We now come to the first Opposition day motion, on community payback. Before we start the debate, I inform the House that there is a small error on the Order Paper. The first part of the motion should read: “That this House notes that the number of community sentences handed down fell by one quarter in the last three years”. The motion has been corrected online; I would be grateful if Members corrected it on their Order Papers.
I beg to move,
That this House
notes that the number of community sentences handed down fell by one quarter in the last three years;
further notes that completed hours of unpaid work carried out by offenders has fallen by three quarters in the last three years;
notes with concern that despite the end of lockdown restrictions in 2021, the number of offenders permitted to complete unpaid work from home has continued to rise;
and calls on the Government to create community and victim payback boards to place communities and victims in control of the type of community projects that offenders complete to restore public faith in community payback.
Today’s debate will show the public which party is serious about stopping crime and antisocial behaviour, and the reoffending that they breed. After 12 years of Conservative Governments, it is clear to the public that the Conservatives have no answers when it comes to tackling the kind of crime and antisocial behaviour that make voters’ lives a daily misery. The public now know that the Conservatives are soft on crime and cannot fix the problems that fuel it. By contrast, the Labour party still believes passionately in being tough on crime, while being tough on tackling its causes.
That principle is still as important as it was when the last Labour Government took office, because the problems that the then incoming Labour Government had to contend with are the same problems that we see now. This dying Conservative Government have lost control of crime, just as they did in the 1990s. Despite the Prime Minister’s delusions, crime is up a fifth and rising, and police numbers are still thousands short of what they were before the Conservatives reduced the number, leaving the police less able to stop the antisocial behaviour that is blighting our communities. That might be news to Conservative Members, but the public do not need telling. They see it in their communities day in, day out—and they are sick of it. The graffiti, the vandalism and the drug dealing corrode communities and lead to more serious crime, which hurts those communities and victims even more, later down the line. Community payback has huge potential to stop that at source.
Does my hon. Friend agree that community payback schemes should provide fitting punishment as well as rehabilitation, so that they are meaningful for the offender and the community?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I visited a community payback scheme in my constituency a few weeks ago where offenders were carrying out maintenance on a children’s adventure playground. They all said that they felt that they were giving something back and being rehabilitated. The reality is that there are not enough of those schemes because the Government do not resource them properly.
Done properly, community payback offers both just punishment and firm rehabilitation. Offenders understand that the unpaid work they do not only is visible retribution for what they have done to their communities and their victims, but offers them a chance to repay their debt to society. At the same time, if unpaid work is done well, it starts to fold offenders back into their community and gives them a sense of pride in putting back what they took away, which makes them less likely to offend again. What is more, communities see that the justice system is using its power to repair what has been broken, and victims see that, in the crimes committed against them, justice is starting to be done.
Of course, the beauty of community payback is that the communities that experienced the crime are the ones who see the crime redressed through the scheme. I am worried, though, that there is a trend in this country for the hours ordered by the courts not to be completed. For example, in my city region of Greater Manchester, there has been an 84% drop in the number of hours completed. That is not acceptable either for the perpetrator of the crime, who has a duty to pay back, or, more importantly, for my constituents and the communities who were affected by the crime.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about hours not being completed and communities not seeing justice done. He talks about Greater Manchester, but that is a problem up and down the country. I will say more on that later.
Community payback should act as an alternative to short prison sentences, which, under this Government, create only more hardened criminals. That is because our prisons have become colleges of crime: drug abuse in prisons has gone up by 500% in a decade, while the take-up of drug rehabilitation programmes is down by 12%; last year, assaults on prison staff went up by a fifth, but the recruitment of officers was still down on 2010; and inmates’ discipline is low, which means that taxpayer-funded compensation for prisoner-on-prisoner violence is high—it was £4 million in the last two years alone.
Instead of properly punishing and rehabilitating offenders, getting them ready to re-enter society, and preparing them for the world of work, short sentences spit offenders out from prison more immersed in crime than when they went in. That is exactly where tough, effective community sentences and tough, effective unpaid work schemes that are accountable to communities and victims could make a difference—but they are not making a difference, because they have been set up to fail.
The Lord Chancellor knows that community payback does not work because of the mistake that his party made in 2014 in rushing through a privatisation that the probation service did not need. Probation officers work incredibly hard and do an extremely important job, but they are being let down by this Government. The fragmentation that followed privatisation in 2014 dangerously reduced staffing, increased workloads and meant less supervision for offenders. The results have been dire: 4 million fewer hours of community payback were completed in 2021 than in 2017.
