Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Stern: I, too, support the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. I do not wish to detain the Committee or the noble Baroness long. The arguments have already been put very convincingly, but I should like to add two points. I have spent many years of my life working with the people with whom this clause is concerned; that is, people in all kinds of trouble. Often their trouble with the law was the least of their worries.

All the research from the Home Office and from the Government's admirable Social Exclusion Unit bears out this experience. Many of the people we are talking about are struggling. There is one image of them as violent, offensive, thuggish and yobbish: many epithets can be found about them in the pages of any newspaper. There is another side that those who work with offenders, especially younger offenders, see often. The 19 year-old who does not look his age and who

22 May 2000 : Column 523

comes to a project, a day centre or to see his probation officer on a Monday morning full of misery. What sort of weekend has he had? He has tried to protect his mother from being beaten by his father. He has tried to look after the three younger children and feed them. He has suffered more than usual from the headaches he gets but he does not have a GP and the doctors on the estate where he lives are not very sympathetic to people like him.

According to Home Office Research Study 167, Offenders on Probation, nearly half of the people subject to probation and community penalties said they suffered from a long-term illness compared to 13 per cent in the general population. That is the background of many of the people subject to community penalties and that case could be multiplied many thousands of times. These are the people who will be subject to this provision. They are already very poor.

It may be said that these are all excuses and that there are no excuses for crime. These are not excuses but explanations of why this measure is grossly inappropriate. It will have another effect. When dispensing justice, one has to be just.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said in his famous and sadly neglected 1991 report on the prison system:

    "There must ... be justice in our prisons. The system of justice which has put a person in prison cannot end at the prison doors. It must accompany the prisoner into the prison".

Nor must it end once the community sentence has been passed. The aim of the justice system is to get offenders to play by the rules; to respect the law; to understand justice and injustice; and to stop treating other people unjustly.

This provision is clearly unjust. If so many noble Lords think it is unjust, so will offenders subject to community orders. Those in work will continue to receive money. Those without work will be deprived of benefit before a hearing. This measure makes the task of those working to get offenders back into society very much more difficult. It is desperately hard work--painstaking work for which too little credit is given. This measure will make their work even harder and the outcome will be one that nobody wants: fewer people helped into law-abiding lives, more social exclusion and more crime.

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: There was reference at Second Reading to punishment fitting the crime; to the quality of mercy; and other more classical references from the noble Earl, Lord Russell. We have heard today a great deal of eloquence about community sentencing and benefit entitlements. My noble friend Lady Kennedy of the Shaws spoke very emotively and passionately. However, she does not speak for or represent the vast majority of Labour Back-Benchers.

I want to make a few simple points underlined by the commitment in the Bill to evaluate the system of community sentences before rolling the scheme out. The points I make are about deterrents, choice, rights and responsibilities and setting examples.

22 May 2000 : Column 524

Members of the Committee are aware that community sentences are given to and indeed chosen by offenders whose crimes are not so serious that prison is the only appropriate measure. Community service orders, probation orders and combination orders impose sanctions through some restriction of liberty for offending behaviour and making reparation for the community; for example, by performing unpaid work. In many cases, successful completion of community sentences improves the opportunities of employment for the offender. Completing a community sentence requires self-discipline in attending appointments with the Probation Service and others and turning up for work on a community service placement.

I, too, am a supporter of civil liberties of many kinds. I do not believe in punishment for punishment's sake. I believe in justice and playing by the rules. I believe that people, particularly young people referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, need to be provided with information and education to make choices in their lives. I believe that they also need frameworks and boundaries set by families, society and ultimately themselves. I believe it does no one any good, in fact it might do harm, to encourage choice, in this case choice of a community sentence, to set frameworks and then not sanction a breach of commitment. What is that saying to the offender? What is it saying to those who might offend? What is it saying to society in general?

We have now introduced citizenship education in our schools as part of the curriculum. It would be a travesty not to advocate and set examples of responsibilities as well as rights. Surely we should be saying loudly and clearly to our young people that civil liberties also carry civic duties and that offending should carry sanctions, not only for the sake of society but of the offender. There is nothing wrong with disapproval sometimes.

