Criminal Justice

– in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 26th February 2001.

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Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 3:45 pm, 26th February 2001

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement about the Command Paper Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead, copies of which are available in the Vote Office, together with the Criminal Justice System Business Plan for 2001-02 which is being published today. The Statement is as follows:

"Throughout their period of office the Government have been determined to tackle crime and the causes of crime and to build a criminal justice system which is fair, effective and swift and which commands the full support and confidence of victims and the public.

"Reducing crime carries wider responsibilities than those of the criminal justice system alone. The Government have invested in a range of cross-cutting programmes which will tackle the underlying causes of crime, including Sure-Start for pre-school children, the new Connexions programme, the Children's Fund, the welfare to work programme and the new National Treatment Agency for drugs. This is a key element in our approach to crime reduction. We are determined not only to deal effectively with crime once committed, but to reduce the numbers of people who turn to crime in the first place.

"This has to go hand in hand with change in the criminal justice system itself. Here profound improvement is already under way. Following an inquiry under Sir Iain Glidewell, the Crown Prosecution Service has been restructured in line with police force boundaries and a local chief crown prosecutor is now in place for each area. The number of criminal justice units responsible for processing cases to court now co-located with the police is being trebled.

"The youth justice system is being transformed. The National Youth Justice Board and a network of local youth offending teams are co-ordinating effort against youth crime as never before. Repeat cautioning of juveniles has ended. Graduated court sanctions are helping to ensure that young offenders and their parents take greater responsibility for their behaviour and allow for the active involvement of the victims in the process.

"From April this year, for the first time police, probation, CPS and magistrates will be operating to the same coterminous boundaries. Statutory partnerships between the police, local councils, the health service and voluntary organisations have been established across the country to ensure that everyone works together effectively to reduce crime and disorder. These partnerships are benefiting from significant investment under a three-year crime reduction programme--including the biggest ever expansion of CCTV--to help drive crime down at a local level. New anti-social behaviour orders have removed a climate of fear and intimidation from many neighbourhoods, while more than 1,100 successful prosecutions have taken place for new offences of racial violence and racial harassment.

"The system for community punishments is being reformed to ensure better enforcement by a new national probation service. The Prison Service is investing large sums into drugs prevention, accredited offending behaviour programmes, better education and training and an extra 2,660 prison places. This strategy is bearing fruit. Against demographic projections that crime would rise in this period, the British Crime Survey shows that from 1997 to the end of 1999 overall crime had fallen by 10 per cent, with reductions of 4 per cent for violent crime, 15 per cent for vehicle crime and 21 per cent for domestic burglary. Since 1997 overall recorded crime has fallen 7 per cent to a total of just over 5.2 million offences with reductions of 28 per cent for domestic burglary and 20 per cent for vehicle crime.

"I pay tribute to the efforts, commitment and dedication of the police, all those who work in the other criminal justice service agencies and the host of volunteers in Victim Support, Neighbourhood Watch and many other local organisations.

"These recent improvements have, however, taken place in the context of more fundamental and deep-seated problems.

"Over the past 20 years the performance of the CJS has not kept pace with long-term trends in crime, nor with new types of crime: too few crimes are detected and prosecuted successfully. Between 1980 and 1995, while the number of recorded offences doubled, the number of convictions in respect of those offences fell by a third. Plainly the system is not as successful as it should be in catching, prosecuting and punishing the criminal.

"Cases still take too long, while sentencing is too variable and insufficiently focused on reducing re-offending. Within two years of starting a community sentence, or finishing their prison sentence, over half of offenders will be back in court to be convicted and sentenced for further offences.

"The legacy of these failures is that crime is still far too high here, not just in comparison with levels 20 years ago, but also compared with other Western countries. The British Crime Survey showed that while violent crime has fallen by 4 per cent, there are worrying increases in street crime, including robbery.

"With this Command Paper the Government are tackling these longer-term problems. Alongside our continuing programme set in place over the past four years, the paper describes our further strategy for reducing crime and reforming the criminal justice system. It describes a demanding programme for delivering the targets set out in the CJS Public Service Agreement, and also identifies a wide range of new areas where we are looking for improvements. These are focused on four key themes: first, crime prevention--dealing with those factors which appear to increase the chances of a person getting into crime; secondly, catching and convicting more offenders, especially persistent offenders--to close the 'justice gap' between crimes reported to the police and those resulting in a criminal being brought to justice; thirdly, ensuring that punishments fit the criminal as well as the crime, thus reducing re-offending and crime; and, fourthly, radically improved treatment for victims, to ensure that their need for information, support and advice is better met at every stage of the criminal justice process.

