short sentence is more likely than not to disrupt them.
To do as I have described, we must have credible alternatives. One of my concerns is the decline in sentencer confidence in community sentences that has been noted, which has been well referenced by many who have given evidence to the Select Committee and, recently, by the former chairman of the Sentencing Council, Lord Justice Treacy, an immensely experienced criminal justice practitioner and judge. That means that there must be a punitive element to community sentences. There has to be some bite to them for sentencers and the public to have faith in them. I do not see the move to community sentences for less serious offences—I do not say non-serious, because I mean those of perhaps lesser gravity—as a soft option. That is not how the approach should be perceived.
The challenge, at the same time as we make better use of prison space, is to come up with tough and viable alternatives that bring home to the offender the fact that they have done wrong and broken their contract with society, but that do so constructively, in a way that enables them to turn their life around. I should have thought that a move in that direction, which I know the Secretary of State and the Minister seek, is to be welcomed and supported. It would be a better use of public resource and, above all, it would produce better social outcomes.
I have said that there is a social reform case for the change in question. Social reform does not belong to one party. There is also a case on the basis of good economics and use of taxpayers’ money, which does not belong to one party either. It is interesting to note that an approach that is closer to what we propose, and closer to the direction in which the Minister and Secretary of State wish to go, has been successful under Governments of various political complexions elsewhere in the world. Right-of-centre Governments have adopted the same approach in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, and the same thing has been done by some Republican governors and state legislatures in parts of the United States. It does not belong to one political side. That point is worth emphasising, because we need a more informed debate about the most cost-effective and socially effective way to use prison. That requires a degree of recognition of the evidence base, which I hope is well set out in the Committee’s two reports, across political opinion. I hope that the debate will contribute to that process.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing the debate, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). I wholeheartedly agree with much of what he said.
In England and Wales, roughly 83,000 people are presently in prison, and the majority are there for sentences six months or less. In 2017 almost 50,000 offenders were sentenced to custody for six months or less. In England and Wales, we incarcerate 139 people per 100,000 of the population. That is the highest number in Europe. The Netherlands, for example, incarcerates 61 people per 100,000. In Denmark it is 63 people; in Germany it is 76; in Italy it is 99; and in France it is 104. We therefore incarcerate far more people proportionate to the population than those countries.
In the past five years, more than 250,000 custodial sentences of six months or less have been given to offenders. More than 300,000 sentences were for 12 months or less. However, nearly two thirds of those offenders go on to commit a further crime within a year of being released. Clearly, custody is not working for those people. They are the ones whose situation we need to address so that, as well as punishment, there can be rehabilitation that stops them reoffending.
Some 27% of all reoffending is committed by those who have served 12 months or less, and the most common offence for which a sentence is given is shoplifting. More often than not, offenders who shoplift have a drug or alcohol problem, and almost half of the sentences in question are given to women; 60% of female offenders who are convicted of shoplifting are victims themselves—many have been victims of domestic violence and have mental health issues. Part of the problem, therefore, is that we are not addressing those issues. We need to tackle them in order to get to the root of why the offending occurs in the first place.
My hon. Friend is right about the high incidence of short custodial sentences imposed on women for shoplifting. Is he aware of the initiative in Greater Manchester that the police have taken up with some large stores? When a woman is found shoplifting in one of those shops, they can immediately refer her not to the police—and into the criminal justice system—but to our women’s centres. Does he agree that that would be a really positive model for the Government to encourage across the whole country?
I am aware of that initiative. More investment in women’s centres would be a great thing that would help to stop reoffending, particularly by female offenders. I support women’s centres in their plight; we should provide them with as much funding as we can.
All the evidence shows that there is a strong case for abolishing sentences of six months or less, but we also need to have a robust community order regime. The Revolving Doors Agency made a freedom of information request and found that, of those people sentenced to six months in custody, three in five reported a drug or alcohol problem on arrival in prison, one in four were released homeless, and seven in 10 reoffend within a year of release. Clearly short sentences are not working. In his speech on 18 February, the Secretary of State for Justice said:
“Why would we spend taxpayers’ money doing what we know doesn’t work, and indeed, makes us less safe?”
I entirely agree with him about that.
I have touched on some of the issues where our investment could help. Accommodation is a big factor. When people leave prison and they are homeless, they are more prone to reoffend. Clearly, the through-the-gate resettlement service has not been working with the probation service, which needs to be looked at. Making sure that prisoners are housed and have accommodation when they leave prison would help prevent reoffending.
