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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that answer. Perhaps I may put two questions to him. First, can he confirm specifically that the intention behind my amendment is covered? Can he say specifically that in relation to the offences listed in Schedules 1 and 2 to the Sex Offenders Act 1997 the prosecutor will have a duty to inform victims of the progress of the prosecution? Is the noble Lord responding with an unequivocal "yes" to that?

Secondly, he referred to the fact that a new system for all victims of crime would be in place by 2001. Has that already been legislated for or does it require legislation?

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as I indicated in my earlier comments, the proposal is based on pilot schemes. As I made plain, it is intended that this approach will cover all types of offence and that a new system for all victims of crime will be in place by April 2001. The victim's charter is guidance only; it is not legislation. However, as is often the case, legislation is not always required in order for schemes to take effect; they can be carried out by administrative fiat. That is our preferred approach in this case. The service on offer to victims of crime will be universal. Of course, we need to ensure that it is effective and that it works well. It will be run through the Crown Prosecution Service and the police.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, perhaps it is the lateness of the hour or perhaps it is me, but I did not understand the answer to my question. I believe that the noble Lord said that the duty to inform victims is not an obligation under the law and that it is no more than as set out in the charter. The right of victims of crime, and particularly of offences listed under Schedules 1 and 2, to be informed of the progress of the prosecution is not specifically covered. The noble Lord did not appear to say yes to that, and I should be pleased if he could give me an answer.

Secondly, on the one hand, the noble Lord said that pilot schemes would be put in place next year; on the other, he said quite clearly that a system covering all victims of crime would be in place by 2001. Which is it? Is a pilot scheme being trialled in order to put a system in place, or has the scheme been finalised, is ready to be implemented and will be in place for all victims by 2001?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, at the peril of repeating myself, I said that the system would be in place for all victims by April 2001. The answer to the noble Baroness's first question is: yes, it is indeed the case that pilots are now being run by the CPS, but a full system for all victims of crime will be in place by April 2001. I do not believe that I can express my answer more plainly, simply, basically or straightforwardly than that, but that is exactly what we are intending to do.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord missed out the key point. Is that an obligation under the law or is it simply an obligation under the charter?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is not law; it is an act of policy. It is already in place and being implemented. We do not require law in order that it should be carried out. We are doing it as a matter of policy.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, this was a concern of the victims themselves who do not believe that it is being done. I shall return to this at Third Reading and make it a matter of law. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 74:


    After Clause 62, insert the following new clause--

CONDITIONS FOR RELEASE OF SHORT-TERM PRISONERS ON LICENCE

(" . In section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (power to release short-term prisoners on licence), after subsection (2)(j) there is inserted--
"(k) the court, when passing sentence, did not state in ordinary language and in open court--
(i) the existence of the power of the Secretary of State to release prisoners under this section; and
(ii) the period of imprisonment that the prisoner would serve were the Secretary of State to release him immediately after having served the requisite period under subsection (4) below."").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this is a series of amendments, Amendments Nos. 74, 75, 76, 77, 78 and 79. The Government's early release scheme allows the Secretary of State to release certain categories of prisoners from gaol early, often before they have served half of their sentence. They may spend the final two months of their custodial sentence in the community subject to a nine-hour electronically monitored curfew. If this curfew period is breached the offender can be recalled to prison. An offender sentenced to custody for six months will ordinarily be released in three months. If included in the scheme an offender could be out in a mere six weeks.implementation of the scheme in January 1999 and 54 of those persons have been convicted of manslaughter, 145 of resisting arrest or assaulting a police officer and over 3,500 of drug offences. Over 800 of those released have breached the terms of their curfew. Forty-one people have disappeared and remain unlawfully at large in the community. Just over 750 further offences have been committed by offenders who were out on the scheme. There are 750 further victims of crime because of this policy.

We have consistently opposed the scheme. We make no apology for that. We moved the amendment throughout the Commons stages and in Committee in this House. It was also the topic of an Opposition day debate in the Commons in July. It is not right that serious criminals are able to leave prison after less than half their sentence has been served.

Amendment No. 74 focuses on the needs of victims rather than criminals. In Committee the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, stated that the consequences of my amendments would be to ensure that no one in prison could go on the scheme. I do not deny that. This is one of the precise aims of the amendment. The amendment also seeks to keep victims of crime better informed. Again, in Committee the noble and learned Lord said:


    "We believe that the net result would be additional time-consuming bureaucracy for the courts".--[Official Report, 4/10/2000; col.1633.]

