Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, I still believe that we can rely on the good common sense of probation officers. I know that police officers welcome the provisions. Only this afternoon I talked to the Association of Chief Police Officers, which certainly supports the provision. Its officers are close to the problem of dealing with people who abuse community service orders.

People are simply being asked to do that which the court has ordered. Any sanction which gives them any kind of grief for failing in that regard will be seen as eminently sensible by the vast majority of people outside the Chamber.

I recently saw a letter from a chief inspector in charge of operations in Staffordshire. It was dated 7th June, which is about three weeks ago. It was a plea for further legal help to deal with those few people in communities who acted in an anti-social manner. The anti-social behaviour order was brought in for that very purpose. Those who did not accept the social norms in communities could be dealt with by new powers ordering them to comply. Yet that could happen if they were sentenced to a community service order.

We are talking about offenders making reparation to society for their breach of contract--it is a contract--in committing crime. In court, the offender agrees to accept the community service order. If he adds insult to injury by wilfully continuing to break his community service contract--and I am sure that the Probation Service will carefully examine the circumstances--it is right and sensible for society to

27 Jun 2000 : Column 835

review the contract and, if necessary, review his benefit. He will understand that and in my view it will be more likely to make him compliant.

Viscount Tenby: My Lords, in contrast, I rise to support Amendment No. 114A and I want to approach the matter from the point of view of the magistracy. I have been in touch with the Magistrates' Association and as recently as this morning I discussed the matter with the current and former chairmen of my bench. I am sure that they are alongside me in what I have to say.

As a magistrate of many years, I yield to no one--absolutely no one--in my desire to see rigorous enforcement of community orders. After all, for those of us who believe that they present a much more attractive prospect than wholesale imprisonment, it is essential that the criminal fraternity is made to take them seriously. The system absolutely depends on that.

However, it is one thing to take that view and quite another to seek to prejudge the decision of a legally appointed court as to whether an infringement has taken place by imposing, as we have been told, what amounts to a double punishment beforehand. Furthermore, inevitably it will be unfair in that, as we have also heard, one class--the unemployed--will suffer what is in effect a double punishment for the same offence. That simply is not right, whichever way one looks at it and however emotive the arguments. I understand fully and sympathise with what has been said about so-called sink estates and threats to local communities by the likes of such offenders.

In addition, in Committee many speakers referred to the dubious logic of removing the little financial support available from, say, a man and his family as a means of concentrating that person's mind on the importance of complying with a court order. Anyone who has ever had anything to do with courts, however fleetingly, will confirm that the often inadequate and nearly always disorganised offenders about whom we are talking this evening simply do not respond to that kind of threat. Indeed, in many cases I fear that it will lead only to a resumption of criminal activity in order to meet family needs.

Supporters of the Government's position--and, as we have heard, there are some on the Benches behind the Ministers--are entitled to ask opponents of the measure what they would do. Fair enough. In many interesting and thoughtful contributions from all sides of the House in Committee, I believe that the key point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Christopher. I hope that I am not embarrassing him by referring to him by name. He described the delay between the reporting of the breach of an order and the subsequent court appearance--often six weeks and sometimes even more--as "utterly ridiculous". I believe that that was the very phrase that he used. I agree wholeheartedly. Unless the matter is dealt with promptly, both the order and the sanction are diminished in the eyes of offenders. Accordingly, it is to the legal system that we should look to sort out the matter.

27 Jun 2000 : Column 836

In the meantime, we must not mix the executive and the law. To begin to do so now is to start on the slippery slope with potentially dangerous and unpredictable consequences. Accordingly, I urge noble Lords to support the amendment.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords--

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords--

Lord Bach: My Lords, this is an important debate and I hope that there will be plenty of time for both my noble friends to speak. I wonder whether one would speak now and the other a little later.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for his customary courtesy in informing me beforehand that he would bring up the issue of merit, which I raised in Committee, and its connotations. Perhaps I may say that I checked what I said in Committee and I agree with myself! I do not wish to indulge in a battle of semantics with the noble Earl or with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who was mentioned earlier. The noble Earl will recall that Thomas Carlyle queried: what is merit? He answered that it was the opinion that one man entertains of another. To me, merit is about being entitled to or deserving something. I stick by that definition in relation to this Bill.

At the root of benefit systems is the need to comply with rules which are set down and explained in advance. I agree that people should know their rights. They should also appreciate that responsibilities go alongside rights. Earlier, we heard reference to "fairness" and "choice" and about informing people of their rights in order to respect them. I agree with that. Approximately 130,000 community sentences are given out each year in England and Wales. In some 30,000 of those cases offenders are referred back to court because of lack of compliance. Thirty thousand people choose--I emphasise that word--community sentences and then betray trust. I do not believe in and would not want a society which is based on punishment and lack of sympathy. As a former teacher and a current parent, I believe in being positive, in respecting dignity and in protecting the vulnerable.

Community sentences can be positive. They can encourage people--often young people--to learn self-discipline, how to be responsible towards others and how to keep a commitment. Young people need frameworks, boundaries and examples. If they agree to a community sentence and break the commitment, surely some sanction must be applied. How many of us have not, as parents, applied sanctions in order to encourage children or young people to adapt their behaviour? Parents should be encouraged to be committed to their children and be seen to be committed. That is one way to tackle child poverty.

27 Jun 2000 : Column 837

The Bill contains a commitment to evaluate the system of community sentences before ruling it out. The pilot scheme will allow for hardship payments, even if the jobseeker's allowance and training allowance are withdrawn. As the Minister and other noble Lords have said, evaluation of the system will give us valuable insights.

I believe that people can be competent in running their lives without becoming criminals if we explain systems and the consequences of contravening systems and if we introduce deterrents as well as support. I cannot see that anything will be learned by not having sanctions for the breaking of laws. I am aware, as has been said, that some people in our society have many problems. I am aware that some people are brought up in chaotic circumstances. I have taught in deprived areas of London. I agree that some people in society need support. However, I feel that providing support without a belief that people can appreciate the notion of civil rights together with civil responsibilities is almost an insult to the deprived. I believe that if we treat people as helpless, they will learn helplessness.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Elton: My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness would allow me to ask a question. Surely the debate has been focused by my noble friend not on the removal of Clauses 63 to 67 but on their amendment. Therefore, the question is not whether there should be sanctions but by whom they should be administered. Should it be by the court or by the state?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, there has been no indication tonight that the other amendments will not be moved. Unless there is such an indication, my understanding--as is perhaps that of my noble friend--is that we were discussing the full range of amendments that are grouped. No effort has been made to ungroup them and no effort has been made to say that they will not be moved. Therefore, my noble friend is entirely right to speak to the broad issue.

Lord Windlesham: My Lords, perhaps I may interject and say to the noble Baroness, who, I trust, will shortly wind up the debate, that the further amendments will not be moved. Amendment No. 114A, the compromise amendment, is the only one on which we shall ask for the opinion of the House.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page