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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. It is difficult to see what could have possessed a Government so strongly committed to crime reduction to introduce a measure which will inevitably increase crime. It is equally difficult to understand what could have made a Government so committed to tackling social exclusion bring forward a measure which will further worsen the exclusion from society of many vulnerable people. But it is nothing short of astonishing that a Government so committed to promoting racial equality should introduce a measure which will so disproportionately disadvantage black offenders, further alienating them from law abiding citizenship.

Let us take three examples of what the changes proposed by Government will mean in practice. First, let us consider a jobseekers' allowance recipient aged 25 with no dependant or housing costs who would normally be entitled to £51.40 a week. If he or she were referred to court for breaching a community sentence the full amount of £51.40 would be withdrawn for four weeks. Depending on the individual circumstances, after two weeks the individual might be able to gain hardship payment of £30.85 a week, or £41.15 a week

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if someone in his or her family were seriously ill or pregnant. Those with responsibility for a child could apply for a hardship payment from the beginning of the period, but even here the payment would be less than the claimant's normal entitlement.

A second example is a lone parent on income support with one child under 11 who would have his or her benefit entitlement reduced by 40 per cent of the single adult rate, a reduction of £22.55 at current rates. This would mean that weekly benefit of £71.50 would be payable instead of the full rate of £92.05.

A third example is of a young single person participating in the voluntary sector option of the New Deal who currently receives an allowance consisting of a basic element of £40.70 plus top-up of £15.38. In that case the £40.70 would not be paid for four weeks, although the £15.38 would continue to be paid if the young person continued to participate in the New Deal.

During the pilots those sharp reductions in income for people who are already in real poverty will last for four weeks; and when the measure goes nation-wide, the Bill allows the Secretary of State to authorise these reductions for anything up to six months. Anyone who has worked with offenders can see that pushing poor people into greater poverty in this way must increase their temptation to steal, shoplift, burgle, solicit for prostitution or sell drugs.

The Probation Service national standards now require that an offender must be returned to court for breach of an order on a second failure to comply, and this could mean being 20 minutes to half an hour late for a probation or community service appointment on two occasions. The degree of hardship involved in the removal or reduction of benefit will often be wholly disproportionate to the seriousness of the offence, especially as it will be in addition to whatever punishment the court decides is appropriate for the breach.

There is no doubt that this measure will have a particularly adverse effect on offenders from minority ethnic groups for the simple reason that black males have a higher rate of unemployment than white males. They will therefore be over-represented in the group of offenders who will have its benefits withdrawn. How is this indirect discrimination supposed to increase respect for the law among young black men or minority ethnic communities generally? It can only undermine the strenuous efforts of all of us who are working to increase the respect for the law and to combat racism and discrimination in the legal process.

I have no doubt that this misguided measure will deter some probation officers from taking people back to court. I believe strongly that probation officers should be rigorous in returning people to court for persistence as regards probation and community service orders. But if probation officers know that there will be unjust and draconian results, there must be a temptation for them not to record failures to comply in order to avoid these consequences. This measure will tend to undermine the admirable and

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increasingly successful work which the Association of Chief Officers of Probation has spearheaded to improve the enforcement of community sentences.

The change is taking place at a time when in another piece of legislation, the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill, the Government are centralising the Probation Service into a new national probation service. If the Government persist with the misguided measure before us today, it will sound a warning note about their plans to increase central control of Probation Service policy. Many of us would be far more resistant to moving in such a direction if we thought that it was likely to be dominated by approaches like this one which sound tough but in reality can only damage the fight against crime.

About 58,000 community service orders are made in a given year. Everyone is a potential victim if such a policy is pursued. In sentencing options a community service order is often an alternative to a custodial sentence. The Government's proposed action abolishes that distinction: it leads those without receipt of funds to commit further crimes. My noble friend Lord Russell points out that a number of arguments have been advanced about the pilot schemes. For those noble Lords who wish to refer to his views, they are well reported in Hansard.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, I have spoken previously on withdrawing benefits from those in breach of probation and community service orders. On reading those debates in Hansard I noted a number of failures of understanding about what we are dealing with by some noble Lords. There were repeated references to persistent long-term "refusers"--people not turning up time and again. We are here talking about individuals who do not attend on two occasions. They miss two appointments. Another misconception was that the provision was a remedy for dealing with all those young offenders on estates. But we are not talking only about young offenders on estates but many other kinds of offenders too. The broad brush of trying to tackle particular kinds of offending in this way will not be successful.

Like my noble friend Lord Sheppard I, too, believe strongly in the need for reform of welfare. I also believe that the best way out of poverty is through work. Like the noble Lord, I chaired an inquiry on expanding opportunities in education and widening participation. How does one draw the socially excluded--those who missed out the first time round--into education? One of our proposals was that learning became a central plank in any welfare reform: that one of the best ways back into work was via learning and training.

However, for many on community service orders the chaos of their lives, the multiple social problems they face, mean that there is a step to be taken even before that. It is about restoring some degree of order with the help of the professionals within the Probation Service. That takes time and hard work. People are willing. It is often not wilfulness which results in their not turning up; it is sometimes for other reasons.

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Like other noble Lords, I believe that it is right that the courts should be strict about those who cock a snook at the system, and do not turn up for appointments. Community service orders must be strengthened, but this measure is not the way to do it. First, it is an attack on the poor because it is the creation of a discriminatory punishment which does not apply to other offenders but only to the under-privileged. Secondly, it is an extraordinary departure constitutionally because it gives to the department of state dealing with social security a punishment to dole out in addition to that doled out by the courts. Thirdly, these proposals are an affront to the new and wonderful philosophy of human rights which has been introduced by this Government because it is contrary to natural justice to produce punishment in advance of conviction. What we will have is precisely that because if one does not have a hearing in front of people in a proper way--an adjudication as to whether there has been a breach--then surely we are not dealing properly with the question of breached.

As others have said, it is a sure fire way of returning people into the arms of crime. I have spent a large part of my life representing women, and for whom I have argued that there should be properly designed community service orders that could work for them, particularly if they had children, because so often community service orders did not particularly suit women who had children.

What we know now is that for those women--if they are in breach because of the chaos that their lives are often in at the beginning--to be driven back into the arms of crime would really impact not just on them but on their children.

We have just seen a very shaming international report that shows that child poverty is still a serious problem here in Britain, even greater than in other European countries. Reducing the benefits of a parent will undoubtedly impact on children who are not offenders or people cocking a snook at the criminal justice system.

I wrote to the Ministers involved, suggesting that these provisions might not apply to the primary carers of children; men and women who might be caring for children. I am disappointed that that exemption has not been considered.

The reason why this amendment has been proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln and myself is that although we all have principled objections to this whole proposal, we are seeking a compromise. That is why we have placed this amendment before the House. If benefits are going to be removed there should be at least a proper court decision that a breach has, indeed, taken place. It is not a lot to ask.

There is always an assumption that the public want to be excessively punitive. From what organisations such as Payback, an organisation working on community crimes and community punishment, tells us this is not reflected in the research. Legislation like this is not what the public want because the public

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understand that it does not actually lead to a reduction in crime. The public have a more sophisticated grasp of the complexities of crime than that for which they are generally given credit. They recognise that family influences are more important than sentencing practice and they want real solutions.

The Government created a social exclusion unit because of concern about the marginalising of the poor. If anything is likely to harden disaffection and exclusion, it is this proposal. For that reason we have sought that at least this amendment be passed because it means that the matter will go back before the court and a proper process will take place in deciding whether a breach had taken place at all.


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