"Research that we have undertaken shows that a small group of hard core, highly persistent offenders, fluid but probably no more than 100,000 strong at any given time, may be responsible for half of all crime. Our strategy, involving both investment and reform, is therefore intended to help catch and convict more of these serious and persistent offenders, and to do so more often.

"Using the extra resources and further new technology and techniques, the police will give priority to these serious and persistent offenders. The entire active criminal population will be on the DNA database by 2004. The national intelligence model will be adopted by every police force to establish a consistent basis for gathering, sharing and using intelligence. In addition to previously announced measures to increase the number of police officers to the highest ever level by March 2003, the document details proposals to improve detective capability, and leadership and the management of senior careers in the police service, and to enhance the prospects of those who make a career of being a front-line constable.

"As a whole, the CJS will be receiving the biggest injection of new resources in 20 years. This will deliver more staff, more capacity, and the modernisation of information technology systems for all those working in the CJS. A 23 per cent real term rise in funding for 2001-02 will enable the CPS to recruit scores of extra prosecutors, remedying the under-funding of the service when it was first set up.

"But with this investment and reform must come results. There will therefore be a CJS-wide target for 2004 to increase by 100,000 the number of recorded crimes ending in an offender being brought to justice.

"The document also sets out why we also want to consider fully and carefully the scope for improving court organisation and procedures, the rules of evidence, and codifying and clarifying the criminal law itself. So in December 1999 we asked Sir Robin Auld to conduct a comprehensive and independent review of the criminal courts. The Government will take final decisions after carefully considering his recommendations.

"To achieve our broad goal, of punishments which fit the criminal as well as the crime, we will reform radically the present sentencing structure. This will be based on preventing reoffending as well as punishment and will ensure that persistent offending leads to an increased severity of punishment. There will be a new approach to community punishments and far better enforcement. From April the new National Probation Service will have its funding increased by over a fifth--22 per cent--in real terms over the next three years to deliver a 5 per cent reduction in reoffending. There will, for the first time, be proper supervision of short-sentence prisoners after their release, and a new emphasis on sentence management and review. In making final decisions in this area we shall take full account of the review of the sentencing framework under Mr John Halliday, a senior Home Office official.

"To deal with young offenders there will be a range of new measures, including a commitment that every young offender in custody will get a minimum of 30 hours a week education, training or similar development work.

"Many of the 100,000 most persistent offenders are hard drug users. We therefore have to target better our efforts to break the link between drugs and crime. New measures include the introduction nationally of drug treatment and testing orders. There will be more referrals into treatment at the point of arrest, and drug testing at the point of charge, to ensure that we identify drug misuse problems and intervene earlier. Over the next three years, spending on drug treatment will rise by 70 per cent to over £400 million. And there will be more money to help educate prisoners and ensure that they are able to get work on release.

"Finally, as regards victims and witnesses, support for victims in the UK is already high by international standards and we have the most generous criminal injuries compensation scheme in the world. But the Government are determined to do still more to deliver a better deal for victims and witnesses. I will therefore tomorrow be publishing a consultation paper which will include details of our proposals for a new charter of victims' rights and a victims' ombudsman. This includes a commitment to make sure victims are kept properly informed throughout the progress of their case.

"We want the CJS and everyone working within it to focus on two clear and linked outcomes: the delivery of justice and the reduction of crime. That is the goal of the programme which I have set out today. I commend the Command Paper to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Lord Cope of Berkeley Lord Cope of Berkeley Conservative 3:57 pm, 26th February 2001

My Lords, clearly none of us has had the opportunity to study properly the Command Paper; the business plan is not yet available. Can the Minister confirm that the Statement--it has an obvious pre-election flavour--and the Command Paper owe little to any new proposals? They owe a great deal to the fact that spin doctors have spotted the Government's poor performance on crime, to use the words of Mr Justin Russell, the Home Secretary's political adviser. Are the words of Mr Russell, as quoted in the Sunday Times, accurate?

