Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Blunt: I want to pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey to illustrate what divides the new clauses and his amendment. He disputed whether there was a link between crime figures and the prison population. I want to draw his attention to the change in the trend in crime that occurred under the most recent Conservative Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard).

As Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend sent out a consistent and robust message about crime. It made him deeply unpopular with the liberal establishment but, so far as I could ascertain as a special adviser in another Department, he managed to change the character of the Home Office. He achieved something that eluded Interior and Justice Ministers all over the western and developed world: he reversed the ever-growing trend in crime. A significant part of that achievement was down to the policy that he pursued as Home Secretary, the prison policy and the robust message sent to criminals.

Mr. Hughes: I understand how the hon. Gentleman can make that argument, but the link between Government crime policy and its consequence on crime figures is speculative rather than a matter of fact. The time lag between policy and figures in this country is much less certain than in others. He needs more than a belief and a statistical link to prove that the two were as linked as he suggests.

Mr. Blunt: Of course, in the end it would be impossible to make the link scientifically, as one would have to get into the mind of every criminal to ask why offences happened and so on. On the face of the evidence available, I believe that it is reasonable to propose that a Government sending the relentless message that they were tough on crime and actually acting that way—they were prepared to lock people up and see and fund a rise in the prison population—had an effect on criminal behaviour.

Dr. Ladyman: I entirely disagree that that is an appropriate link to make. Senior policemen have told me that the fall in crime over recent years has largely been down to the introduction of intelligence-led policing. That is especially true in Kent, where we have had a 23 per cent. reduction in crime since the general election.

Mr. Blunt: I am sure that the police would want to claim the credit in that way. My point is that there have been many contributions to the trend, some negative, as other factors will have caused crime to rise over the period. Rather than getting into a dispute about exactly what members of the Committee and others may or may not believe, I want to emphasise the importance of the signal that was sent. That is why I want the Minister to consider carefully the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire. It is an opportunity to send a small signal to say that this Parliament understands the importance of the police in going about their duty and will support them.

Equally, I support the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey in saying that the provision should apply to other members of the emergency services and staff of the national health service as well. We are here this evening to make such points, and I hope that the Minister will consider them. The new clause, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, would send a signal out to the police and the other emergency services. I hope that, on this small issue, the Minister will be able to entertain the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire described the Government as a gimmick Government. This is a gimmick new clause. We are trying to scrutinise the Bill, and although it is perfectly in order to produce new clauses of this type, he is merely seeking to open a line of discussion that is part of the general rhetoric of the Conservative Opposition. He is entitled to do so, so I make no criticism from that point of view. It is okay, but it weakens his case, in terms of the amount of time that such proposals leave for the consideration of the Bill itself.

Mr. Hawkins: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke: No, I will not. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman before the end of what I have to say.

Mr. Heald rose—

The Chairman: Order. Has the Minister given way?

Mr. Clarke: I will give way to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire.

Mr. Heald: If the Minister is thinking of giving me some extra time, I would be delighted.

Mr. Clarke: There are three general points. First, the hon. Gentleman called for more police. He will be glad to hear that the number of police is increasing. Nearly half the police forces in the country have more police than they did in March 1997, and that will continue to advance. Secondly, he made a series of important points on sentencing, which are, as he knows, being considered in our sentencing review, and will be given due weight in that context. Some of the points related to the inquiry of Lord Justice Auld, but most of them related to sentencing review issues. There are important issues around sentencing, which is why we established the sentencing review. That is the right way to deal with the matter.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath raised the question of the Chancellor. None of this is driven by the Chancellor. The hon. Gentleman should examine the restraints placed by the shadow Chancellor on the commitments that he can make, before being saying too much on the matter.

The home detention curfew system was not set up in the way that the amendments suggest. The home detention curfew scheme received the unanimous support of the all-party Select Committee on Home Affairs, which included the hon. Members for Woking (Mr. Malins), for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and for Surrey Heath—a fine home counties trio, if ever there was one.

Mr. Heald: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke: No. As I said, I will give way towards the end of what I have to say, not to anybody with a point to make.

Those three hon. Members were part of the Home Affairs Committee, which stated that the home detention curfew scheme would

    ``provide adequate protection to the public because of the tagging element, and will give prisoners an opportunity to readjust to life outside prison.''

Mr. Hawkins: On a point of order, Mr. Hood. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a point of order. You will recall that, at an earlier stage, in another debate, the Minister accused me of seeking to mislead the Committee. In a similar vein, can I ask you if it is in order for the Minister to refer to my involvement in a report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which he knows full well never considered the proposal that curfews be used for drug dealers, those who have assaulted police or people accused of offences against children. The whole basis of the deliberations of the Select Committee on the measure was that it would be used in respect of minor offences only.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman should know that that is not a point for the Chair.

Mr. Clarke: I merely sought to show that there was a lot of debate before the introduction of the home detention curfews. As I said, a range of hon. Members representing home counties constituencies went along with that approach.

The fundamental point about the home detention curfew is that the list of groups of prisoners who are currently disbarred falls into four categories, defined according to two central criteria: first, the extent of the risk to the public; secondly, that of the risk of the prisoner breaching the curfew. The first of the four groups consists of those who have previously breached trust—for example, those who have failed to return. The second consists of those who are required to register with the police on release as a sex offender—which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. The third group consists of those whom the court considers to pose a serious risk of reoffending with a violent offence, and have therefore have been sentenced to imprisonment with extended supervision. The fourth group is that of those whose offending was brought about by mental illness, such that the court has made a hospital or similar order on the basis of risk to the public.

That is the basis of the disbarring of prisoners from the scheme. The sentencing approach is not based on which types of crimes are particularly worthy of having access to the scheme. Only 30 per cent. of those who are eligible for home detention curfews pass the risk assessment, which shows the seriousness of that assessment. It is not a matter of reproof or reprobation of particular types of offence.

The two issues that I mentioned—the risk to the public and the risk that the prisoner will breach the curfew—are fundamental. The issues covered by new clauses 1 and amendment (a) to that new clause simply do not arise in the context of the home detention curfew. They arise in the context of an overall consideration of sentencing, of the type that the hon. Gentleman spoke about. If he wishes, I can give him a commitment. That is now one of the matters being considered in the context of the sentencing review.

The hon. Gentleman makes a separate point in new clause 2 about the issue of the risk to the public. I take that point more seriously, because it relates to the fundamental purposes of the home detention curfew. The home detention curfew legislation excludes those who are required to register as sex offenders because the risk of their reoffending, perhaps during the HDC period, has been judged serious so an individual risk assessment is not needed. The heinous nature of the offence is not the issue. As before, that is a matter for the court, taking into account sentencing and review.

Schedule 4 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, to which new clause 2 refers, consists of a list of offences that, if committed, disqualify the offender from working with children. The list was never intended to apply to anything else, and in our view it is not an appropriate guide to who is, or is not, at risk of reoffending while under a home detention curfew.

I do not consider the proposals appropriate, but before I conclude I shall give way briefly to anyone who wants to contribute.

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Prepared 6 March 2001