Many of the support services that prisoners need when they are released relate to benefits applications. They also need to be looked at, as well as the mental health support that they need. Sometimes people leave prison having had some treatment, but they do not get treatment further on. Finally—I meant to mention this earlier—when they are in prison people can receive treatment for some of their addictions, but six months is too short a time for them to have the full support they need. All these areas need investment.
The Secretary of State also said in his speech that he supported “smart” justice. I agree with the gist of what he said, but much more needs to be done. There is a place for punishing people. We need prison for serious offenders and it should also be there as a deterrent. There may be an issue with why prison is not working as well as it should do; the reoffending rate is high, and there may be issues about what goes on in prison, the prison estate itself, the fact that there are insufficient prison officers, the prevalence of drugs in prison and various other factors. Clearly, prison is not working for some people.
I suggest that community orders are the best way forward for short sentences. There should be an element of rehabilitation but community orders should be tough, should not be treated as a soft touch, should be fully enforced, and people should be made to fulfil them. Serving them over a longer period of time could also help offenders change their ways.
Community orders would also save us money. The Revolving Doors Agency estimates that community sentences would save £9,237 per prisoner. I am often staggered by the fact that it costs roughly the same amount to send somebody to Eton as to send them to prison. I say let us send them to Eton—that is instead of prison, not as well as prison. These areas need to be looked at. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. I broadly support what the Secretary of State has set out and I hope he has the courage of his convictions to follow through. We could be in a position where these measures save us money in the long run and we are able to rehabilitate offenders, which has long-term benefits for us all.
One of the greatest changes in my lifetime, and indeed my time in Parliament, has been the growing gulf between the preoccupations of the liberal establishment, and the hopes and fears of the people who have to live with the effects of their doubt-filled and guilt-fuelled erosion of the collective wisdom of ages.
That collective wisdom is given shape by institutions, small and large. There are large institutions, such as the law, Parliament, the Church and the monarchy, and small institutions, such as civil society, families and Burke’s “little platoons”. Sadly, what Burke said about order being the foundation of the good life and a working civil society—
“Good order is the foundation of all things.”—
is a far cry from where Britain is now, as a result of the work of that liberal establishment over the decades.
Too much of urban Britain, in particular, is either brutish or brutalised. When good order and the rule of law is eroded, it is the vulnerable who suffer most, for they, unlike those bourgeois liberals who live gated lives, survive on the frontline of crime. Those vulnerable people are suffering at the hands of violent criminals who are punishing them every day, through the fear they cause and the hurt they do.
Yet we are very sheepish now about punishing the culprits. We have learned so little from the time when I studied criminology, almost 40 years ago. We have continued down the road of seeing crime as an illness to be treated, rather than a malevolent choice to be dealt with.
Will the right hon. Member give way?
I will make this point, and then happily give way. The effect of that is to put great emphasis on the culprit and, by nature, less emphasis on the event and the victims of crime. That is precisely what has happened, and I know the hon. Lady could not possibly want to agree with that.
I do not disagree at all that people’s lives are made a misery by violent and persistent criminals in their community, but I cannot really agree that we have become less willing to take action against criminals, when the prison population has gone from between 42,000 and 43,000 in the mid-1990s to more than 80,000 today.
The hon. Lady is a very distinguished Member of this House, with whom I have worked in the past, so I do not want to suggest in any sense that I am patronising her. However, that could be a measure of either the scale of the problem or of our response to it, and I suggest that it is much more likely to be the former. I have to tell her that the view that is frequently expressed in this House—I put it this way only for the sake of brevity, because it is a little more complex—that we should place greater emphasis on the way we deal with criminals, rather than focusing on the way we support victims and protect those who are at risk of crime, is at odds with the sentiments of most of our constituents.
I have great respect for my right hon. Friend, and I understand the thrust of where he is coming from, but would he reflect on the fact that the two are not mutually exclusive? It is not mutually exclusive to have concern for the victims of crime and, at the same, to consider that one very potent means of having concern for victims of crime is to ensure that those who offend are punished and sentenced in a way that is more likely to rehabilitate and reform them than not. As a one-nation Tory of the cavalier tradition like I, he will know that few are beyond redemption.
It is, of course, right that we need to consider the causes of crime. That is why I have talked about the erosion of civil society. Of course it is true that when communities become weaker, and when the ties that bind us become looser, people are more likely to act in a malign way. As my hon. Friend knows, life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short”. What stands between us and all of that are the things that I have described—the civil society that Burke defined and that I attempted to illustrate. The truth is that when we emphasise crime as an ill to be treated, by nature we put less emphasis on its effect: the event itself. In that way, there is often, although not necessarily, a tension between one position and the other.