I understand that around 130,000 community sentences are handed down each year in England and Wales. In 30,000 cases a year, offenders have to be referred back to court because they have not complied with their sentences. This situation surely calls for action.

The Bill contains powers to withdraw selected benefits from offenders who fail to comply with community sentences. I will not go into detail; that is well known. Your Lordships are also aware that the pilot scheme will permit hardship payments, even if the jobseeker's allowance and the training allowance are withdrawn, but only the element of selected training allowances, which equates with the participant's underlying jobseeker's allowance, will be withdrawn. Any additional premium, top-up payment or payment of expenses will remain payable subject to continued participation in the scheme. The allowances selected will include those payable to participants in work-based learning for adults and the New Deal for young people. Housing benefit entitlements will not be affected.

22 May 2000 : Column 525

This is surely about deterring people from breaching a contract they make with the state and making it clear that breach of contract will result in sanctions. Yes, it does send messages. Surely, it is fair that benefit systems should be seen to be applied to those who merit them and not to people who choose--I emphasise the word again--to fail to comply with agreed rules. There are conditions applicable to most aspects of life including good citizenship. We all have to learn the conditions and learn obligations to society. I believe that there are key principles at stake here, principles of being fair and being seen to be fair. I do not want to get into the draconian views of welfare and benefit sometimes voiced in the "vox pop" interviews. I strongly support welfare for those who deserve it and who have an entitlement to it. I also believe that people can learn and should learn to respect a system of rights and responsibilities. We must encourage them to do so. This is why I reject the amendment.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln is very sorry indeed that he is not able to be here. His name is associated with these amendments. He has been called back to the diocese on urgent business. I want to express my agreement with this proposal and my support for it. I agree completely with what has been said by many Members of the Committee--the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, the noble Earl, Lord Russell and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. Breaching a community service order is a very serious matter. It is not something which can be overlooked and it is not something which is trivial. But what the Government are proposing is an extremely blunt and immoral instrument with which to deal with that particular alleged offence.

It is quite right that if someone is alleged to have breached a community service order, he should go back to the courts as soon as possible. It is for the courts to establish whether there is a breach. The circumstances of each case must be established. Those cases will be extremely different, from person to person. What is the proper course of action for each of the 65 per cent of those under probation supervision who are on benefits and who would be punished by this proposal?

I do not want to reiterate the arguments which have been set so eloquently before the Committee, but I want to express my support for the Motion and I apologise for the absence of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln.

Lord Elton: Perhaps I may respond briefly to the intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. She has addressed the practicalities of this debate in a manner which is very attractive to a large number of people outside this Chamber and to some Members on all sides of the Committee. Therefore, in turn, it needs to be addressed.

We are debating two matters: principle and practice. The case about principle, which my noble friend Lord Windlesham and others have advanced, is

22 May 2000 : Column 526

unanswerable in the form in which it has been put. Sometimes practicalities argue against principle. One can bend principle because practicalities make it difficult to enforce or unreliable in effect.

But I do not believe that that is so now. Many people, including the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, have adduced the way in which those provisions will work. The noble Baroness said that there must be fairness; that people expect punishment to be fair; that if you breach the order, you should be punished. My noble friend did not suggest that that should not be the case. He has merely said that it should be done by the courts; that these orders are an alternative to imprisonment; and that those who are subject to them should be exposed to the risk of imprisonment if they fail to comply.

The noble Baroness said that the appeal to the hearts of Members of the Committee because of hardship is overstated because there will be hardship payments. In the provisions, we learn that those will not be available until two weeks after the orders bite. So is it possible to survive for a fortnight on an empty stomach but not for six weeks or six months?

The noble Baroness said also that the payments for housing benefit would not be affected. But housing benefit payments are often less than rents. What happens to the unfortunate person who must meet those payments out of income? Even if he receives a hardship payment, the whole amount is not clawed back and the income element is untouched by the hardship payment.

We need to look at the practical effects of the proposed provisions. The practical effect is that many people, who are fairly incompetent at managing their lives in any event, will find it impossible to do so without resorting to crime.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page