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Lord Thomas of Gresford moved Amendment No. 200A:


The noble Lord said: We seek to make a small amendment to Clause 229, replacing the word "particular" on page 132, line 33, with the word "reasonable". The amendment is clear. We believe that a court should not be able to insert any particular condition into the licence granted to an offender, but that that condition should be reasonable. I beg to move.

Viscount Bridgeman: I want to speak to Amendments Nos. 203A and 204A in the names of my noble friends Lady Anelay and Lord Kingsland. Clauses 235 and 236 contain the key provisions that the Government propose should operate in future to govern the early release of fixed-term prisoners. In some key respects, particularly for those prisoners serving long sentences of imprisonment, they represent a major departure from the current arrangements. My

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noble friend has tabled the amendments in order to enable Members of the Committee to consider these changes so that the Government can justify their proposals to the Committee and to the wider public.

The present arrangements for the release of fixed-term prisoners are contained in the Criminal Justice Act 1991. That Act provided that those prisoners serving custodial sentences of up to four years, commonly called "short-term prisoners", should serve half their sentence in prison and the remainder on licence. Since 1999, the Government's home detention curfew scheme has allowed short-term prisoners to be released on electronic tags up to three months before the half-way point. Thus, someone serving a sentence of two years could serve up to 12 months but might serve only nine months before being released on an electronic tag.

The arrangements are different for prisoners serving four years or more—long-term prisoners. Currently, they serve at least half their sentence in prison before becoming eligible for parole and are released automatically on licence after serving two-thirds. Thus, at present, someone sentenced to six years, for example, if he were refused parole, could serve up to four years before being released.

The Bill makes a fundamental alteration to these arrangements for long-term prisoners. Clause 235 abolishes the concept of parole for long-term prisoners and provides that all those serving custodial sentences of 12 months or more should be released at the half-way point. Clause 236 also extends the home detention curfew scheme by applying it to all prisoners, not just those serving fewer than four years, and increasing the extra discount that may be given to a maximum of 135 days, which is a little more than four months.

The result of all this is that any prisoners serving a sentence of four years or more can expect to spend a good deal less time in custody than they do at present. The important point is that these are almost invariably prisoners who have committed serious offences. I ask the Committee to consider the following three examples. Offender A is convicted of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm after "glassing" his victim in a drunken pub brawl. He is sentenced to six years' imprisonment. Although he could have been sentenced to imprisonment for public protection, the court is satisfied that he does not impose a significant risk to the public.

Under current arrangements, he would have to serve a minimum of three years before applying for parole and if this is denied would be released only after four years. As a long-term prisoner, he would not be eligible for home detention curfew. Under the Bill's provisions, he would be released automatically after serving three years and could be released on home detention curfew after serving two years and eight months. The potential difference made by the Bill in A's case is that he could serve up to one year four months less of his six-year sentence in custody than at present, serving two years eight months rather than four years.

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Consider offender B: a serial burglar with a long record who is convicted of a number of burglaries at the homes of old and disabled people. He is sentenced to eight years' imprisonment. Because no violence is involved, he is convicted of the ordinary offence of burglary and so cannot be sentenced to imprisonment for public protection. Under the current arrangements, this offender would serve a minimum of four years before applying for parole and if this is denied, he would be released only after five years and four months. As a long-term prisoner, he would not be eligible for home detention curfew.

Under the Bill's provisions, this burglar would be released automatically after serving four years and could be released on home detention curfew after serving three years and eight months. Thus, the potential difference of the Bill in offender B's case is that he could serve up to one year eight months less of his eight-year sentence than at present, serving three years and eight months rather than five years and four months.

Finally, consider the case of offender C: a notorious drug baron who is convicted of importing a massive quantity of heroin and is sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment. Because this is not a violent or sexual offence, there is no question of the court imposing a public protection sentence. Under the current arrangements, he would have to serve a minimum of six years before applying for parole and if this is denied, he would be released only after eight years. As a long-term prisoner, he would not be eligible for release on home detention curfew.

Under the Bill, offender C would be released automatically after serving six years and could be released on home detention curfew after serving five years and eight months. So, the potential difference made by the Bill in C's case is that he could serve up to two years and four months less of his 12-year sentence than at present, serving five years and eight months rather than eight years.

These three examples and the sentences passed are all realistic and in all of them the Bill could make a massive difference to the amount of time spent in custody. I am particularly concerned about the Bill having the effect that drug dealers and serial burglars, as well as those violent and sexual offenders who receive determinate sentences, will serve less time in custody.

I believe that these provisions deserve the clearest justification from the Government. Many thousands of offenders, some of them convicted of very serious crimes indeed, will be released from prison much earlier as a result of what the Government are proposing; namely, the reduction from serving two-thirds to serving half of the sentence, with the added reduction if the offender is released early on the tagged

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curfew. That decision alone flies in the face of the previous Home Secretary's commitment, given to another place on 29th November 1999:


    "We have no plans or intention whatever to provide for electronic tagging to facilitate the early release of serious . . . offenders. Let me make that clear, with a full stop—none whatever".—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/99; col. 27.]

The Bill allows precisely that: it cuts the maximum time that many serious offenders, such as drug dealers and serial burglars, will spend in prison, as well as allowing their release even earlier on electronic tags. I hope that, in his reply, the Minister will explain the reasons behind that course of action.