Although linguistically my right hon. Friend may be correct, and in language we may sound as though we are more liberal, the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) pointed out the reality. Not simply do we incarcerate twice as many people as we did 25 years ago, but the crime rate has almost halved over the same period, so proportionately, the number of people incarcerated per crime is considerably more than it was 25 years ago. Typically, this is the hypocrisy of liberalism: we talk a liberal language, but in fact we are much more punitive than the Victorians were. In the Victorian period at the end of the 19th century, there were only four prisoners held in prison for sentences longer than two years. Now, for the first time, we have a very large number of young men serving 25 or 30-year prison sentences.
My hon. Friend the Minister knows that that argument is predicated on several misassumptions. The first is the fundamental issue of population growth. Of course when we look to the past there were fewer criminals, because there were fewer people. The second, as he will know, is the very well-known criminological explanation of under-counting and under-reporting of crime; it is known as the black or dark figure, the number of crimes that are never reported and therefore never recorded. It also is probably true that the tolerance of crime has risen and more and more of what might be described as petty crimes, which would once have been taken very seriously, are now ignored, partly because people do not think they will be dealt with. That happens in all our constituencies all the time.
The third problem is that there has been a prevailing view about rehabilitation that, while not intrinsically incompatible with the idea of just deserts and a retributive approach to crime, is too often presented as such by people who are on what I described as the “liberal” side of this argument. Part of the business of the criminal justice system is to punish, and part of public faith in the criminal justice system relies and depends on people believing that those who do very bad things get their just deserts. Frankly, every poll that the Minister or I could cite shows that a growing number of people do not think that criminals get their just deserts.
There is a separate issue about what happens once people get to prison; my hon. Friend is the Prisons Minister, so he will know what a mess prisons are in. I hope he is trying to do something about that, because he is right that when people go to prison, one hopes they will not go back. Recidivism is a profound concern, but given that he is the Minister, that is as much his problem as anyone’s.
Since my right hon. Friend has taken the opportunity to challenge the statistics and suggest that they can be explained by population growth, population growth from 1992 to 2018 in Britain has been approximately 10%. The prison population during that period has doubled. This cannot be accounted for by population growth.
Yes, but if we look at the number of crimes committed in the year of my birth, 1958—I know that is hard to believe, but that is the year—compared with the number of crimes committed now, in almost every category crimes have grown. The number of homicides, for example, in that year, the number of violent crimes in that year, the number of sex-related crimes in that year—if the Minister looks at the figures, which by the way are available from the Library, he will see that in all those categories and many others, the number of crimes has grown immensely over my lifetime, the period I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks.
I want to address the specifics of the debate introduced by the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves). It is useful that she has brought this matter to the attention of the House, because the figures from the Minister’s Department make clear that the effect of doing what I understand the Minister has advocated, and with which others may agree, would essentially be that 34,000 offenders who currently go to prison would no longer do so. Roughly speaking, 30,000 of those are repeat, not new offenders. Their offences include burglary, theft, public order offences and weapon and drug possession, as well as drink-driving and other similar things.
Those are not offences that most members of the public would regard as inconsequential, slight or not a cause for worry—far from it. I suspect that the vast majority of our constituents would anticipate that those sorts of things should attract a prison sentence. If any hon. Members take the opposite view, I would be happy to debate with them in their constituencies on a public platform, and see who held the majority view and who was seen to be on the margins. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) is on the margins; I will give way to him.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has just said that there are 30,000 repeat offenders. Those are people who have already been to prison, so clearly that would indicate that prison has not worked for them and we should look at other forms of punishment. Does he agree that prison is not the only form of punishment that would act as a deterrent, and that other options might work better and stop people being recycled into prison?
I mentioned recidivism a moment ago, but since the hon. Gentleman was clearly listening, I cannot have made myself clear. I did not say people who had been to prison once; I said repeat offenders. These may be people who have had other kinds of sentences and then gone to prison, because very often, for a first offence, people do not go to prison; they go to prison for a second or later offence. When I speak of repeat offenders, I do not necessarily mean people who are in and out of prison regularly. It is very important to be precise about these things.