The huge fall started years before the pandemic in 2017, and it has continued since. No one had heard of covid in 2017, so it is disingenuous to suggest that it is all because of covid.
The Government Front Benchers are laughing and using the pandemic as an excuse, but does my hon. Friend not agree that during the pandemic, they should have been focusing on catching criminals, rather than giving them money?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. It is right that this fall started years before the pandemic.
Some 25% fewer offenders finished community sentences in 2021 than did in 2017. Many community sentences were terminated because offenders went on to commit further offences, but others ended because the lack of supervision meant that they could choose not to turn up with impunity. By the end of November last year, more than 13,000 criminals had not completed their allotted hours of unpaid work within 12 months of being sentenced by a court, but the Government do not even know how many unpaid work hours have been written off because the resources were not in place for them to be completed within 12 months.
The most embarrassing statistic is that there has been a threefold rise in “independent” unpaid work since the end of lockdown. In case Conservative Members are unclear about what that means, I will spell it out for them. While Ministers have been hounding civil servants back into the office, they have been letting thousands of offenders work from home. The Prime Minister wanted to see streets full of hi-vis chain gangs, but instead his Lord Chancellor decided to let criminals finish their sentences on Zoom. What next—flexitime for burglars? Season ticket loans for bank robbers? Yet again, the Conservatives are letting criminals off and letting victims down.
Working from home defeats the whole object of community payback, which is supposed to be visible to communities and victims. That is part of the reason why trust in our criminal justice system is at rock bottom. The public cannot see police on the streets because the station has been shut and officers have been sacked.
I am glad the hon. Member has raised the issue of closing police stations. Does she agree with me on the subject, and will she join my calls for the Labour police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire to reopen the police stations on Maltby and Dinnington high streets, which were closed despite the police and crime commissioner underspending his budget by £2 million last year? Perhaps she should speak to her own party, and get the police stations reopened in Rother Valley.
Since the Conservatives took office in 2010, there have been cuts to police, stations have been closed, there are fewer police on the streets and there is less confidence among the public that the party has the ideas to tackle crime in our communities.
Victims cannot see judgments being handed down because their local courts have been sold off and cases are taking years to complete, and communities cannot see justice being done in their area because criminals are instead finishing their sentences on Microsoft Teams. What is more, these failings are killing judicial faith in the effectiveness of community sentences. Judges do not believe that sentences are being completed, so they are not handing them down. Instead, they are giving out more short custodial sentences in the Tories’ colleges of crime, and so the cycle of reoffending worsens.
Community payback can be fixed if the Government follow Labour’s plan. First, Ministers must end the chaos that they have created in the probation service by ruling out any further reductions in staffing.
The hon. Member mentions cuts to probation, which have led to a workload and staffing crisis in the probation service. It is no surprise that there is a direct relationship between that and the huge drop in community sentences in Wales; in 2019, there were nearly half as many community sentences as there were in 2010. Does she agree with me and Napo Cymru that devolving probation will be key to restoring restorative justice for perpetrators of crime and their victims in Wales?
I thank the right hon. Member for the points she makes. She illustrates the fall in community sentences because of the issues with them, and the point that she raises about people being able to see justice being done in their community is so important. The role the probation service plays in that is incredibly important, but it cannot do its job properly if its resources have been cut to the bone. There will potentially be cuts of 20% to the civil service; we ask the Minister whether probation officers and prison officers will be affected by that as well, because we have not been able to get a straight answer on that. We want the Government to rule out further reductions in staffing, and we urge them to deliver Labour’s proposal to let communities and victims decide on the unpaid work that criminals do to repay their debts to society. Offenders picking up litter is not enough. They could be taking part in more transformative schemes locally, if there was more community and victim involvement in deciding what unpaid work they do. The Government have a national portal that allows communities to suggest schemes for offenders to work on, but it is little known and used even less.
Labour has suggested adding community groups and victims’ representatives to community safety partnerships and safer neighbourhood teams to create community and victim payback boards. These boards would decide what unpaid work offenders completed, and would publish local data that assures communities that the work is getting done.
I am really interested in the concept of community and victim payback boards, because the important thing is that the voice of both the community and the victims be heard. Too often they are locked out of decisions made about community payback and community sentences. How does my hon. Friend envisage the voice of the victim, in particular, being part of the proposal that she is setting out?