The main purpose seems to be to make headlines; and that was achieved towards the end of last week. However, some of those headlines have not materialised in the Command Paper. Others appear only in consultative form. Is that because the Home Office lost the battle with the Treasury about which we also read in the newspapers over the weekend?

We have had a deluge of Home Office Bills in the past Session. The few firm proposals in this document are not in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill which is now before Parliament, as are several other Home Office Bills. Am I correct in thinking that the Home Office research published before Christmas on lay and stipendiary magistrates will not now result in an important shift of work away from lay magistrates? Why has the Home Office said that the Government will reform radically the present sentencing structure? The Statement indicates that the Government are waiting for the report from Mr Halliday before doing so.

Does the Minister think that the newspapers were right to report that the sentencing reform--when it comes--will mean a cut in prison sentences for tens of thousands of prisoners? The fond hope is that outside prison at least some prisoners will get the training that they ought to get inside prison, although I am not sure that releasing them will improve the chances of that.

Similarly, there are many references to court organisation, but we have to wait for the report of Sir Robin Auld before we hear anything positive on that. Will the Minister spell out a little further the proposals to enhance the prospects of those who make a career of being a front-line constable? Will they be paid more than constables who work somewhere other than in the front line of the police service?

What is all this that we read about judges supervising rehabilitation? It was mentioned a lot in the papers, but it is a bit vaguer in the document.

Victims got a mention at the end of the Statement, with a reference to a consultation paper being issued tomorrow. Will that consultation paper rephrase the promises that Labour made before the last election? That seems to be the indication, but we may have to wait until tomorrow to find out about that.

Since this Government came to office, there has been a surplus of proposals and a lack of performance. I am not alone in thinking that, instead of producing great blocks of glossy paper recycling promises, the Government should concentrate on delivering on the promises that they have already made.

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Liberal Democrat 4:02 pm, 26th February 2001

My Lords, there is a good deal in the Statement that we welcome, but I have some queries and comments to raise. First, the Government say that the British Crime Survey shows that from 1997 to the end of 1999, overall crime had fallen. Is not that the continuation of an existing trend, not only in this country, but in many others in the developed world? It is not peculiar to this country.

The Statement says that, in addition to previously announced measures, the Government will increase the number of police officers to the highest ever level by March 2003. One wonders what figure the Government have in mind. They talk about 9,000 extra new recruits, but what will the outcome be? Will the number of police officers be significantly above the highest previous level, and if so, by how much?

Have the Government considered the proposal put forward by my honourable friend Mr Simon Hughes for community safety forces, which would co-ordinate and expand the work now done by traffic wardens, park wardens and others to deal with matters such as litter, relatively minor acts of vandalism and graffiti, thereby releasing the police for more serious work?

We welcome the long overdue substantial real increase in funding for the Crown Prosecution Service. I hope that it will improve the efficiency and morale of the CPS. However, I am a little worried by the comment in the Statement that there will be a CJS-wide target for 2004 to increase by 100,000 the number of recorded crimes ending in an offender being brought to justice. Obviously we hope that there will be a substantial increase in the number of prosecutions resulting in conviction, but specific targets worry us. We all know about the alleged cases of traffic wardens who are supposed to fulfil a specific target. We do not think that that is a good idea. We welcome the increase in the work of the CPS, but we are worried about the targets.

The Statement then refers to considering the scope for improving, among other things, the rules of evidence. I do not for a moment suggest that the rules of evidence are immutable and cannot be changed or improved--quite plainly they can. However, the Command Paper includes suggestions on changing the rules about the disclosure of unused prosecution evidence. Many of the most serious miscarriages of justice in the past have arisen from a failure to disclose prosecution evidence that has not been used. We would want to look carefully at any proposals to restrict the disclosure of unused prosecution evidence.

The Command Paper also says that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984,

"gives the court discretion to exclude evidence which has been improperly obtained, if admitting such evidence would have an adverse effect on the fairness of the proceedings".

It goes on to say:

"It has been suggested that the operation of the section 78 test should be reviewed and the Government will consider this".

What does that mean? Are the Government suggesting that the Section 78 test under the 1984 Act should be weakened to allow evidence to be admitted even if it would have an adverse effect on the fairness of the proceedings? That would worry us very greatly.

The Command Paper also says:

"One option for simplification would be to allow evidence of previous convictions where relevant, providing their prejudicial effect does not outweigh their probative value".