The problem with that kind of policy is not only what it would do to public faith in criminal justice, on which it would have a devastating effect—in its response to the Government’s proposals, Civitas, the think-tank, says that it would unleash a crime wave on hundreds of thousands of citizens—but that it would reinforce the idea that prison cannot work. We have profound problems at present; the Minister is aware of that and has spoken very openly and straightforwardly about it. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate has just alluded to those problems—prisons becoming universities of crime, where people who go in are worsened by the experience, rather than rehabilitated.
Even from the rehabilitative perspective, therefore, prison is not doing what it could, but that is not a good enough reason to say to the public, “We are worried about sending people to prison, because they might get worse, so we will leave them on the streets.” That cannot be the signal that this place or this Government want to send. Let us get our prisons right, not be embarrassed or ashamed to send people there.
The point we are trying to make in this debate is that people are going to prison for short sentences. By definition, that is unlikely to be for the level of serious crimes that the right hon. Gentleman rightly says our constituents would be horrified if they thought people could commit and then run around at liberty. He is right that we are talking about, in some cases, persistent offenders. A written answer from the Minister, which I received on 5 November last year, said that in 2017, 6,793 people went to prison for less than six months, having never previously received a community penalty for offences that they had committed. I find that baffling. Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that sometimes we are too ready to use custody?
All I would say in response to that is that the hon. Lady will have seen the national newspaper this week that showed, shockingly, a picture on the front cover of a smirking criminal who, having committed an offence for the second time, took a selfie of himself outside the court. This was a person who was found in possession of both a knife and cocaine, and had been known to the police for a considerable time. Time permitting, I could give account of many similar stories, and particularly of the police’s frustration when we do not, in their judgment, provide the just deserts I mentioned earlier, which so undermines their confidence. As one policeman said of a similar case, “Why do we bother?”.
Prison is of course about trying to put people straight, but it is also about punishing people for the harm they have done. That is an entirely respectable part of criminal justice, and it is what our constituents expect of us and of the Government.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will give way one last time, but then I really must conclude, because others may want to speak.
The only reason I keep intervening is that, unfortunately, my right hon. Friend will be unable to hear my speech, so will be unable to hear me answer, point by point, every point that he makes. Evidence from the Ministry of Justice strongly suggests that sending somebody to prison makes them more likely to reoffend, by one offence a year, than somebody given a non-custodial sentence. Given that the short-sentence population in a single year is about 50,000 people, my right hon. Friend’s proposals would indirectly inflict 50,000 additional offences on innocent victims in Britain. In other words, the wrong use of short prison sentences endangers the public, rather than protecting them.
Yes, but by letting on to the streets 34,000 people who would currently go to prison, we would by nature make it more likely that those people would have more victims, unless the Minister believes that those non-custodial sentences have a perfect effect—are an entire solution. I think that the Minister should refocus his efforts on getting prisons right, as I would not want his ministerial career to be characterised by prisons being worse when he ended than when he started. I know he is determined to do so, but he has a lot of work to do. The Government have to pull their socks up in respect of the way our prisons are run, partly because of the policies adopted by previous Governments.
My earlier offer applies to the Minister, too: I would be happy for him to come to my constituency, or for me to go to his, and debate this issue with the people there, to see whether they think that fewer or more criminals should be sent to prison. When they know that we are speaking of the kind of crimes that I described earlier, according to data from the Minister’s own Department, I think they would not only be surprised but, frankly, be outraged.
G.K. Chesterton spoke of the people of England who have not spoken yet, but now the people of England are speaking loud and clear. There may be those who have been deafened by the shrill bleating of political correctness, but many of us have not. We will speak for the people of England, and we will not be silenced.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing this important debate. “Follow that” is still ringing in my ears; I will make an attempt. She gave a positive and persuasive argument for looking at 12-month prison sentences, talking about how squalid prisons do not help with rehabilitation, drug abuse or mental illness, and looking at the difficulties for prisoners of being released.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who chairs the Justice Committee, gave us the benefit of his time in the criminal justice system, although I should add that that was as a barrister. He talked about constructive punishment and the good use of public money, saying that prisons must reform and rehabilitate, and that the high rates of reoffending of those who serve short sentences have a social and monetary cost. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) further exemplified some of the difficulties with short-term prison sentences. He talked about women and shoplifting, looking at the other side—why they commit such crimes and what we can do to prevent that. That is an important issue, which the Scottish Government have taken on board a bit. I will speak further on what we are doing in Scotland, which I know the Minister and the Secretary of State have been looking at.