I am well aware of that. I am also aware that it was six years ago that the Government first proposed a victims Bill and we have been waiting for it ever since. Where is it?
Six years—I think that speaks volumes, does it not, about the priority the Conservatives place on victims.
Being tough on crime and on the causes of crime remains as much a guiding mission of the Labour party in 2022 as it was in 1997. Our plans for tackling crime and antisocial behaviour today show that our party is still committed to those principles nearly a quarter of a century on. This Government have the chance to show voters that they care about crime in their communities by adopting Labour’s plans and making community and victim payback boards a reality. I urge them to take it.
I rise both perplexed and pleased to respond. First, I am perplexed because, in seven years in this House, I do not think I have heard quite such a series of distortions of events, or indeed such a naked use of a global pandemic to derive political advantage. I know that when Ellie Reeves goes to tweet or Facebook the clips of her being outraged in this debate, she will point out—to her, no doubt, small number of viewers in Lewisham West and Penge—that the pandemic had an impact on the whole of the country, not least the criminal justice system.
“has nothing to do with tackling crime”.
She accused us, in promoting community payback, of “stigmatising” certain sections of the community. She called our desire to have more community payback teams out in the community, doing exactly the kind of work that the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge now seems to celebrate, a “distasteful gimmick”, as did, at the same time, the now shadow Foreign Secretary, Mr Lammy. So while I welcome the hon. Lady’s conversion, it is the cause of some confusion. Perhaps we are in happier, more Blairite times in the Labour party now, under new leadership, although how long that will last I do not know.
Having said that, I am pleased to celebrate the work that has been done on community payback, particularly over the last year as it has roared back into life, and to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the outstanding work of our operational staff across England and Wales, who, in spite of a huge number of challenges, have continued to deliver projects day in and day out.
The community payback requirement is of course delivered in groups, sometimes indoors—painting and decorating schools for example—and covid-19 had a severe impact on our ability to deliver. I am afraid that resulted in a backlog of cases where hours have not been met 12 months after sentencing, which is a stipulation of the requirement. However, we are committed to ensuring that all eligible offenders who did not complete their community payback because of covid-19 will be required to meet their hours.
The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge, on whom I wanted to intervene, seemed to indicate that hours had been written off from community sentences. She may not be aware of this, but we are not able to write off community sentence hours as that is entirely a judicial decision. We have undertaken to present every single case where somebody goes over their 12-month requirement period back in front of a judge for them to take a decision—to extend the time limit, we hope, but at the very least for those people to complete their hours.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I sat as a magistrate in a breach court in Merseyside last week, hearing from the probation service on cases that it had not been possible to complete in a certain period of time, and the periods for delivery of that community payback were being extended. A point was made from the Opposition Benches that in Greater Manchester some payback cases were not being completed; of course where that is happening, the probation service can and does bring breach cases to court for magistrates to resentence or revoke the order.
I salute my hon. Friend for doing his civic duty as a magistrate and he is right that these decisions are effectively for the independent judiciary and we are very limited in what we can do in terms of flexibility. My hon. Friend also rightly highlights that we regularly take those who fail to complete their community service requirement in front of judges for alternative sentencing or for reaffirmation of the sentence. I hope my hon. Friend made the right decision when sitting as a magistrate; I am sure he will have done.
In stark contrast, our brethren in Scotland decided, other than in certain cases, to write off 35% of the hours accumulated because of the covid-19 backlog. We in this part of the United Kingdom took a completely different decision, recognising the importance of sentencing both to victims and for rehabilitation and punitive purposes, so we are persisting. That does however mean that we have a backlog, but also that we had to develop some necessary solutions to make sure sentences were delivered despite social distancing regulations.
The independent working projects, which the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge mentioned, were introduced as a temporary delivery method in response to covid-19 restrictions and have enabled us to maximise delivery during the pandemic and as the probation service recovers from the impact of the pandemic. All the products created by offenders during these projects were for the benefit of the community or for local charities. They have included a range of robust and practical tasks such as producing hats and scarves for Ukrainian refugees and making face masks and personal protective equipment during the pandemic. I am sure the hon. Lady would not see those jobs as any less valuable than cleaning up a churchyard. Those projects are still being deployed in a limited and targeted way to support our recovery and will be phased out by the autumn.