That is more easily said than done and any such proposal would need to be looked at very carefully.

The Command Paper refers to alcohol abuse, although the Statement did not. The misuse of alcohol is undoubtedly a major source of crime. It is no coincidence that, along with our very high rates of alcohol consumption in this country, particularly by young people, we have considerably higher crime levels than many other European Union nations. Will the Government consider a campaign against alcohol abuse that is as serious as their campaign against the abuse of other drugs?

We welcome the Statement. There will be more money to help educate prisoners and ensure that they are able to get work on release. We strongly support that. We believe that there should be a working day programme to ensure that prisoners are in work or training for 35 hours a week--that is substantially more than at present. We also suggest an increase in prison wages, not to allow the prisoners to spend more in prison, but to provide a pool from which compensation can be paid or help can be provided for victim support schemes, and to provide a sum that will give released prisoners some money to keep themselves going through the very difficult first few weeks after they come out of prison. We welcome the reference to the criminal injuries compensation scheme, but, while the Government are undoubtedly correct in saying that it is generous compared with other countries, recent cases, particularly that of Lisa Potts, have shown that there are serious problems with it, particularly the rule that in the case of multiple injuries, compensation is payable on only the most serious and the rest must be ignored. That seems illogical.

We look forward with great interest to the proposals to be published tomorrow for the new charter of victims' rights and the victims ombudsman. We strongly welcome the improvements in the Command Paper on that important issue.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 4:10 pm, 26th February 2001

My Lords, noble Lords opposite have raised a number of useful and interesting points. I do not believe that our Government have lost the will to fight crime; nor have we lost the battle of ideas in this field. I believe that the document published today provides ample examples to that effect. It has little or nothing to do with the fact that a general election may or may not be approaching. It has much to do with providing a clear sense of purpose for the criminal justice system over the next 10 years. Our document is full of new ideas--ideas which emanate from wherever is necessary. We are a Government driven by ideas, thinking and practical problem-solving. That is the way in which we operate and that is where we are in government.

I shall run through a few of those ideas. With regard to policing, we say that we want to enhance detective capability. It is very sad that, when in power, the party opposite ran down the quality of detective training. We say that we want to bring in new, outside experience from the public or private sectors to enhance detective capability. That seems to me a sensible, pragmatic way in which to approach the matter. No doubt it will be much welcomed by the police service. We say that we want to create a new joint central body to set out service-wide strategic approaches to information technology and to scientific and technical developments. That is a new idea.

We say that we want a more structured career management process to be put in place, including the development of a new leadership development board. That is a new idea. We say that we want to explore the scope of specialist court hearings to deal with drug dealers. That is a new idea. We say that we want to see continued and better oversight and intervention by the criminal justice system in drug abuse matters generally. We say that we want to develop specialist prosecutors. We say that we want to have a consolidated criminal code. I could go on with a long list of the new approaches and ideas that are contained in this document.

As to losing a battle with the Treasury, I believe that I made it plain in the Statement that we are increasing significantly resources to all parts of the criminal justice system. Those resources were much depleted in many spheres during the watch of the previous government. We are putting more money into the Prison Service and the National Probation Service. By 2003, record numbers of police officers will be serving the nation. They will be on the streets and in the places and communities where they need to be.

In the Statement I touched on the forthcoming report from Sir Robin Auld, who is doing a sterling job. We shall obviously take careful note of his comments, not least those he might make about the future of the magistracy. On page 64 of the report we make plain how greatly we value the magistracy and how we wish to see its role continue much as it is. Of course, we accept that it must adapt to modern circumstances in order to deal with new situations as and when they arise.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked about the role and development of the constable. Constables make up approximately 75 per cent of the front-line service. We greatly value their work and want to enhance that work in the community. That is obviously a shared objective across the three major parties. We want to enhance the status of constables in the very active, important and visible community role that they perform, and we want to explore with the service how that may work.