If informing victims more fully and involving victims more in the court process is more work, then I say that is not bureaucracy. So be it. Certainly, it would be in a good cause. We are concerned that victims should be able to understand the sentences when they are meted out in court.I turn to Amendment

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No. 75. Section 111 of the Power of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act sets a minimum three-year sentence for a third conviction for domestic burglary. Such an offender would be eligible for the scheme resulting in him being released possibly after 16 months, that is, the automatic half-way point minus the two-month period on the scheme. This is a nonsense. It renders Section 111 completely pointless. What is the point of an automatic sentence if it can be completely undermined by this scheme? So far over 2,000 offenders convicted of burglary have been released on this scheme. We do not know how many of them have committed a third burglary. A scheme should not overtake the power of the Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act that makes a mockery of the legislation passed by Parliament.

I turn to Amendment No. 77. At present any offender can be placed on the scheme provided he meets the criteria of having been sentenced to more than three months or less than four years. They are also eligible if convicted of sex offences. The amendment gives the judge the power to rule out the scheme at the point of sentencing. This would have two benefits. The court could say at the outset that a person would or would not qualify for the scheme. It would allow the home detention curfew scheme to be used as part of the sentencing procedure; for example, maybe a lesser sentence but ineligibility for the scheme. It would allow the victims of crime to understand the sentence given because the judge would be forced to explain the consequences of the scheme in open court. I know that this would reduce the scope of the scheme by limiting it to the judge's discretion, which, so often in this Chamber, has been hard fought for. However, use of the scheme would have more merit by being underwritten quite explicitly in open court.

Amendment No. 78 relates to an offence under Section 89 of the Police Act 1996, of assaulting, obstructing or resisting a constable followed by an offence under Section 38 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which is assault with intent to resist arrest, and an offence under Sections 18, 20 or 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which includes wounding, causing grievous bodily harm and causing actual bodily harm committed against a constable in the exercise of his duty.

So far, nearly 150 people convicted of resisting arrest or assaulting a police officer have been released early. The average sentence imposed for those offences is 4.6 months but the average sentence served in prison was only 1.5 months. The offender then served 0.8 months on the scheme. Iwonder whether that makes sense to those who have been assaulted in that way.

Seventeen assaults on police officers and two assaults in the course of resisting arrest have been committed by offenders who were on the scheme. At the very least, the Government should show their support for the police by accepting this amendment at a time when the police are demoralised. Huge numbers of officers are leaving the force and police numbers are falling. That would at least show that the Government's manifesto promise is not completely forgotten.

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I turn now to Amendment No. 76. While no prisoners are eligible for the scheme if they receive a sentence of more than four years, they would still, under this amendment, be eligible where the maximum possible sentence is more than this amount. In fact, according to my amendment, it would be a maximum of 10 years or more. Anybody who is sentenced to, for example, three-and-a-half years, where the maximum for the sentence is more than 10 years has committed a fairly serious crime. It seems to me that those people should be excluded from the scheme. The amendment, I accept, reduces the scope of the scheme, excluding from the scheme those convicted of such serious offences--and I mean serious offences--if the maximum is 10 years or more. The sentences include burglary of a dwelling and aggravated burglary, importing orexporting Class A and Class B drugs, robbery and making threats to kill people. The amendment reduces the focus on the sentence given and transfers it to the offence actually committed. These are important amendments. I beg to move.

10.45 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, as the noble Baroness said today and has said previously, there is a fundamental disagreement here. She has said quite candidly, as has Mr Hague, that she wishes the total destruction of the home detention curfew scheme. My stance is completely the opposite. It has been a remarkably successful scheme and we have no intention of scrapping it. It is one of the biggest electronic monitoring schemes in the world; it has had an extremely successful first 20 months of operation.

I should say as a matter of history rather than as a partisan point that the home detention curfew scheme received the unanimous support of the All-Party Home Affairs Committee in the Commons which said that it would,


    "provide adequate protection to the public because of the tagging element, and would give prisoners an opportunity to readjust to life outside prison".

That is the critical point. I must correct a slip that I made. I believe that on the last occasion I said four months and, as the noble Baroness rightly said, it is two months available on home detention curfew. All of those persons, every one of them, would inevitably have been out at the conclusion of that two month period.

