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Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. We on these Benches welcome the Statement, although it is still tinged with some of the macho rhetoric which has been used to address the subject for the past few years. The opportunity is not lost, for example, to refer to the introduction of automatic life sentences and mandatory minimum sentences which we on these Benches consider not worthy of a government who project themselves as a reforming government.

The prevention of crime in the first place is the priority of the criminal justice system, but who commits the crime? Very often, crime is committed by those who have committed it previously. If prisoners have been

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warehoused for longer and longer periods with inadequate training and if they are then released into the community, they will return easily to the way of life that took them to prison in the first place.

The rhetoric of the past few years has had its effect. Judges instinctively responded by passing longer sentences and were pilloried in the popular press if they failed to do so. We had hoped that the new Home Secretary would not go in fear of the tabloid press in the way that sometimes appears. The pressures on the Prison Service as a result of longer sentences have caused it to fail in its vital function of rehabilitating those who are in its care.

However, we welcome this Statement because it recognises some important issues; for example, the problem of prisoners who come out of prison with very little money and support. It recognises the need to give prisoners an opportunity to structure their lives more effectively and rebuild the supportive relationships of family, home and job--all aspects that will discourage them from reoffending and, crucially, prevent further crime.

We do not consider it enough simply to put a tag upon a prisoner and leave him to his own devices. This should not be seen as a cheap alternative to probation work. Can the Minister inform us what community supervision is proposed to go along with the tagging? How much will it all cost? Equally important, if by this means the prison population is reduced will the resources thereby released be used constructively to provide fresh training and rehabilitation courses? We on these Benches hope that the Minister will be able to assist us.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions that have been offered. I am a shade disappointed that the noble Baroness is not able to be more welcoming to an imaginative departure from our custodial regime. I can say without any fear of contradiction from any quarter that this is not Exchequer-driven. It is intended to manage what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, rightly identified as a very difficult period of transition from prison to what should be a new rehabilitated life. It is impossible for those who have not had to make that transition to grasp its difficulties and dangers. The fact is that our prisons are full of inadequate, petty offenders who very often are a menace to the public. At present they are not sufficiently assisted in their return to what should be a fresh start with family and the community. We cannot ignore the inheritance of a vast increase in prison population which was not anticipated by the former Home Secretary under the previous government.

A number of questions have been asked. This is not a response to the tabloid press in any way. This is a considered scheme which we hope will assure the public that their legitimate interests are being looked after; first, in the short-term, which is no longer than two months and, secondly, on a longer-term basis; namely, if a person is managed in his or her return to the community the opportunity for rehabilitation over the long term is much greater.

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The noble Baroness asked a number of questions which I attempted to note, but if I miss any of them I shall write to her. I make absolutely plain that this is not an amnesty, as has been considered by previous governments. As a scheme it applies only to those who are serving between three months and four years. The total number in that category is 26,000 out of the present total prison population of 63,000. I disappoint myself by returning every week to answer questions, for instance from the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, when the figures appear to rise inexorably. However, one needs to look at reality. This sentence band presently attracts automatic release at the half-way point, and that includes burglars. That was the regime conducted under the previous government. One wants to be measured and cautious in what one says on these occasions.

Some categories of prisoners will be excluded. Those categories will be set out in detail in the legislative scheme. They will include those prisoners who are unable to comply with the scheme, perhaps because they do not have access to a place that can be curfewed, and those who represent a clear risk of breach; for example, those who are in custody for a breach of a curfew order by electronic monitoring imposed by the courts.

To reply to the specific question relating to Berkshire put to me by the noble Baroness, between July 1996 and June 1997 the figure was 35.

Baroness Blatch: Pathetic!

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Baroness says "pathetic". On this occasion I am simply the messenger, not the message. I simply give the fact. The noble Baroness also asked whether the courts would decide on recall. The answer is no. As the noble Baroness implied, the technology is now sufficiently advanced. I readily agree with the noble Baroness that it has greatly improved.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. My question was not whether they would go back without recourse to the court. That was made absolutely clear in the Statement. The question was whether there would be differential treatment of people who were serving curfew orders by tagging imposed by the courts and those who received home detention orders. Would criminals from one category go back to court to be returned to prison and the others go back on the mere say-so of a prison officer?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I was about to deal with that. Because the technology has improved Prison Service headquarters will decide recall on behalf of the Secretary of State and give any person who is adversely affected the opportunity to make representations. I remind your Lordships that a similar power already exists for those who are recalled from parole licences. This is not a new device.

Questions were put about the involvement of the probation service. There will be a risk assessment which involves the probation service where appropriate and assistance by way of supervision of appropriate

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prisoners. One must bear in mind that these questions must be individualised. Not everyone will have the full two months. It will taper down to two weeks.

We cannot say how many prisoners will be released early. We do not know what the overall effect will be on the prison population, except that we trust and firmly believe realistically that it will have an ameliorating effect on the prison population. We cannot give the number because we do not know what the take-up or failure rate will be. As with any prudent government, we shall monitor the scheme in practice with very great care. It is intended that the policy should be nationwide, and it will not come into effect until 1999.

As the prison population changes and technology improves we believe that it is prudent to deal with these matters in this way. The scheme has been carefully thought out and is restricted to those who are serving between three months and four years. No one will be released without a risk assessment programme having been carried out. I suggest to your Lordships that prison governors will be extremely prudent and cautious in using this particular device. But one cannot see in reason any well founded argument against a determined effort by the Government with the assistance of the Prison Service to manage that chasm between incarceration--the total deprivation of liberty--and what one hopes is the result of any prison sentence; that is, a return to the community and a fruitful life.

Lord Milverton: My Lords, I welcome the fact that Her Majesty's Government have decided upon this course. The principle is very good. I am glad that they have decided to carry further and improve what the previous government began.

As a parish priest one had visits from ex-prisoners; somehow they found their way to the vicarage or rectory. It was noticeable that, having been in prison for a short or a long time, they were so institutionalised and so used to having decisions made for them that they found it difficult and awkward to make their own decisions and did not know how to conduct themselves without help. As the Minister pointed out, it is important that when they come out they are given help to acclimatise themselves and become responsible individuals in society. I hope that the Government are successful in what they propose and I am glad of it.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for that support. I believe that everyone with his experience, or comparable experiences in dealing with discharged prisoners, would come to the view that he articulated. It is an exceptionally difficult period. I hope that we are imaginatively using what is now available to us, which was not formerly; that is, modern technology to restrict liberty in a way which many people find more burdensome because it involves individual choice. They will be deprived of their liberty in their own home. There will be a saving of cost, and we believe that there

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will be a saving of misery to members of the general public who are not well served on every occasion by our present prison regime.

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