Tomorrow we shall publish a consultation document. Both noble Lords drew attention to that. We want to strengthen the position of the victim within our criminal justice system. I pay tribute to earlier administrations, not least the Labour administration which, some 35 or 36 years ago in the early stage of our administration in the 1960s, set up the criminal injuries compensation process. I also pay tribute to those who have enhanced the system during their watch. However, we want to go further than that. When examining the criminal justice system, we want to ensure that the victim is at the centre of our concerns and considerations.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, referred to patterns of criminality. It is true that varying rates of criminal activity are to be found across the world and that crime patterns vary. We are pleased that, according to the BCS, there has been a 10 per cent reduction in crime in the period since 1997 and a 7 per cent reduction in recorded crime figures. We want that reduction to continue. At the heart of our approach is a strategy which is designed to reduce crime. I hope that that will be generally welcomed and supported.

The noble Lord asked a specific question about police numbers. We estimate that police numbers will reach approximately 126,000 by March 2001, approximately 128,000 by March 2002, and the highest ever level during 2003-04. Clearly that final figure will depend very much on the continued success of the recruitment campaign. However, I can tell your Lordships that across the country numbers in police training colleges are now 74 per cent higher than they were this time last year. I believe that that gives a fair indication of where we expect the numbers to be moving during the coming period.

The noble Lord also referred to funding for the CPS. The CPS was set up in 1985. At that time, we argued that we were concerned about the basis on which it was to be established and about its resource levels. Despite the tireless efforts of those involved in it, when we came into government we inherited a situation in which the service was perhaps not performing at its best. For that reason, we have given it further funding through the spending review process. As I understand it, next year the service will receive an increase of 23 per cent in funding. We consider that to be a significant sum of money and one which will enable us to meet the targets revealed today.

Although I understand the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, about simple target-setting, we believe that it is right that more people are brought to book. The fact is that since we have been in government we have seen a 13 per cent increase in the number of convictions. We are delighted about that. We believe that with extra resources the CPS will be able to increase the number of convictions by approximately 30 per cent. We consider that to be important. People want to see criminals brought to book; they want to see the criminal justice system working well; and they want to have confidence and reassurance from it. We in government believe that that is right and we support that desire.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, made a point about previous convictions being taken into consideration. Of course, this is a sensitive area and we respect the point which the noble Lord made. However, matters will be left very much to the discretion of the judge, and no doubt this is an issue on which Sir Robin Auld will comment. I consider it to be a very important point.

I have covered a range of the points which were made in the opening responses of noble Lords opposite. It may be worth reiterating that the increase in funding for the CPS will be in the region of 23 per cent in the period 2001-02. That further underlines the point that I made earlier and I hope that it is helpful. I look forward to receiving questions from other noble Lords during this Session.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 4:19 pm, 26th February 2001

My Lords, as one who is particularly interested in young people before they become, as well as when they are, criminals, perhaps I may ask a few questions about the key points listed on pages 27 and 28 of the report. First, I see that 400 additional secure training centre places are to provide intensive supervision and so on. Recently I visited Medway. Together with colleagues who went there, I came to the conclusion fairly quickly that in part the place depended for its effectiveness on its small size. I should like to know how many more secure training centres are to be built to accommodate the extra 400 people. If it is merely a question of squeezing them into existing accommodation or expanding that accommodation, that will be counter-productive.

My second question is about the new children's fund and the associated £450 million. Where is that money coming from? Is it being taken from other programmes or is it new money? More particularly, what proportion of it will be devoted to supporting the voluntary sector that works to prevent young people from getting into crime? My view, which is based on considerable experience, is that that is infinitely the most effective arm that we have. If it is possible at this early stage to say how voluntary agencies could apply for those funds, that would be helpful.

The report states that there is to be,

"Better provision for excluded pupils, including a target"-- that word always heralds an election--

"to ensure that all permanently excluded children receive full time education by 2002".

That will cost big money. Many of those children can be taught only two-to-three or even one-to-one. How many such children are there, what will it cost to take the proposed action and, if every school in a local authority area has refused to receive those children, where will it be done? Will there be a new institution and, if so, can we be told about it?

Finally, I notice that the report states that there is to be,

"Funding for an extra 2,660 prison places and significantly more investment in employment placements, basic skills training, offending behaviour programmes and drug treatment in prison".

That is a basket of oranges and eggs. Places cost capital but programmes cost recurrent expenditure. What is the breakdown between those two approaches, and what is the total sum that will be devoted to them?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, the noble Lord asks some valuable questions. In view of his great knowledge of these matters, I always expect him to do so on such occasions.