We cannot shy away from the fact that the probation service and community payback were, like the rest of the country, deeply impacted by the pandemic. As a result we have built up a backlog of cases and we need to make sure those and future cases are all delivered within 12 months. We are boosting our delivery capacity and maximising our efficiency, and to do that we are investing an additional £93 million in community payback over the next three years.
On probation, I attended the justice unions parliamentary group yesterday and subsequently had discussions with members of Napo, the probation officers’ union. They were at pains to point out the huge caseload many of their members are carrying and the difficulties that presents in terms of assessing cases and identifying those suitable for community service and community payback.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the probation service has a heavy caseload, and that is why we are in the process of recruiting significant numbers of new probation officers; there were 1,500, I think, last year with more to come in the year ahead. We have been given significant investment by the Government to expand that capability and I am very aware of the caseload pressures across the country. It is therefore even more important that we should be given the flexibility to enable people to complete their sentences within the 12 months so as not to add to the burden by having to represent those cases in front of magistrates if the deadline is not met.
This significant investment will enable us to increase the delivery of community payback from the pre-covid benchmark of around 5 million hours a year to an unprecedented 8 million hours a year. These hours will be put to good use, with a particular focus on more outdoor projects that improve local areas, allow the public to see justice being done and build confidence in community sentences. We will be delivering more placements that restore pride in communities and add value to the work of local charities, building on the success of projects like one in south Yorkshire which saw offenders undertake 2,500 hours of work to transform a derelict building into a community centre for disadvantaged young people. The ramp-up will be facilitated by the recruitment of about 500 additional community payback staff who will bolster resources in every probation region. In January, we launched a national recruitment campaign and successful candidates are now commencing in post.
I thank my right hon. Friend for mentioning south Yorkshire. He will know that, in March, a group of offenders came to Rother Valley under this scheme to help clear up Maltby. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need more of these schemes across Rother Valley and Yorkshire so that people can see the value of community payback, and that it is often better to have people out working in communities rather than serving shorter sentences in prison?
I completely agree and am pleased to hear about the projects in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As he will know, I have urged all Members across the House to nominate schemes in their constituencies to be fulfilled and I need everybody’s help to get us to the target of 8 million hours. If we all pull together I hope we will make sure that not just my hon. Friend’s constituency but every part of the country is looking spick and span.
This investment is also enabling us to establish new national partnerships with major organisations and charities, which are also joining this coalition to get to 8 million hours, bringing forward high-quality local projects and initiatives to be replicated in communities across England and Wales. This includes our groundbreaking partnership with the Canal & River Trust, which sees offenders clearing litter, tidying towpaths and maintaining beauty spots along 2,000 miles of waterways. The work of offenders on community payback has delivered at Perry Barr in Birmingham, clearing a towpath near the site of this summer’s Commonwealth games, which is testament to the impact such projects can have on local places and people.
There was a decline between ’17-18 and ’18-19, but the hon. Lady will remember that the last three years of decline were covered by a lockdown; the lockdown began in the first quarter. And while there was a decline it is worth pointing out that there was also a very significant decline in the previous year because this is an activity which, as I have said, takes place in groups and we were not allowed to meet in groups. I know it is not often the case that the word fairness is used in our antagonistic form of democratic debate, but it would be unfair of Opposition parties to decry the work of the probation service and community payback supervisors and say that they should have been doing that group work during the pandemic.
No, I want to make some progress. [Interruption.] I will give way in a moment, but I have just given way to the hon. Lady.
As I have said, the baseline was at or around 5 million hours a year for quite a period. It fluctuated from year to year because of a number of factors, not just the delivery but also whether magistrates were giving community sentences in volume, which is not something we can influence. But I am more than happy to write to the hon. Lady with the hours as we see them. [Interruption.] I do not have them to hand, but I am more than happy to write to her about those hours. Look, the number fluctuated at about 5 million-odd, and we want to get it to 8 million. We have been given £93 million and 500 more supervisors have been recruited to get us there. I hope that Opposition Members will acknowledge that community payback was impacted, and had to be, by the pandemic. I know that the Labour party would not seek to make political advantage out of the impact of that awful disease when we had to bear in mind the safety of Ministry of Justice staff.
The Opposition have submitted their own proposals on improving local engagement and participation, which the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge referred to. However, I am afraid that her quango-tastic response to the issue is both unnecessary and, I am afraid, overcomplicated. In reality, community payback is already delivering for local communities, and the Government are only strengthening our engagement with key stakeholders. We recognise that local engagement is an integral part of the community payback offer, and the probation service already works closely with local authorities, police and crime commissioners and voluntary organisations to identify demanding placements that benefit communities. We also encourage members of the public to take part and nominate community payback projects in their areas via an easy-to-use form on the gov.uk website. I urge you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make some nominations in your own constituency.