Earlier this evening, we had a number of discussions in the probation context about rehabilitation. As the All-Party Home Affairs Committee unanimously said, home detention curfew provides an opportunity for offenders to readjust to life outside prison. We all know the indicators of recidivism--no job, no home, no settled social surroundings. In my experience of visiting prisons where the scheme has been carried out, many prisoners regard it as more difficult than imprisonment because it imposes personal obligations on people who have never had them before. Some prisoners, in significant numbers, I found, were unwilling to ask for home detention curfew because, as

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they said, "They couldn't hack it". A sobering thought is that for them the easier life is to be locked up in prison with no responsibility for their own lives.

Prison governors have been extremely prudent and restrained in the use that they have made of this power. Only 30 per cent of eligible offenders have been released. I know from my own visits that there is extremely close co-operation between prison governors, probation officers and the police. They are extremely cautious about the risk assessment process, remembering that that process takes into account the risk that offenders may pose to the victim, the risk they may pose to members of the public, the likelihood of reoffending during the curfew period and the likelihood of failure to comply with the conditions of the curfew. It is a remarkably successful scheme.

The noble Baroness dealt fully with the amendments so I shall mention them in a little detail. The first new clause would prevent any prisoner being put on a home detention curfew scheme unless the existence of such a scheme had been explained by the court at the time of sentencing, together with the way in which the scheme would affect the length of time to be spent in custody. That means that the court would have to be asked to determine whether a given offender should be eligible for consideration for release on such a scheme. If the court does not mention the matter, the offender is automatically barred, even though he would otherwise be appropriately and properly eligible.

The new clause requires the court to specify the precise amount of time that would be served in custody. That is the way to false expectations. The sentencing court has no basis at all for determining whether a given offender will be eligible because it does not know what will happen in prison. Behaviour in prison, response to therapeutic regimes, response to probation guidance, and how the sentence plan is fulfilled in prison are critical criteria for the determination of eligibility. I repeat, with great respect to the noble Baroness: the sentencing court has none of those materials to hand, and it is being asked to come to an impossible conclusion, as any magistrate who has sat in those circumstances or any sentencing judge will readily recognise.

The amendment also gives the courts power to prevent an offender being considered for home detention curfew. We believe that the statutory exemptions are sufficient.

Considering the other discretionary release, parole, no such provisions by way of limitation are attached. The interest of public protection must always be paramount, and the fact that a prisoner is eligible for home detention curfew or parole does not mean that he has a right to be so released.

The fourth new clause is similar to the first. It requires the courts to look up to two years ahead and to try to make a judgment on what, I repeat, are inadequate, vestigial or non-existent materials.

The second, third and fifth of the new clauses would add to the exclusion categories. The second new clause would exclude domestic burglars who have committed

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more than three offences, whatever the nature of the burglary. The third would exclude anyone committing any of the wide range of offences for which the maximum period is 10 years in prison or more. That sounds quite attractive until one considers the list of such offences. It would mean that someone who was guilty of conspiracy to defraud--maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment--would be automatically ineligible, but such a conspiracy may be quite trivial or ineffective for which the sentence was quite small.

Cruelty to or neglect of children is an offence that has an infinitely variable spectrum, but it carries a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment. Other offences carrying a similar penalty include destroying or damaging property--Section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971; threatening to commit damage to property; forgery; copying, using or using a copy of a false instrument; and making a counterfeit coin or note, however inadequate the attempt. Are all such offenders--many petty inadequates--who are of no continuing harm to the public, their victims, or at risk of committing further offences, to be rendered thus ineligible? Are offenders convicted of interfering with goods with the intention of causing public alarm, anxiety and economic loss, to be ineligible? We know that indecent assaults vary extraordinarily in their effect. Are offenders convicted of obtaining property by deception under Section 15 of the Theft Act, or those convicted of fraudulent application or use of a trademark, to be excluded?

The fifth new clause would exclude prisoners who had committed any one of three offences against police constables. In fact, the numbers of those placed on HDC whose original offence was committed against a police officer were 13 assaults with intent to resist arrest; 12 obstructions of, or resisting, a constable; 178 assaults on a police officer. All of those can be serious offences and some are less serious than others. The actual sentence length for the 13 was an average of 5.6 months; the obstruct or resist a constable was 5.5 months and the assault on a police officer was 4.7 months.

We already have statutory exemptions: violent and sex offenders currently serving an extended sentence; prisoners serving a sentence for failing to return to custody following a period of temporary release; and prisoners who at any time have been returned to prison for committing an offence on licence. We have made provision within the present Bill to exclude sex offenders, subject to registration requirements.

We shall not agree on this matter. This has been an extraordinary, flexible use of an imaginative remedy that, by and large, has been successful. Every one of those offenders would have been out in two months and would need to be got back into the community. That is one way of protecting the public.


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