The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) gave a speech at odds with a lot of what had already been said. He spoke with real passion about how people who do bad things should get their just desserts. The abolition of prison sentences of up to 12 months is not about people not getting their just desserts; it is about an effective use of the prison estate and of public money that actually helps people not to reoffend. That is how we look at things in Scotland.
The Scottish National party is committed to smart justice and proportionate, just and effective responses. A focus on community sentences in place of short custodial sentences has helped to achieve a 19-year low in reconviction rates in Scotland, and it is encouraging to see the UK Government following Scotland’s lead in this area. Scotland has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe, with 144 per 100,000 of the population incarcerated. The average length of prison sentences has increased by 21% over the last decade. For many individuals, however, prison is not an effective solution.
Individuals released from short sentences of 12 months or less are reconvicted nearly twice as often as those sentenced to a community payback order. It makes sense to look at community payback orders. Community sentencing has proven to be an effective tool in replacement of short sentences, as the statistics bear out. Between 2006-07 and 2015-16, the reconviction rate in Scotland fell by 5.4%, to a 19-year low, while the average number of reconvictions per offender has fallen by 22% over the last 10 years. Under the SNP Government, completion rates for community sentences have increased to 70%.
Around 7 million hours of unpaid work have been carried out since community payback orders were introduced, delivering real benefits to communities. In 2017-18, some 1.7 million hours of unpaid work were imposed as part of these orders, and the projects undertaken ranged from support for winter resilience to the refurbishment and redecoration of community spaces. I have seen many such things in my constituency—work that would not otherwise be done, improving how the community lives and works. Overall, recorded crime is at its second-lowest level since 1974, down 42% since 2006-07.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving examples of what has been very effective in Scotland. It is asserted that the public equate just desserts and punishment only with imprisonment. Does she agree that, when the public see community sentences in operation, they are often much more appreciative of the constructive way in which somebody is being punished while doing some good at the same time? The public are not as blinkered in their views as is sometimes suggested, once they see good schemes working.
Indeed. Several projects that have been undertaken are marked by plaques saying how that was done. It is really positive that people can see that there are other ways. The public are not necessarily bloodthirsty or looking for people to be locked up and the key thrown away. They want people to be better. I have been around Shotts prison in my neighbouring constituency and looked at the good rehabilitation work it does. It follows that, if prisons are full of people on short sentences, there will be less time and money available for real rehabilitative work within the prison system. While prison is still the right place for the most serious offenders, the extension of the presumption against short sentences to 12 months would help to ensure that prison was used only when the judiciary decided it was necessary, having considered alternatives.
The Scottish Government have spent quite a bit of money working on that basis, because it is important. I hope that this Minister will say that, if and when that happens in England, the UK Government will put money into the equivalent of the criminal justice social work services that we have in Scotland. It cannot just be said, “We won’t put people in prison and therefore we’ll save money.” Some money has to be put into the restorative justice system and community criminal justice. The Scottish Government have given additional funding for community sentences and women offenders, which includes additional provision for bail supervision for women. A number of years ago, there was a suggestion to build a new women’s prison in Scotland. That was stopped because what we are trying to do now is more preventive work and more work that does not separate women from their families, especially their children.
Lots of work has been done, and there are statistics proving that things such as workloads have gone down in the criminal justice system. The number of criminal justice social work reports submitted and social work orders issued both fell by 6%. That is another saving for the criminal justice system. There has also been a 7% drop in community payback orders recently.
In Scotland, we do things in partnership across the system, from local government all the way up to the national Government. The Scottish Government are committed to working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, Social Work Scotland, Community Justice Scotland, local authorities and third-sector partners, which take a great deal of interest and do some of the work when it comes to preparations for community payback orders.
It is strange to me, standing here opposite the Minister, whom I might quote in a moment, that Conservative MSPs in Holyrood criticise the SNP’s approach. It is very encouraging to see the UK Government looking to follow Scotland’s lead in this matter. What exists in Scotland has sometimes been called “soft-touch justice” in a derogatory sense, but it is actually proving to be effective and a much better way to use our prison estate. As the Justice Secretary said last month:
“Why would we spend taxpayers’ money doing what we know doesn’t work, and indeed, makes us less safe?”
This Minister has said:
“My No. 1 priority is to protect the public. I believe that the best way of protecting the public is to reduce significantly, if not eliminate, the under 12-month prison population, because people on community sentences are less likely to reoffend than people who are put in custody.”
The Justice Secretary has also said:
“If we can find effective alternatives to short sentences, it is not a question of pursuing a soft-justice approach, but rather a case of pursuing smart justice that is effective at reducing reoffending and crime. That is the approach that I want to take in England and Wales.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 146.]
