asked Her Majesty's Government:
What plans they have to reform the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.
My Lords, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 allows certain spent convictions to be concealed in an effort to improve employment opportunities and reduce reoffending. The Government's 2002 document, Breaking the Circle, set out proposals for reform of the Act and the Government undertook to legislate when parliamentary time allowed. They will consider whether the Breaking the Circle proposals now need to be updated in the light of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006.
My Lords, does the Minister recall that in 2003 the Government announced their intention to reform this legislation? However, despite a series of criminal justice legislation, that reform has not surfaced. Does he agree that the length of the current rehabilitation period is a serious impediment to the rehabilitation of offenders who seek jobs? Is there not ample evidence that one-third to one-half of offenders who get a job are less likely to reoffend than those who do not have a job? Will the Government indicate whether such legislation is likely to surface in the Queen's Speech?
My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's disappointment that the Government have not yet found parliamentary time to produce the legislation in the light of Breaking the Circle. He is right both about the statistics in relation to the importance of work in stopping reoffending and in his the comment about the length of time that must pass before a conviction can be spent; Breaking the Circle argued for less time. We are sympathetic to that. I can assure the noble Lord that the department will be working on this in the light of the 2006 Act.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the bar has been set at a fairly low level in that only punishments of up to 30 months' detention are covered and that it takes 10 years for those to qualify? Does he also agree that, in the case of young people and persons in their 20s who have committed offences at an irresponsible period in their lives and have later reformed and lived decent and honest lives, this Act has been of particular value and merit?
My Lords, I agree with all the noble Lord's comments, and the recommendations in the Breaking the Circle report would address many of the points he raises. That is why we are looking very seriously at the matter.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, with all the pressures on the Prison Service at the moment, the importance of keeping an ethos of rehabilitation at the top of the priorities is essential for prisoners themselves, for the community as a whole and, indeed, for economic reasons? Does he also agree that some of the voluntary organisations involved in the rehabilitation of offenders in prisons are saying that it is not just a matter of getting a person into a job, it is a matter of ensuring that the right support is there when people go out into the community to help them make a success of their re-entry into civilised life?
My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend. The Prison Service and Probation Service have done tremendous work in the past few years to help ex-offenders get into work. My understanding is that the latest figures, produced in August, show that 27.1 per cent of prisoners had gone into work and that a further 10.4 per cent had gone into education or training. I accept that much more needs to be done, but we are building on some very good work undertaken in the past few years.
My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Lord's comment. Indeed, one has to pay tribute to the many private sector organisations that have shown themselves to be very progressive in this area. There is much that the public sector can learn from the private sector and I will do everything I can to mobilise my colleagues in this matter.
My Lords, reform of the Act would clearly be helpful in meeting some of the concerns expressed about the 1974 Act. However, it is not only a question of the rehabilitation Act; as my noble friend suggested earlier, it is also about whether there is infrastructure support that encourages employers and ensures that, while they are in prison, prisoners have access to good education or training opportunities and are really given every encouragement and support to go into work. We very much require a co-ordinated effort.
My Lords, I entirely agree that opportunities for employment and housing are central if rehabilitation is to be effective. However, has the Minister any information about employers' practices and attitudes to education which we are trying to change because they prevent ex-offenders taking up the training and further education that they may need to survive in today's world?
My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very important point. The fact is that half of male prisoners and over two-thirds of female adult prisoners have no qualifications at all. More than half of all prisoners screened on reception are at or below level 1 in reading, writing and maths. The link between offending and very poor educational achievement is clear and sets out the requirement and the challenge for us to ensure that, as much as possible, prisoners are given every opportunity for education and training.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of the exemplary scheme run by the National Grid in conjunction with Reading Jail whereby the National Grid has given exceptional support? It has pioneered a route that the Government should look at. Does he accept that that experience would lead to exactly what my noble colleague Lord Dholakia was suggesting?
Indeed so, my Lords. My noble friend the Leader of the House was involved in the establishment of that project. There is much that we can learn, and we are developing alliances with employers to take advantage of good practice. I certainly will commend that to my colleagues in the department. Thank you.