5.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin): In rising to respond to these amendments, having joined as a late substitute the government team on this Home Office Bill, I want to make a declaration of interest before I begin. My step-daughter is a prison governor, but unfortunately I have not had the benefit of discussing these measures with her.

Perhaps I may set out, if I can, both why we believe that the new arrangements in these clauses are appropriate and how they go to the heart of what the Halliday report was trying to do. I shall then turn to the specific questions raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, concerning their potential effect.

The provisions for custodial sentences of 12 months or more are a central part of the wholesale reform of the sentencing framework. Amendment No. 203A seeks to alter the release provisions for those sentences so that they would not all incur automatic release at the halfway point. Instead, release from sentences of four years or more would take place at the two-thirds point of the sentence; in other words, the amendment would reinstate the present parole thresholds.

The introduction of sentences of 12 months or more with automatic release at the halfway point builds upon the recommendations of the Halliday report. It provides a new custodial sentence that is intended to be transparent and effective so that all parties who need to do so can better understand the thrust, purpose and impact of sentencing policy.

Therefore, the automatic release provisions will make the effect of the sentence simpler for the public and practitioners to understand. It should also, most significantly, assist post-release planning, giving the correctional services the necessary information to put in place a coherent package of interventions for the second half of the sentence. The new sentence also provides for requirements to be attached to the whole second half of the sentence. Currently, after a person has been released—for example, at the two-thirds point—any conditions fall away at the point at which he would have reached three-quarters of his sentence.

The differentiation in release provisions for sentences of over and under four years is justifiable under the current sentencing framework in terms of public protection as potentially dangerous offenders may be serving longer custodial sentences. The

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Committee will well know why. However, because the Bill introduces sentences for all dangerous sexual and violent offenders, release from which will be dependent upon a recommendation by the Parole Board, the determinate sentence of 12 months or more to which the amendment applies will be available only to non-dangerous offenders.

Therefore, there is no public protection justification for retaining the differential release provisions suggested by Amendment No. 203A, as, I believe, by inference from what he said, the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, well understood. Because the amendment would also forgo all the benefits associated with the new sentences of 12 months or more, we believe that it is undesirable. In other words, the benefits put in place far better release planning and a far more consistent and longer-term supervision regime during the full second half of the sentence that was originally imposed. And, of course, there is a full right of recall to prison if all or any of those conditions are breached.

We are making this change because we believe that prison is certainly about punishment and it is sometimes necessarily about retribution, but it must also be about seeking to reduce the risk of reoffending. Therefore, the purpose of the proposal that half the sentence be spent in prison followed by up to a half outside, with conditionality on that half outside, is to try to put in place better planning between the prison and the probation service in an attempt to settle the offender back into society and reduce the likelihood that he will reoffend.

No one is Panglossian on this issue, assuming that that will automatically happen. But we believe that there is some logic to these arrangements, which involve better planning and impose conditionality of release on licence. For the totality of the second half, which will be longer than the current position for a person released early, the framework will be better than trying to supervise tightly people who have offended and attempting to get them to obey the norms of society and undergo a successful resettlement. I hope that the Committee has borne with me during that digression.

Amendment No. 200A would make a minor drafting change to the provisions which give the court the power to recommend licence conditions for offenders sentenced to imprisonment for 12 months or more. Clause 229 requires the Secretary of State to have regard to the court's recommendations. However, given the period of time that may have elapsed between sentence and release, it was considered inappropriate for the court to give anything other than a recommendation.

The kind of conditions that may be recommended are not specified on the face of the Bill but may include educational provisions, requirements to attend programmes or undertake unpaid work, varying according to the needs of the individual offender. Amendment No. 200A does not change the effect of the clause and, I suggest, does not improve the drafting. For those reasons, we do not wish to accept it.

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Amendment No. 204A attempts to enhance public protection by ensuring that offenders serving custodial sentences of four years or more may not be released early on home detention curfew, or HDC, if I may use that abbreviation. We suggest that this amendment is also unnecessary because sufficient safeguards are already in place to ensure that potentially dangerous offenders are not released early on HDC. Those who are given the new sentences for dangerous offenders will not be eligible for HDC and all other offenders must be thoroughly risk-assessed before they may be granted early release.

The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, gave three examples in which he sought to question whether we genuinely wished to release early in the circumstances that he described. If I heard him correctly, the offender in his first example, who had wounded with intent, had clearly committed a violent offence and therefore the provision would not apply in that situation. In his examples B and C, if I heard him correctly, the offenders had not committed violent or sexual offences. Therefore, in that sense, the noble Viscount is right: he is in play in debate on this issue.

We consider the measure to be justified in those circumstances—both providing release at the halfway point and also, although it is a limited discretion, making the discretion available to a prison governor to allow HDC if he believes that the circumstances warrant it—for exactly the reasons that I sought to outline previously. Such discretion is not focused essentially on the good of the burglar or the good of the drugs baron. There is an attempt to make it more likely that there will be a supervisory regime for, in the case of the drugs baron, the full second six months of his sentence. That drugs baron, or the person who has offended, will be on licence in the community but subject to recall to prison at any time if he breaches the terms of the licence.

We believe that that will give a stronger process of control on licence than the current situation and, we hope, will focus the efforts of the probation service on trying to ensure that the person is supervised. We consider it right and proper that the Bill is pitched in this way, consistent with the Halliday recommendations. The aim is for the offender to change his ways and to reduce the risk that he will reoffend. For those reasons—I hope that my explanation has been helpful—we believe that the current measures pitch the issue correctly.


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