Furthermore, we have just introduced a new statutory duty via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 that requires the probation service to consult with key community stakeholders on the delivery of community payback in local areas. The duty will encourage greater collaboration with key partners such as PCCs and ensure that projects benefit communities and are responsive to local needs. The new statutory duty will cement and formalise existing relationships and create a consistent consultation process across England and Wales. That in turn will guarantee that local people have a say in the types of projects delivered in their areas, ensuring that our placements are responsive to the community’s needs.
The impact of such collaboration was evident during the community payback spring clean week, which was delivered in support of Keep Britain Tidy’s campaign in March. Between
I want to take the Minister back to the 8 million hours of community payback that he set out. We all support more hours of community payback, particularly on meaningful projects such as some of those that he has just listed. He skirted over the fundamental problem, though, which is that in June 2011, 185,265 community sentences were handed down—13% of all sentences—but by June 2021 that had fallen to 72,021, which was just 7% of all sentences. He said that there is little that he can do to make the courts award community sentences, but, if he is to make those 8 million hours a reality, he will have to do something to encourage them. What is he doing to ensure that more community sentences, where appropriate, are given out to perpetrators of crime?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the decision on a sentence is a matter for the magistrate or for the judge at the time. It is for them to decide what is a fitting punishment and, indeed, what is likely to deter the offender from reoffending. The fall that he pointed to will be entirely down to judicial discretion.
We can do a certain amount of marketing to judges and sentencers. In promoting my own pet project of alcohol abstinence and monitoring orders—the new sobriety tags that have been brought in—I have been attending judicial training courses to explain to sentencers how the sentence works and its effectiveness. In the end, a judge or magistrate wants to know that a sentence is effective, and if we can demonstrate through our work that it is effective, punitive and satisfies the public interest, and the local community sees value in that sentence, I am sure that magistrates and judges will step forward with much greater enthusiasm and help us to fulfil that 8 million hours target. The hon. Gentleman identifies the interesting point—no doubt it will be embarked on with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend James Cartlidge—of explaining to those who give out sentences the growing importance of this work across the whole of the country.
I hope that all hon. Members in the Chamber will become my Twitter followers. One of the great pleasures of my day is to tweet my “payback of the day”. Pretty much every day, I put out “before” and “after” pictures of a project taking place somewhere across the country showing the fantastic work that offenders have done. We seem to specialise in cemeteries—a lot of work is going into cleaning them and smartening them up. Some of the transformations have been extraordinary. I visited a project in Eastleigh, near my constituency, and what struck me was the value that the offenders themselves saw in the work. Local residents had been over to congratulate them, thank them and understand what they were doing—the offenders all wear high-vis that has “community payback” written the back—and the offenders felt a sense of pride. They had been working in a churchyard, making it look very smart and tidy, and in fact a couple of them said that they were interested in a career in landscape gardening as a result.
Across the House, we agree on the value of community payback. I hope it is agreed that the service suffered during the pandemic because of the nature of this group-based work, but that the staff at the probation service and the community payback supervisors were innovative in inventing solutions to help us deal with the backlog. Nevertheless, we all need to put our shoulder to the wheel to get us from 5 million hours to that target of 8 million hours, by which time I hope there will not be an area of the country that is not clean, scrubbed and free of graffiti and litter.
While I realise that the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge is trying to use the debate to confer some kind of political advantage, I know that she recognises—she is generally a fair-minded individual—that the staff were struggling during the pandemic, as were so many services. Now that her party has happily reversed its position, we share the view that the community payback is an incredibly valuable part of our criminal justice system, and I hope that we will all work together to promote it. I look forward to receiving a nomination from her for a scheme that she would like to see done in her constituency. Perhaps she and I could visit it together and congratulate the offenders on their work.
As for the hon. Lady’s overall claim that somehow the Conservatives have gone soft on crime and are no longer the party of crime and order, I gently remind her that she voted against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and its measures to put rapists and other serious offenders behind bars and to deal with a variety of other criminals. Until the Labour party becomes more action and less talk, I am afraid that it will not be able to aspire to the crown, which we currently proudly hold, of being the primary defender of law and order in this country.