On the noble Lord's question about secure training centres, I completely agree with him. In a sense, small is beautiful in that context. It enables greater concentration on the individual circumstances and problems that young offenders confront. Today, on one of my visits, I met someone who had recently returned from the Medway centre, which, he disclosed to me, had provided him with considerable hope for the future, important training and help with his personal development. For those reasons if not others, I support the development of secure training centre places.

As I understand the situation, the number of sites will be driven by the number of places that we seek to establish. Roughly speaking, most of the centres have in the order of 40 places. I hope that that gives the noble Lord some idea of the number of additional sites that we may need to develop in order to secure the 400 additional places. I am happy to do further research into our plans in that regard and shall further inform the noble Lord.

The noble Lord asked about the children's fund. That involves money that has been announced before, although it was obviously new money when it was announced. That is how things are supposed to be. The announcement has already been made in part. That new and important development clearly contributes to our overall strategy because it will provide a range of services through the voluntary and statutory sectors, which will assist young children.

The noble Lord asked how voluntary agencies could apply. There will be an announcement about that. I believe that the children's fund will come on stream from April this year.

The noble Lord also discussed excluded children and the Government's view of the importance of securing full-time education for those children. That is important. The Secretary of State for Education has given a commitment about that and about funding the extra work that will be expected of schools to ensure that as many children as possible, who might previously have been excluded, will remain within the education system.

The noble Lord also commented on our investment in the Prison Service. We make no apology for that. We recognise the importance of drug treatment and testing. For that reason, we are seeking to purchase and acquire more relevant spaces and places. The noble Lord said that the report's approach involved a basket of eggs and oranges. There is more coherence in the approach than he suggested. Yes, there will be offender treatment programmes, drug treatment programmes and a commitment to ensuring that there is training, which will ensure that when people come out of prison they have a reasonable expectation of returning to the world of work.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, my question was about funding the programme.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, the funding for those important developments is from the spending review. It has already been put in place and is secured.

Photo of Lord Ackner Lord Ackner Crossbench

My Lords, I had assumed that it was common ground that overcrowding is the biggest single corrosive factor to prison administration, but that problem does not feature prominently in the report. Is the Minister aware that in many prisons overcrowding is undermining the Prison Service's attempts to deal with reoffending? Is he aware that despite an extensive prison-building programme, more than 12,000 prisoners are held in overcrowded cells and some prisons have overcrowding of as much as 80 per cent? I expect that the Minister will accept that as a result of that problem about 25,000 prisoners are held more than 50 miles from their homes. That means that family relationships are disrupted and that effective resettlement is more difficult.

I also take it that the Minister is aware that during 1999-2000, just 7 per cent of the average daily prison population completed an accredited offending behaviour programme. Prisoners now receive just 10 more minutes a day of purposeful activity compared with the figures of 10 years ago, despite the extra money that the Prison Service has received. Does the Minister accept that it remains the case that only a minority of prisoners benefits from programmes that are designed to reduce their propensity to reoffend?

Such matters are being carefully recorded by the Prison Reform Trust. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chief Justice referred in a recent speech to overcrowding being analogous to AIDS. Others have referred to it as a cancer or a severely dangerous disease. What does the Minister propose to do about overcrowding? How will it be reduced and in what way?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, I thought that I had made it plain that we were seeking to secure an extra 2,660 prison places and that there is a prison-building programme to match that target. I take the noble and learned Lord's point and those made by the Prison Reform Trust. We had a related debate in your Lordships' House only last week and questions are asked regularly on this issue. We take overcrowding very seriously. It is perhaps worth pointing out that back in 1991, some 30 per cent of prisoners--one in three--were in overcrowded cells, and trebling or doubling was involved. The administration of the day decided that that was unacceptable and commenced a prison-building programme to try to reduce that number. We share that objective. Since we have been in government, overcrowding has reduced to 14.6 per cent. But I accept that there is more to be done.

I do not believe that overcrowding is either right or appropriate. But given that the prison population has been rising, that it is important that we have a facility for custodial sentences and that that is again a shared objective, we expect that over time we will be able to reduce overcrowding.

The noble and learned Lord made some important points in relation to the value of education. I greatly regret the fact that during the last administration insufficient was invested in education. It is for that reason we are beginning to invest more in education services within the prison estate and for young offenders. Our target is for young offenders each to benefit from 30 hours' education every week. We believe that training and education can make a major contribution to ensuring that people have real choices and opportunities when they come out of prison.

