Queen's Speech — Debate (4th Day)
Baroness Stern (Crossbench)
My Lords, it is always a great privilege to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, given his commitment to a humane and rational penal policy. Certainly, watching the development of the criminal justice system over the past 10 years has not been a cheerful experience. We have a prison population of more than 83,000, including many people with learning difficulties. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, for reminding us of that, and I would ask: should they really form part of our prison population? We have a widely condemned plan to build mega-prisons; we have had bad reports from the United Nations and the Council of Europe on the juvenile justice system; and the Probation Service is being reorganised. I am not sure how many times it has been reorganised since 2000; perhaps the Minister can tell us.
I have just read in the magazine Computer Weekly about an offender management IT system called C-NOMIS for which the estimated cost of £234 million in June 2004 had risen to £690 million by August 2007, and it does not work. There may have been other uses to which that money could have been put. I have also just read about a budget for the Ministry of Justice that I understand has to be reduced by £1 billion over three years. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that. I did not find any measures announced in the gracious Speech that will help us out of the dysfunctional situation so admirably described by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.
I shall concentrate briefly on one notable development since 1997: the growth in the number of criminal offences—the unstoppable urge to criminalise. Here I refer to the work of a distinguished American academic, Jonathan Simon, Professor of Law at Berkeley in California. His most well known book is called Governing Through Crime. It is about the United States and, to reduce it to basics, he argues:
"Social problems ranging from welfare dependency to educational inequality have been reconceptualized as crimes, with an attendant focus on assigning fault and imposing consequences".
The result of this process is not to make communities safer but the opposite. Professor Simon states that the outcome is,
"to erode social trust and, with it, the very scaffolding of a 'free' society".
Although he does not write about a similar process in the UK, he could well have done so. We have seen a similar trend. Social problems have been redefined as criminal problems.
Criminal punishment and the possibility of sentencing someone to prison have crept into many areas where they can achieve nothing but harm. I still find it very hard to understand the one example I shall give. When I mention it in other countries, it is greeted with some disbelief. I refer to the law that we passed in 2001 that made it an imprisonable offence to fail to ensure that your child goes to school. I remember the first victim of this law, a woman struggling to bring up three children on her own, who had overcome heroin addiction and had serious health problems. Figures were published last month which show that between 2003 and 2006, 71 parents, most of them mothers, were imprisoned; and that in 2006, 2,952 were fined, most of them also mothers. Yet last year, in spite of all this, it is reported that truancy figures were at their highest since 1997.
I remind your Lordships of the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, from the Conservative Benches in this House in 2005. He said:
"The major political parties in our country will have to stop competing with each other to see who can propose more and more custodial offences ... is it really sensible, bearing in mind all the social implications of the situation, to gaol a mother for not sending her child to school?".—[Hansard, 9/6/05; col. 1042.]
I was very pleased at the end of the previous Session to receive a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Bach—tidying up loose ends, I presume—in response to a Written Question I tabled in June 2008 asking how many new imprisonable offences had been created since 1997. It was obviously a great deal of work to obtain this information and I am grateful to the Minister for arranging for it to be done. The answer is that there have been 1,036 new imprisonable offences since 1997, with a big acceleration from 2003 onwards. I have struggled to imagine what all these new crimes could be—133 last year and 137 the year before.
It is in this context that I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, said about the Government's proposals on prostitution. There can be no doubt that women are trafficked and forced to work in the sex industry, and I welcome the ratification at last of the Council of Europe convention for action against trafficking. However, there is considerable difficulty in establishing what the numbers are and how widespread it is. I have read many different figures and I hope that the Minister will be able to help us on this.
There is also no doubt that many of the women engaged in prostitution are from backgrounds of poverty and drug abuse. How the Government think the measures they are proposing in the new legislation to criminalise certain forms of sexual activity with prostitutes will make either of these problems any less widespread is not clear. I am afraid I am more convinced by the arguments of those who have said that these new measures will put the women at risk and do nothing to deter traffickers. I was impressed by the common sense of a member of the Brixham Women's Institute who told the Independent newspaper,
"I am all for decriminalising prostitution rather than all this undercover stuff so we can treat drug dependence and check for venereal disease".
With many of these social problems, two approaches are possible: one is to try to deter people from their problem behaviour by threatening punishment, criminal conviction, imprisonment, a criminal record and a consequent push into the group of the socially excluded; the other approach is harm reduction, giving help, showing ways out and trying to change the lives of the people involved and their families. Can the Minister tell us what evidence supports the decision to go for criminalisation in the approach to prostitution rather than for harm reduction, and will these new offences be imprisonable? Has anything been learnt from the legislation on imprisonment for those who do not get their children to go to school and its effectiveness?
I end with two unrelated points. First, in regard to the use of restraint in secure training centres, I note that the Government were not given leave to appeal to the House of Lords against the Appeal Court judgment in July 2008 which quashed new rules introduced by the Government allowing the restraint of children in secure training centres for the purpose of maintaining good order and discipline. A number of noble Lords will be relieved by that decision as many of us have been involved over a considerable period of time in raising this matter with the Government. It would be helpful to know how the Government intend to proceed and whether any further legislative action on this is envisaged.
Secondly, I welcome the fact that provisions about coroners' inquests will come before us at last. I hope the Government have listened to those who have been urging adequate funding to ensure that bereaved families have access to appropriate legal advice when they are involved in an inquest.