This debate is about how we provide security for our communities and justice for victims. It is also about getting real about why so many crimes are happening, why so many victims are being harmed and why the wounds are not being helped to heal. We know about how the Tory austerity cuts to our courts helped to create a massive backlog even before the pandemic. We know how victims are waiting years for justice and how so many are dropping out of the system because they cannot have cases hanging over their heads any longer. We also know how suspects waiting month after month in custody or on bail just creates the conditions for further crime.
We are talking about community sentences and the role that they can play in providing justice, in repairing the damage that crime causes to our communities and in stopping reoffending by dealing with some of its causes. My hon. Friend Ellie Reeves laid out the facts: the number and percentage of community sentences in our justice system have declined in the past 10 years—even before the pandemic. The Ministry of Justice’s own research shows that community sentences are associated with lower reoffending than short prison sentences, which are often the alternative, and that community sentences cost 10 times less than a prison place. When our prisons are as underfunded, dangerous, overcrowded and devoid of rehabilitation as so many are today, that is no bad thing. Community sentences are a win-win, as they have lower reoffending rates and they are cheaper.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. There is another bonus because, when community sentences are done correctly, they provide payback—the clue is in the name—to communities affected by crime and they provide a form of restorative justice to victims of crime. A price cannot be put on that. It is justice in action, is it not?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Community sentences work because they include punishment while maintaining a link to the community and enabling progress on the problems that drive crime in the first place. The link to the community is perhaps the most important thing, because it helps people to maintain the hope that is necessary to change their life. Community payback orders can give people experience of work that helps their neighbourhood to thrive. The work can and should be hard, but it should also be rewarding, which can, in and of itself, create a motivation for further change.
What are the barriers to making this kind of sentence work well? A lack of investment in the probation service is part of the problem. When I was a shadow probation Minister, I frequently heard of probation staff taking on huge, extraordinary numbers of cases. Good, valued probation staff are not just an early warning system for when an individual is going off the rails; they are agents of hope, healing and personal change. That can only happen if professionals are given the time and resources to develop the real relationships that are essential if we are to turn lives around. It is about understanding the needs, vulnerabilities and risks of the people they are supervising. We need probation staff who organise unpaid work to have good links with employers, councils, colleges and local charities. They need a range of opportunities to be available so they can tailor the service to a person’s skills and needs. Most of all, they need the necessary time and trust to inform the courts of the most effective, most appropriate and fairest type of sentence.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The Minister suggested that Opposition Members do not appreciate the work of probation officers, so will my hon. Friend please set the record straight? We really do appreciate the work of probation officers, and we acknowledge the hiatus caused by the privatisation of the probation service. I hope the Government will recognise the value of probation officers in the current pay talks.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we are to turn around people’s lives, and if we are to make a dent in the crime on our streets, we have to resource those who are working with people who often have immensely disorganised lives, who may have a history of trauma and who might need a proper intervention by social services or the probation service to enable them to put their life straight. All too often, the only contact we have with the probation service is to criticise it for not recognising that somebody is about to go off the rails or has already gone off the rails and for not having a close enough eye.
The reality is that our probation service needs the resources to work properly with the people in its care, as well as resources for healthcare, drug rehabilitation, alcohol dependency and so on to use as tools in its work.
The hon. Lady is making an interesting speech. There are, of course, two elements to unpaid work—the punitive element and rehabilitation—so two levels of sentencing are imposed: rehabilitation activity requirements and unpaid work. It is important not to confuse the two, because unpaid work is usually the punitive element. She talks a lot about needs, which sit in the rehabilitation activity requirement.
I genuinely think it is about seeing it in the whole. If I am doing unpaid work to clean up a graveyard, I can look back and see a graveyard that is in better nick because of my work and somebody could commend me for that work, which begins to build confidence and self-worth. Although there is the punitive element of taking hours away from my life and making me do a job that I do not particularly want to do because it is a bit nasty and a bit scuzzy, there will be appreciation from others and from me for a job well done. The two cannot be separated, so we should acknowledge and accept both bits with open arms and say that this is what we want to do, because it changes lives.
Good, valued probation staff are not just an early warning system; they are agents of hope and healing. I worry that unpaid work can be seen as a box-ticking exercise, and it is no surprise that courts and victims sometimes do not have confidence that it is a genuine form of justice. I am worried that the probation system, with its regional structures, is too remote from our local communities. There is not necessarily the transparency and accountability to create genuine confidence in what is happening.