Offending behaviour programmes have been fully financed in the current spending review. The settlement provides for £17 million to deliver 9,000 accredited programme places aimed at reducing re-offending. The programmes will be accredited by the Joint Accreditation Panel. Those are important commitments. We must improve on our current record and we want to do so. We hope that we are supported in that. It can clearly make a major contribution to reducing offending. One of the core purposes of the Government is to reduce rates of offending when people come out of prison and when they end their sentences, however they are served.

Photo of Lord Borrie Lord Borrie Labour

My Lords, my noble friend is well aware of the great public concern that there should be a more visible presence of uniformed police on the streets. I should therefore like to follow up the earlier query of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. He referred to uniformed traffic wardens and others who, with suitable additional training, could deal with quite a lot of what he called "lower order" crime.

Is my noble friend aware that last week the organisation, London First, made a presentation in the presence of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Committee, in which the commissioner welcomed that sort of development in which his force could be involved? He referred to a number of pilot studies in other parts of the country where such schemes had been found to be useful in providing figures of authority which could be both a deterrent to crime and a force with which to deal with lower order crime.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Borrie for raising that subject again. I am aware of that presentation. I know that it was well received. Members of the public generally find a uniformed presence, in whatever shape it comes, reassuring. Although traffic wardens are not always as popular as we would like, the public also find their presence reassuring.

The Government actively support the development of neighbourhood wardens. I have visited a number of neighbourhood warden projects. They too offer a measure of reassurance. Indeed, I commend Tameside's neighbourhood warden system, a uniformed force which works closely with the police and is actively supported by them. We have invested more into the neighbourhood warden services.

The points made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and my noble friend Lord Borrie were extremely helpful. We are of course open to imaginative uses of those who provide patrolling and supervisory services, whether they be park keepers, park constables, who have a wide range of responsibilities, or park wardens. They can all have an important impact on levels of minor crime. Those were helpful contributions and we want to see more such schemes in operation.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether the new charter of victims' rights will contain provisions for restoring the measure of compensation which an earlier Labour government introduced in the 1960s? As he rightly said, that government established the compensation scheme based upon the measure of damages payable at common law. The Minister referred to the successor government enhancing that scheme. They did not enhance it; they destroyed it. They cut the level of funding by half and at that time, in 1993, the loudest in attacking those proposals was the then shadow Home Secretary, Mr Tony Blair.

The White Paper said that the Government are determined to do still more to deliver a better deal for victims and witnesses, including the large number of victims of crimes which are never solved. It also makes clear that the level of clear-up dropped from 40 per cent in 1980 to 24 per cent at the present time. That means that 76 per cent of victims never have the opportunity of being informed of the progress of their case, because there is no case. They never have the opportunity of submitting a victim's personal statement to the courts or of tracking their case. Will the Minister confirm that proper compensation will now be paid to the victims of crime as originally envisaged by his own party?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, is right that we were extremely critical of the Howard changes and were vociferous in our criticism at the time. We believe that compensation is right. For that reason, one of the elements of the package we are considering today is to establish a victims' fund which will be additional to the compensation process.

I cannot make a commitment from this Dispatch Box today that we will be restoring the criminal injuries compensation arrangements to what they were in the early 1990s. We have moved on from there. But we recognise that improvements can still be made.

Since we have been in government, we have done much else to support witnesses and victims. A witness services scheme is now in place at all 84 Crown Court centres. It is run by Victim Support. The service is being replicated by magistrates' courts and by March 2001 such a service will be provided in 40 per cent of magistrates' courts. We expect coverage to be achieved completely by March 2002. Since we have been in government--to give another example of our support for victims--we have seen the largest ever grant increase; that is, another 50 per cent funding for Victim Support's schemes nationally. We have also put more money into support after murder and manslaughter.

Those are significant changes. We expect to build on them. For that reason we will be publishing a consultation paper tomorrow in which more detail will be set out for people to assess. That is testament to our support for the interest and concern of victims. We welcome thinking from all parties on that. Again, it should be a shared objective to ensure that victims and witnesses are at the centre of our thinking in the criminal justice process.

Photo of The Bishop of Lichfield The Bishop of Lichfield Bishop

My Lords, I wish to ask the Minister about the issue of families of people in prison.