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Baroness Stern: My Lords, I rise also to support the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. It was suggested in Committee that those who opposed this clause were unaware of the crime situation on some disadvantaged housing estates and insensitive to the plight of the victims of crime. I think many of us who did oppose it felt that this was a very unfair way of looking at our opposition.

Unless new information has become available since the Minister spoke on 22nd May, we have to assume that it is still not known whether these measures will reduce crime and give added protection to victims. Certainly, all the evidence on crime reduction gives no grounds for the Minister's optimism. To my knowledge there are no research results showing that making people poorer reduces their propensity to commit crime.

I, too, studied the Minister's speech very carefully. It was certainly worth studying. The idea of benefits being conditional on individual's recognising their obligations to society is, of course, right. But it is very selective. We all have many benefits from society. As the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said in Committee, we seem to have got into the philosophical mode of saying that there is a contract between the community and the state but that it applies only to people who are on benefit. So the only people whose benefits from society will be threatened are those who need them most; that is, the poor. It is not proposed that employed or non-benefit drawing defaulters will have an administrative punishment as well as a criminal one. The only people to receive two punishments will be the poor.

There was some discussion in Committee as to whether this was a punishment or an administrative measure. That is an academic question. To lose £205.60 a month if you are a male offender on job seeker's allowance, or to lose £82.20 if you are a lone parent with one child is a punishment if you are very poor. It is a fine that misses out the process of going to court. Of course, fines are used less and less by the courts. The percentage of offenders who are fined has fallen from 54 per cent in 1978 to 32 per cent in 1998. That is because more people were too poor to pay. The courts always argued that they could not fine offenders on benefit because to take even £5 a week from the small sums people were receiving would put them into

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unacceptable poverty. Here we are proposing to take even more, and without due process. I support the amendments.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, this morning I missed my dentist appointment through a combination of incompetence, misreading my diary and somebody putting it in the wrong place--or cowardice, as somebody said. I was also late for something last week. To fine the poor 100 per cent of their income because of that sort of level of incompetence is really vicious behaviour.

There are two questions that the Minister has never answered. First, why should the poor be fined 100 per cent of their income without judicial process? Secondly, can the Minister explain to the House on what they are going to live? I suggest that their only answer is flogging their bodies, flogging cocaine or crack, or doing something equally nasty from which we want to wean them. We do not want them to do that. We want to try to reform them. If one pushes them back into that way, of course it is going to become worse.

I was reminded at luncheon today of this piece of literature:

    "'Then the words don't fit you,' said the King looking round the court with a smile. There was a dead silence.

    'It's a pun!' the King added in an angry tone, and everyone laughed. 'Let the jury consider their verdict,' the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

    'No, no!' said the Queen. 'Sentence first--verdict afterwards.'

    'Stuff and nonsense!' said Alice loudly. 'The idea of having the sentence first!'

    'Hold your tongue!' said the Queen, turning purple.

    'I won't!' said Alice.

    'Off with her head!' the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved'".

I am afraid that the Red Queen seems to be occupying the Government Front Bench with that attitude of mind.

7 p.m.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, not for the first time do I find myself speaking in this Chamber in what I sense to be a minority. However, I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, that my comments do not represent the majority. I believe that they represent the majority outside this House, but no doubt we shall see. In any civilised society, or indeed in a family, if people are prepared to live in harmony, they have rights. But accompanying those rights are commensurate responsibilities. I believe that that is what the debate is all about.

I often hear noble Lords legitimately argue that prison simply makes criminals worse and that more use should be made of community service orders. However, if a straw poll of public opinion were taken, prison would probably come first again. It would come well ahead of community service.

I believe that community service has a right and proper place in the armoury of the courts, but only if it is enforceable. We see too many examples of people

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demanding rights in society but not accepting the obligations. It is a two-way street. Surely, the purpose of the taxation system is to ensure that those in society who are unable, without fault on their part, to work, or who fall ill, are supported by the many. People are quite happy--perhaps "happy" is the wrong word--to contribute towards those who fall through the net.

Those who commit crime and are sent to prison forfeit the right to receive benefit, although their families will be catered for. It must be wrong, therefore, if those who are given a community service order which they will then wilfully ignore can lie in bed and still expect other hardworking members of the community to featherbed them. The noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, was right in saying that in some areas there is a no-work culture. But there is also a criminal culture which needs to be tackled.

Perhaps I take the old-fashioned view that the work ethic is worth encouraging. We have lost some of the discipline in society. The pillars of authority are no longer respected: the vicar, the doctor or the policeman. Some might believe that that is proper, but as a policeman for more than 30 years I can say that once a wrongdoer knew that you were bluffing and that there was no effective sanction, he would--and it was usually "he"--exploit it to the full. That would often be true of juvenile offenders, who knew the age of criminal responsibility and would often taunt police officers with that fact. I mention that as an example.

It was true of a professional burglar who knew that you had nothing on him. During the interrogation, he would watch carefully for any hint that you did not really know whether it was him. And, rightly, he would exploit that! One would expect nothing else.

Therefore, it seems to me that if an offender is given a community sentence and knows that he can wilfully ignore it with impunity and still pick up his benefits, we are playing right into his hands--

Lord Alexander of Weedon: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He has twice suggested that the offender wilfully ignores the community service order. Who is to be the judge of whether he wilfully ignores it? Is it not to be the court, and should we not respect the court in that way?

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point, but I certainly do not agree with it. I hear what the noble Lord says, but I believe that it can be an administrative decision and that it is a real sanction against those who wilfully ignore the community service order imposed by the court.

We are trying to achieve the opposite. We are trying to persuade the offender that this is not a something-for-nothing society. Surely, we are trying to create good citizens. This Government support the police and do not just talk about doing so.

Earl Russell: My Lords, does the noble Lord believe that a parent who misses a community service appointment because she is taking a sick child to casualty is behaving irresponsibly?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, a recent circular from the Home Office, 24/00, makes it clear

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that probation officers are to take into account exactly such circumstances and not regard them as a basis for a referral to court. Therefore, the noble Earl should withdraw that suggestion.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, that is right. The problem is that we are assuming that people have no discretion in this matter. Clearly, people do have a discretion when enforcing the measure and I believe that it would be enforced against those people who are abusing the system. That is the way in which sensible people operate and your Lordships are being a little extreme to suggest otherwise.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but I want to point out that there is little discretion. The Minister is right in saying that the Home Office circular, sent out in April, made it clear that:

    "All absences should be regarded as unacceptable unless proved otherwise. Acceptable absences would include medical appointments notified in advance with appointment cards shown for verification".

It is clear that there are limited circumstances in which an excuse can be acceptable.

It is right that carers' responsibilities can be taken into account; that possible appointments should be made with their obligations in mind; and that an emergency relating to a child will be taken into account. But little discretion is left.

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