I worked in local government for years before I came to this House, and I saw time and again how money and power can be sucked away from the local when there is a regional structure. Sometimes our regional structures are a bit too far away from the delivery on the ground. There are fabulous local and public organisations working in Newham that I would trust to do the job of putting people to work in a way that pays back the community and creates opportunities for offenders, but those organisations are too often shut out of these contracts because they are a bit too small, a bit too local and a bit too distant from the decision makers, whether in Westminster or Islington. It sometimes means the best are not employed to do the work that we all know could happen.
To illustrate what I have been trying to say, I will finish by talking about the group that is failed most by the criminal justice system. Women overwhelmingly end up before the courts for non-violent and non-sexual offences. In 2020, 72% of women sentenced to prison had committed a non-violent offence. These offences are usually driven by the legacy of abuse, trauma and exploitation, and we know from the Government’s own research that 60% of women entering prison have suffered domestic abuse, almost half have an alcohol problem and almost a third have a drug problem.
Let me be clear. Women do commit crimes and we have to respond by creating a justice system that supports them to escape the abuses, traumas and addictions that have put them where they are. Community sentences can be an important tool for women offenders. They can help women to face up to and deal with their addictions. They include unpaid work that builds a woman’s skills, confidence and ambition. We have to face reality: if we do not give a community sentence, the alternative is a short prison sentence, which can make the problems that drive women’s offending so much worse.
Let me give an example. Many women who commit crimes are in a desperate situation due to homelessness. They then go into prison and, if they had a tenancy, they lose it. When they are out of prison, as many as two thirds do not have a safe home to go to. Most prison sentences for women are very short—70% are for less than a year. In the system in which we are working, that, frankly, does not give professionals enough time to respond to individual needs and provide the necessary treatments that will enable a woman to make a success of her life once she is released. For instance, it is not possible in that time, in the big structures in which we are working, to get a woman on to drug rehabilitation and alcohol dependency courses and provide the facilities and resources that she needs to turn her life around.
I am trying to follow the hon. Lady’s logic. Is she saying that every woman—I know this is about women, rather than men—who commits relatively minor crimes such as shoplifting, mugging or assault, which still have victims, should not be sent to jail? I do not think we should screen people out because they are male or female. If someone commits a crime, they should go to jail, if that is appropriate. If the argument is that sentences are too short, let us make them longer so that there is chance to be rehabilitated in jail where the criminals belong.
Let me help the hon. Gentleman. The Government have a female offender strategy, and what I am speaking about is not outwith the philosophy and principles in his Government’s strategy. It is massively understood that there are many and complex reasons why women find themselves in a situation where they can be imprisoned for between three and six months. Many such women will have responsibility for children. Their incarceration destroys the home for that child. It destroys their having a stable place to be. It often means that the child, although there may be no such predisposition previously, has that trauma to carry with them, which can have lifelong consequences.
If the hon. Gentleman believes that payback is a reasonable way of dealing with this, let us think about non-violent offenders and how we can use payback and community orders to reduce crime. The thing about payback orders is that they work. I want to see fewer victims. Therefore, I want to see less crime, so how do I get less crime? We are saying that payback orders can get us to a situation where there is less crime because reoffending rates are not as high as they otherwise would be.
There is a constant churn in prisons, with staff desperately trying to establish relationships but then losing them again. Let us imagine that a staff member meets somebody they could finally support in changing their life. Let us imagine that staff member making promises to that person when they know that those promises cannot be kept because the person will be moving on again in a few weeks. It is simply impossible.
Justice that happens within women’s communities can avoid that terrible, wrenching disruption and provide long-term support, enabling women to stay closer to their support networks. Almost 60% of the women in prison have children. Research shows that they have a greater risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system if their parent is placed into prison. It is no wonder that the rates of self-harm in women’s prisons have gone up over the past decade. Many offenders, but particularly women offenders, are trapped in terrible cycles of harm, abuse, crime and punishment. It is a revolving door of reoffending, and that reoffending, effectively, creates more victims.
I believe that community payback is the kind of innovation that we need. Local partnership working between victims, courts, charities, businesses, probation and other public services is exactly the kind of joined-up local working that, sadly, Conservative Governments have eroded over the years through austerity and the decline in community sentencing. It can be absolutely no surprise that we are all paying the price of increased reoffending, increased crime and more victims, and our communities are being denied justice on a catastrophic scale.