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Baroness Thornton: Along with my noble friend Lady Massey, it is important that I put on record that my noble friend Lady Kennedy does not speak on behalf of many of us on the Back Benches here. I say that partly because recent publicity featuring my noble friend, certainly over the past weekend, suggested that somehow my noble friend is seen as the conscience of this Labour Government. My socialist conscience is in good working order and functioning very well.
What exercises my conscience is the notion that this Government are not listening or taking seriously the terrifying nature of the lives being led by some of our citizens on the estates and in the housing schemes where violence, robbery and vandalism are a huge problem. Perhaps I may say to the noble Earl that the people on those estates are not usually property owners. Do they not also have a right to be heard in this debate? This proposal is consistent with the Government's philosophy of being tough on crime and on the causes of crime.
However, I find it puzzling that some Members of the Committee, including those on this side, speak of rights and responsibilities as a kind of pick-and-mix. It is a pick-and-mix idea of rights and responsibilities. Those people imprisoned in their houses may feel that the rights are all on one side and they may ask who is taking the responsibility.
Finally, I believe that there is an odd alliance here which includes the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and my noble friend Lady Kennedy. I know that they must be aware that when probation and community service orders are broken, the end result is that people are put in prison. I know that they cannot believe that that is a good outcome. However, I am not quite so sure about the Benches opposite, particularly after listening to the Leader of the Conservative Party, Mr Hague, on this subject during the past week. I merely say that that must give people cause for thought.
The Earl of Mar and Kellie: I want to ask a single question about the application of this Bill in Scotland. In view of the fact that the criminal justice system has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, will it be intra vires for the Secretary of State to run a pilot scheme in Scotland?
Lord Christopher: I would like to indicate that from these Benches there is certainly not total unanimity about what should be done in this regard. I had better explain where I come from. For some time before 1998, I was involved with three charitable bodies concerned with penal reform and with offenders. The best part of that time was spent as chairman of NACRO, one of the organisations which was a party to the representations which have been made to many Members.
It has always seemed to me that the concept of deterrence was very confused. We live in an extremely penal-oriented society but one man's deterrent is another man's incentive. I have little doubt that the prospect of going to prison would be a 120 per cent deterrent to the Minister. Indeed, the very fact of being anywhere near the thought would be dreadful to her.
But I am puzzled by the belief that the withdrawal of this money will deter those who are under those two particular forms of sentence to whom the prospect of going to prison is not a deterrent. I find that totally unconvincing.
Perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lady Massey that most of the people that she is talking about could not spell the word "contract", let alone understand it. One problem is in being cost-effective in dealing with crime, its consequences and offenders. I assure the Committee that I should not wish to be classed as wet,
I do not want to repeat what others have said before me. As I have indicated, I wish to be constructive. I have no quarrel at all with being tough on those who break that contract and in dealing with them. But the subtleties of the matter need to be understood. Only about a third of those who are taken back to the courts are given a prison sentence. Where do the other two-thirds fall?
I believe that the real answer lies in doing something tough quickly and getting those allegedly in breach before a magistrate fast. I understand that on average it takes about six weeks. In some parts of the country I believe that it takes a good deal longer, which is utterly ridiculous. If we want people to feel that there is a deterrent and that if they are caught they will be dealt with quickly, we must deal with them quickly. Because we have dealt with them so slowly--as set out in the misspent youth report--the whole system has fallen into disrepute with such people.
There is also the belief that somehow or other the public will feel satisfied if this provision is enacted. Of course, in terms of taxation and cost, the price will be a great deal heavier. I have no doubt whatever that the consequences of this will lead to increased, often nuisance crime. I see no constructive point in that at all.
Perhaps I may conclude with an anecdote. In the 1960s I used regularly to visit two London prisons, where I spoke to prisoners who were due for release within two or three months. After a short while it was borne in upon me that, whether one liked it or not, it was desirable to try to remove any possible causes of grievance on release. Many of these men and women look for something to justify doing what they should not do. I came across several prisoners who returned to prison quickly. They had left prison, got a job, promised their wives that they would go straight and so on. Then pay day came on the Friday and they found that the inspector of taxes had taken 30 per cent of their pay so they went home with a lot less than they had thought or had promised to go home with.
That is a simple, mechanistic issue that, I hope, has been dealt with. I found the Inland Revenue extremely co-operative. At the end of the day a form was produced and given to any prisoner who wanted it so that he or she left prison with a piece of paper saying, in the majority of cases, that he or she is not liable to pay any tax. Therefore, the potential sense of grievance is removed.
This proposal invents a new potential sense of grievance. It will not be understood, except in its simplistic form. I hope that we shall not be required to vote on this matter as I hope that the Minister and the Government will think through whether there is not a better answer to dealing with this problem.
Lord Baker of Dorking: I hope that the Minister will carefully consider the points that have been made not only from this side of the House and from the Liberal Democrat Benches, but also from the Benches behind her. The measure that she proposes is offensive on two grounds of principle.
The first principle is that the responsibility for trying to condition criminal behaviour lies with the Home Office. Those of us concerned with bringing in criminal justice Bills know only too well that this is an immensely complex measure. Whatever proposals one brings forward, one must be satisfied that one will not increase the incidence of crime, rather than reduce it. That requires a long study of criminological reports which are available only in the Home Office, in our system, or to various criminological departments in our universities. That is not the responsibility of the Department of Social Security. The Minister cannot be expected to make the case convincingly on this point because she is not responsible for such matters. Previous Labour governments and previous Conservative governments have always observed that important principle. The consequences of the Minister's suggestion is that quite lowly paid officials in the Department of Social Security will make a decision which was never intended to be part of our criminal justice system.
The second principle is that I do not believe that one should use the withdrawal of benefits and entitlements as some sort of further punishment. For many years, the noble Lord, Lord Christopher, represented the interests of the Inland Revenue and he could advise the Minister that if one of his staff had been convicted of grievous fraud, convicted and sent to prison, his or her Civil Service pension would not be removed.
When a judge was found guilty of smuggling--I believe, bootleg liquor into this country from France--there was a suggestion that his pension should be removed. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, the then Lord Chancellor, said that he would not do that, thus preventing other judges following suit.
The principle is wrong, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said. This measure cannot be used as a yo-yo penalty to withdraw entitlements. If it can be used in relation to breaches of community orders, why not use it in relation to breaches of probation orders? The Minister will say that such a person has been convicted. What about someone who breaches a probation order six times and commits six offences in between? Shall we try to condition his or her behaviour by using these sorts of penalties?
I suggest that the Minister should listen carefully to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, who has spent most of her life and career dealing with offenders, prisons and criminals. She probably has a greater understanding of the motivation of criminals than anybody in this House. The Minister should also listen to the noble Lord, Lord Christopher.
This is the sort of proposal that is dreamt up on a Saturday afternoon in No. 10, when the spin doctors have come in and said, "The Sundays are going to say that we are weak on law and order; come on, Tony, come up with some really clever idea, a spiffing wheeze that will get us the headlines for a few days". They have had the headlines for a few days; they will have the headaches for years.
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