I am glad that there is almost unanimity across the House in this matter.
I believe that evidence was given to the Justice Committee by Karyn McCluskey, chief executive of Community Justice Scotland. She says in relation to Scotland:
“We have been on a prevention journey for the past 15 years. Short-term prison sentences do not reduce offending. It causes homelessness and breaks up any positive bonds”
that offenders may have. She continues:
“Our courts and prisons should not be de facto psychiatric hospitals. I have met people who would much prefer to go to jail: it’s much easier for them. We want to change society’s view of what works.”
I think that that is really where we all are.
I should just say that, in Scotland, prison sentences of less than 12 months are not being abolished. Sheriffs and judges retain the discretion to pass the most appropriate sentence based on the facts and circumstances of the case. The legislation states that the court should not pass a sentence of a period shorter than the stated presumption, but it may do so where it considers that no other method of dealing with the person is appropriate. We have to look at this. It will never be the case that one sentence fits all in any justice system, but the facts speak for themselves. A presumption of no prison sentence under 12 months would only benefit the prison estate and the people being sentenced.
Will the Minister confirm that this is not just a money-saving exercise and that money will be spent on the implementation of the presumption of no prison sentences under 12 months? Does he agree that more money spent in that respect would reap huge rewards in the prison system and in the criminal justice system more generally?
It is, of course, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for bringing this very important debate to the Chamber. She is right to say that it follows a number of linked debates of equal value. That shows the interest among hon. Members in this important subject, and I thank hon. Members for their valuable contributions.
The starting point is that we cannot shy away from the fact that many short sentences simply do not work. The points in that respect have been eloquently made by my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), and, of course, by the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill).
The reoffending rate for those serving a sentence shorter than 12 months is higher than that for community orders or suspended sentences. That is causing real damage not just to communities and victims, but to the public finances—another point that has been made. Short sentence reoffending is conservatively estimated to cost the economy between £7 billion and £10 billion a year; others rightly say that the figure could be £15 billion or more.
It is glaringly obvious why short sentences are so ineffective. An offender who is sentenced to just a few months or even a few weeks will still lose their job, their home and their family. These are all things that offenders themselves say are factors that influence whether they reoffend. The problems are exactly the same as those that an offender serving a sentence that runs into years experiences, but crucially, people serving short sentences are not in prison long enough to put in place steps to address these needs before their release.
An offender serving a short sentence also has no time for purposeful activity, which is proven to reduce reoffending. They have no time to equip themselves with skills or gain qualifications to get a job and pay for a home after release, because in most cases a course cannot be taught and skills cannot be gained in a matter of months, particularly when much of the time is spent isolated in cells due to the lack of experienced prison officers and the other issues that we face in the emergency that exists within our prisons.
There is also no time to get help with regard to other drivers of offending, such as mental health issues and substance misuse. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons states that one prisoner in three has mental health issues—a problem that is undoubtedly much greater than is portrayed—and one prisoner in five tested positive for drugs and psychoactive substances in 2017-18. Those are real, serious problems that these offenders face, but when serving short sentences they cannot get the treatment or rehabilitation that they need to get their lives in order. In some cases, people need rehab and medical attention, not cells.
It is clear that we need to end the use of ineffective short sentences, but although the Government have floated the idea on several occasions, the reality is that they are not doing much about it; we have yet to see them take any concrete action.
The proportion of short custodial sentences has barely shifted in the past three years. More staggeringly, community sentences, which can provide an alternative to short custodial sentences, have fallen by 78% over the past five years, with the fastest decline being for non-violent theft and drug offences. The Minister’s first step must be to halt this worrying trend. Forgive me if I do not entirely believe that the Government will act.
I am even less assured by the Government’s record, because every major policy announcement that the Ministry of Justice has made on prisons falls short of the mark and has come to nothing thus far. The female offender strategy promised five new residential women’s centres—a rehashed Labour idea—which are nowhere near being built. The educational employment strategy scrapped careers advice in prison, which is a negative step, and has not done much beyond that. The Minister’s 10 prisons safety project is failing to deliver improvements in safety anywhere, let alone across the whole estate.
If we have learnt anything from the MOJ it is that it is all noise and no substance. I wish that were not the case. The overuse of short sentences is a substantial and important issue. We want to be able to work with the Government on this. We agree that short sentences do not work and that locking someone up for just a few weeks or months provides no benefit to anyone. We have common ground to build on.
