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The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 179B, I should like to speak to Amendment No. 195A. It may assist the Committee if I say that I will not speak to or move Amendment No. 179E, which is grouped with this, nor shall I move the amendments listed below this groupthat is, Amendments Nos. 179C and 179D.
In Clause 190(2)(b), the Government increase the maximum number of hours that a court may specify as part of what used to be known, in the old days, as a community service order, now known as a community punishment order. Once the Bill is enacted, it will be known as a community order with unpaid work requirement. When I read the Bill through, one refrain keeps going through my headpity the poor sentencers who will have to relearn not only the language but the incredibly complex procedure that will have to be followed. At present, the limit is 240 hours, but under the Bill the Government propose to increase that to 300 hours. My amendment, which is of course for the purposes of debate only, simply proposes a figure of 400 hours to ask the Government to clarify why they chose 300. What research and what proof was there that made them alight on that particular maximum rather than any other?
Do the Government anticipate that some offenders will now receive a community rather than custodial sentence because more hours of community work can be ordered? Do we have a different client group, if I may call it that? The alternative is that the 25 per cent increase in the maximum number of hours simply means that those doing community punishment will do 25 per cent more of it. That would of course have no effect on the prison population, though I can see the advantage of that. What are the Government trying to achieve?
Amendment No. 195A relates to the imposition of an attendance centre requirement as part of a community order. Attendance centres, which are of course focused on young offenders, run practical activities such as sport. I have visited such centres and seen the hard work that the people there put in, and try to ensure that the young people put in. They were originally designed to occupy Saturday afternoons for those convicted of football-related offences. That is certainly no longer the case, in that their use has extended well beyond that.
The Bill reproduces the current minimum and maximum number of hours for such ordersnamely, 12 and 36. However, in other areas of the Bill, the Government have chosen to increase the time limits available to the courts. My probing amendment asks why the Government did not change these limits? What evidence do they have that shows that the situation is so perfect that they do not wish to tamper with those limits? I beg to move.
Lord Carlile of Berriew: It is important to know that there is a proper reasoned basis for any change in the maximum number of hours. It would be helpful if we could be told how many people have been sentenced to 240 hours community service or community work in the past 12 months. My understanding is that it is a very small proportion of those who have been sentenced to do unpaid work in the community.
There is evidence in some areas that the probation officers and those who run the schemes are very hard put to make schemes suitable for a structured programme of as much as 240 hours. It is pointless, as any probation officer would tell us, simply to have the hours. There needs to be a purpose and structure and a contract. There is in effect always a contract between the sentenced person and those who supervise the work. That means that there must be a theme to the work imposed.
I suspect that it would be difficult to find many areas in England and Wales where it is even possible to set up structured useful schemes with 300 hours work. That is why I would be doubtful about a figure in what I understand to be a probing amendment, rather than a commitment to a particular figure.
Will the Minister tell us what the rational basis is for the figure in the Bill? May we simply include in the Bill that which can be achieved rather than an aspiration that cannot in realistic terms be achieved?
Baroness Stern: The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, set out why 300 hours is a very high figure and why the quality of the experience can be much more effective than quantity. There is also a danger that 300 hours introduces a high possibility of failure, the result of which is to be sent to prison. We may be defeating the object of the clauses and simply increasing the chance of failure. We are also very much increasing the cost of supervision, and we have already discussed the load on the probation service and how that will be increased by these provisions. I therefore endorse the points that have been made.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I certainly hear what the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, says about these amendments, and I am going to respond to the probing nature of the noble Baroness's amendments. I also take very much into account the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. However, it is very important that these alternatives to prison are made credible, that they bite and that they do the job that all of us in this Chamber wish them to do. If they do, they will be a viable alternative to imprisonment. I know that each and every noble Lord who has spoken in this
Amendment No. 179B would increase the maximum from 240 to 300 hours. That will bring our legislation into line with the Scottish legislation and, frankly, is necessary to allow for a more punitive order. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, said that in various areas we are challenged by the nature of the community sentence programmes that we are able to put forward. Of course that was true in the past. However, noble Lords should know that a huge amount of proper effort is being made to engage local communities, non-governmental organisations, voluntary organisations and others to join with the efforts made by the probation service to broaden the sort of activities that could properly be encapsulated within a community order.
Indeed, when one looks at the menu of options that can be encompassed within a community order, one can see the opportunities to craft with the probation service and the other organisations a package of community ordersformerly community service ordersto target different parts of the offender's development. Consequently, it may be possible to structure a package with various different elementssuch as N number of weeks doing ", M number of weeks doing Y and so on.
What we wish to do, particularly with the experience of our Scottish brethren, is to give the court sufficient flexibility so that it is tempted to utilise that flexibility if it is appropriate and the programmes are available, rather than jumping straight to imprisonment. Of course imprisonment is there if that is the right solution. However, in order to test that it is the right solution, it must be possible to give the court the discretion to see whether there is a cogent alternative which addresses the offending behaviour and will be a proper punishment and actually works in rehabilitating the offender. That is the purpose. We would very much like the court to have that bracket, so that as we develop more finely honed community order schemes there will be an opportunity to take advantage of them.
Baroness Stern: I revert to the question that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked about whether any research shows that 300 hours constitutes credibility and teeth. The research with which I am familiar suggests that what gives credibility and teeth is public involvement, how much the public know about it, whether the public can see that what is done is of value and whether they can see that someone has clearly put something of themselves into it and given something back. With respect, that could be achieved in 100 hours or in 50 hours. I am not familiar with any research that suggests that 300 hours is preferable to the 240 that we have lived with for so long.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: There is much in what the noble Lord says. The noble Lord should know that together with the other agencies and non-governmental organisations working in this field we are trying to consider the creative opportunities that we have to work together to make available a broader spectrum of community orders. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is absolutely right to say that this is a valuable, visible form of recompense to the community. That relates to what the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, said about making such service well targeted, well honed and understandable to the public at large. We want the effectiveness of the sentence to be its judge. We need to improve the effectiveness of such sentences, not just increase their length. The length is not the only criterion.
However, I say to the noble Baroness that the length of the service can be of great significance for offenders who may have exhibited very challenging behaviour. It is useful for a court to be able to impose up to 300 hours of service which a person can carry out undertaking the kind of activities that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, suggests. That would constitute a visible payment back to the community. Therapeutic interventions that change behaviour would also be useful. I know of no specific research which assesses the difference between 240 and 300 hours of service. I shall certainly check and if such research exists, I shall write to the noble Baroness but I pray in aid the fact that the 300 hours of service is available in Scotland. That enables the court to have flexibility and the longer period obviously carries greater weight.
It will obviously be a matter for the judge dealing with a case to evaluate all the elements that the noble Baroness mentioned, such as the length of a community order and whether it will be effective in achieving the things that he wishes; namely, punish the offender; address the offending behaviour; reduce the likelihood of reoffending and compensate the community in an appropriate way. Latitude is there for the sentencer to utilise if he so wishes and if there are opportunities available for such service in the relevant locality. Work has been done by local criminal justice boards on needs-based assessments to find out what is happening in their local areas and to address it.
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