However, the Government do not seem serious about tackling short sentence overuse. If they were serious, they would ensure that there was a real alternative to custody, in the form of robust community sentences or a stricter fines regime; they would not allow the disaster that is our probation system, which provides community sentences, to continue; and they would address the dangerous lack of confidence among magistrates in the probation system and community sentences—a point that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made very well.
A study conducted last year with the support of the Magistrates Association found that 37% of magistrates are not confident that community sentences are an effective alternative, 45% are not confident that community sentences currently rehabilitate effectively, and almost half believe that community sentences cannot be tailored to suit the individual needs of an offender. By contrast, a survey in 2003 showed that magistrates had much higher levels of confidence in the ability of community sentences to punish and rehabilitate offenders.
Even after that study and numerous recent, high-profile and wide-ranging critical reports, the Government are continuing with their failed privatisation experiment in probation. The reports are long and damning. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation found nine out of 13 community rehabilitation companies to be performing poorly overall, with poor-quality work in reducing reoffending and protecting the public. The Justice Committee ripped into poor performance on reoffending, concerning high workloads and worries over the confidence of judges and magistrates—a point made earlier. Last Friday’s National Audit Office report found that CRCs failed to meet MOJ targets to reduce reoffending and had created an increase in offenders on short sentences who were recalled. Community sentences simply are not viable under their current providers. Magistrates and judges do not trust them, and neither do the public.
We have heard about Scotland’s model in contrast to the Government’s action. The Labour shadow Justice team has committed to bringing probation services back in-house to deliver a service that works, has the confidence of judges and magistrates, and can show the public that there is a real robust alternative to short custodial sentences. The shadow Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), recently visited Scotland, where a presumption against short sentences is being rolled out. He saw the positive work done to deliver justice for the public and victims through sentencing alternatives that do reduce reoffending. The use of community sentences in Scotland has risen by 16% in the past decade, which contrasts to a decline in England and Wales. The Scottish model has been in place for some time and shows a clear way forward, which the Government must seriously address.
The Government must show that they are capable of more than just words and setting the mood music; they must prove that they are serious. The Minister must set out what they are doing to end the huge overuse of ineffective short sentences, which serve little purpose in our justice system, including what action they are taking to stop the dramatic fall in the use of community sentences in recent years and how long it will be before the MOJ gets the proportion of community sentences back to previous levels.
Addressing this important issue can reduce reoffending, so I extend an offer to work with the Minister to bring reoffending down. However, that offer is not a blank cheque. A new consensus must be built on strong proposals by the Government. The Minister must show us that he is doing this for the right reasons: to reduce reoffending and better serve the public, not just to reduce the prison population. He needs to outline how he will regain the confidence and trust of the judiciary, which the Government have lost with their probation changes. Given the growing number of damning reports on these probation changes and their failure to reduce reoffending, he must commit to ending the failed privatisation experiment, which cannot deliver the viable and robust alternatives to custody that are needed, and bring this back into public ownership.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for bringing this important debate.
To think clearly about prison, we need to think about victims, and we must begin with a strong statement that the prime responsibility of the Government is to protect the public. That is particularly clear at the moment, when we are dealing with the horror of knife crime. We need to be absolutely clear—as this Government and, I hope, Members on both sides of the House are—about our abhorrence of crime and the misery it inflicts on victims, about our absolute commitment to punish criminals in proportion to their offence, and about ensuring, above all, that serious criminals are imprisoned.
We can go beyond that, because the point is that somebody who commits an offence is not simply technically breaking the law. For example, a shoplifter imposes misery on the individual who owns a private shop by stealing valuable possessions and affecting their psychological sense of security. Therefore, in responding to that act, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has pointed out, we need to ensure that we punish them for the crime they committed, not only to give justice to the victim but to protect future victims of crime.
The nub of the issue is that punishment needs to be combined with deterrence and rehabilitation, and to symbolically express society’s abhorrence of crime. All that is true, and all that was recognised by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). However, where I respectfully disagree with him—I regret that he did not stay to hear my response—is that he must be more rigorous and serious in thinking through whether, in fact, a short-term prison sentence achieves any of the objectives that he wants to achieve.
Let me take a single example. In Bedford prison last month I saw a prisoner who had been a heroin addict and had serious learning difficulties. Every time he is released from prison, he shoplifts again and he gets put back in prison for four weeks—he was put in Bedford prison eight times last year. My question to my right hon. Friend is this: what does it achieve to put this man in prison eight times in a year? Clearly it is not deterring him from committing crime or rehabilitating him, because he commits another crime as soon as he comes out. He does not even personally experience this as a punishment, so what is being done here?
Perhaps the judge feels that they have no other options, because the individual has committed many other crimes in the past. What else are they supposed to do? Yet what does imprisoning them achieve? Perhaps the judge feels that it is a symbolic disapproval of the act of shoplifting, but what kind of symbolism is it if it is untethered from reality? What is the symbolism of a punishment that does not deter, does not punish, does not rehabilitate and is not experienced subjectively by the victim or by society as having any purpose at all?
We then need to think about prisons, which are vast, complex, expensive organs of Government. A modern prison costs more than £100 million to build. It is manned by hundreds of highly trained prison officers, filled with electronic equipment and fitted with bars on its windows. It is a continual fight, day in, day out, which requires energy and dedication, to stay on top of the drugs and the phones, to challenge violence from prisoners and against prison officers, to control issues of suicide and self-harm, and, above all, to protect the public from the most serious offenders in society.
Short-term prisoners destabilise the whole prison system. They are the ones who disproportionately bring drugs into prisons, because they are the people who go in and out eight times a year—if a criminal gang is looking for somebody to carry drugs in, they target a short-term prisoner, not somebody who is in for 25 years and has no opportunity. They disproportionately have learning difficulties and addiction problems; they are disproportionately connected with violence against prison officers and against themselves.
Short-term prisoners also absorb disproportionately more time in the system than should be attributed to them. That distracts the entire system from focusing on rehabilitating and working with the serious criminals, such as the sex offenders, violent offenders and murderers, who pose a significant threat to the public and who, because of the distraction of this cohort, are not getting the education programmes, work and protection that they require.
As the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) has pointed out, we can do much more in relation to community sentences. We have just introduced GPS-enabled tagging, which for the first time allows us to know exactly where an offender is in the community by the minute, day in, day out. We have also introduced alcohol and drug monitoring tests, which for the first time allow us to know whether an individual outside prison is taking drugs or alcohol in violation of their conditions. We are improving unpaid work and investing in community rehabilitation companies to make sure that they have better supervision in place, that they are meeting people face to face and that they have a proper plan in place to follow them through.
We are investing in addiction treatment in the NHS. Again, with deference to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, that is not just liberal nonsense. Shoplifters make up by far the largest element in the under-six-months prison population, and 74% of shoplifters are addicted to heroin or crack cocaine. There is a direct causative relationship between their addiction to heroin or crack cocaine and their shoplifting. As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) pointed out, that investment in NHS treatment requirements will be central if we are to reduce their reoffending.
The key point is that putting these people in prison is not simply futile, but perverse. It is not simply a waste of time; it makes the situation worse. It does not protect the public, but endangers them. A considerable amount of research has now been done on that. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research did a paper on it in 2012 and the Ministry of Justice did another in 2013.
We have just produced another paper that looks at 350,000 offenders and 130 variables—everything from offender demographics to school attendance, family, childhood and trauma—to produce a statistically significant survey of a large number of people that compares like with like. By taking two people who have both committed seven offences and who have almost identical backgrounds and offending histories—in so far as we can; we are looking at a statistical variation of 5%—it shows that the one who is given a custodial sentence, as opposed to the one who is given a community sentence, is likely to commit one extra offence a year. Some 50,000 people get custodial sentences, so that is 50,000 more victims of crime because of the wrong type of short prison sentence.
There is much that we should still learn from Scotland and much that we need to reflect on. It is important to bring people such as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings with us and keep public confidence. He may be correct that if we were to go in front of an audience, without the time to present incredibly serious and detailed research, it would be possible to whip up a crowd against it through cheap language about decriminalisation and laxity. I do not doubt that. The evidence is absolutely clear, however, and we should be bold in asking what we are trying to achieve with a prison or a community sentence. Is this prison sentence really deterring this individual? Is it really rehabilitating them? Above all, is it really protecting the public?
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in this important debate, particularly the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee, who co-sponsored the application for the debate and has done a huge amount of work to push the issue up the agenda.
I echo what other hon. Members have said. A presumption against short sentences is not about being soft on crime, but about following the evidence. We have heard that evidence today, which is clear that community sentences are more effective in reducing reoffending than short prison sentences. Short prison sentences simply exacerbate the problem. It is clear from the debate that there is cross-party support for reducing the use of short sentences, which I hope we can continue to build on in future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the cost and effectiveness of sentences under 12 months and consequences for the prison population.