Report (5th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 20th March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench 7:00 pm, 20th March 2012

My Lords, I have some amendments in this group, but of course I am absolutely delighted that the Government have decided to bring forward their own amendments. If the House approves those amendments, I will withdraw the amendments in my name. I would like to add my thanks to all Peers from all sides of the House who have worked tirelessly to try to ensure that this localism response for local communities to deal with alcohol-fuelled offences can actually proceed and that this new sentencing ability will be available to the courts. I would also like to single out the noble Baronesses, Lady Browning and Lady Northover, both of whom have gone to great lengths to listen to all sides of the argument and to take those representations away. I know that they really have worked very hard behind the scenes to get to the point that we have reached today.

The government amendments do not include the "offender pay" content set out in my amendments. I understand that this is a complex issue and, depending on the outcome of the pilots, could be revisited at a later stage, but it has wider implications. The advantage of now being able to proceed with breathalyser pilots as well as tags is that, for those who have to present daily or twice daily for breathalysing, they will encounter staff who will be able to see how they are coping and offer them support to cope with all the other aspects of their lives that they have not been managing well and that have been contributing to their alcohol abuse. There is that support element and I know from the United States that the failure rate with tags is about nine times that with breathalysers. That is partly because the offenders tend to think that the electronics will fail and do not believe in the efficacy of the tags. They sometimes try to tamper with them and so on. It will be very important to see how it works here and compare the different systems.

This week there was a motion to seek international endorsement for these types of programmes from the 180-signatory nations to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. These kinds of schemes are being debated there as well. I have had meetings with police officers from different parts of the UK and a consistent story that comes through is that after 10 pm at night alcohol-related problems are between 80 and 100 per cent of their workload, depending in part on the night of the week. Evidence of decreased reoffending has come from the USA and in the pilots we will be able to see whether that is replicated here. There, they are reporting a more than 50 per cent drop in reoffending at three years; a more than 50 per cent drop in drink-driving offences; and a more than 10 per cent drop in domestic violence. There has also been a fall in incarceration rates. Alcohol use appears to be interrupted before the person who has been abusing the alcohol can actually kill somebody, so they have decreased the very serious end of crime as well. We know that in London the Metropolitan Police recorded 18,500 offences flagged for alcohol. Offences involving violence against the person accounted for 64 per cent of those.

I want to turn briefly to the question of domestic violence because I fear there has been some misunderstanding over domestic violence and alcohol abstinence. The police already have evidence that on the nights of some football club victories domestic violence goes up in the areas around the club. There is a link and this is in homes where there is not domestic violence at other times. However, the police, the courts and everyone else involved in discussions about these pilots recognise that domestic violence is a complex issue. Alcohol per se, on its own, does not cause domestic violence, but it seems to disinhibit people enough to release the triggers for them to then start abusing in the home. Therefore, in dealing with domestic violence, these perpetrators of violence need to be assessed very carefully. If they are alcohol-dependent, they are certainly not suitable for the scheme because during withdrawal the domestic violence rates would go up. However, if they are people whose violence has been triggered by alcohol, then they may be suitable.

It is also important to stress that there has been consultation with domestic violence groups in the London area. The Domestic Violence Offenders Focus Group looked at the London Probation Service, Domestic Violence Lead, the Domestic Violence Intervention Project, Phoenix Features and Steps 2 Recovery. It also held a separate focus group in the London area with domestic violence victims and had representation there from the AVA project, the NIA project, Women's Aid, Imkaan and Victim Support. The consultation has been carefully conducted and heeded and in the initial pilots there is a thought that domestic violence may not be included right at the beginning. However, later on it may well be that the victim would welcome some alcohol-monitoring of the offender while all of the domestic problems they have been facing are tackled. These include aspects of anger management, behaviours that trigger a response in the abuser, and so on.

I go back to the fact that in the United States the experience has been that they can use this for domestic violence cases when they are properly screened out. In this country we know from a Home Office study in 2003 that 60 per cent of domestic violence offences were alcohol-related, that 73 per cent of offenders had used alcohol prior to the offence and that 48 per cent were alcohol-dependent. I would stress again that for that group they would be screened out.

I have also gone through the planned programme with London where it is made clear that dependent drinkers would not be appropriate for this scheme because they need treatment. It is the non-dependent drinkers who are suitable and they would need a pre-sentencing screening report to assess their suitability for the alcohol monitoring scheme and the terms defined.

In summary, I cannot express strongly enough my delight that the Government have taken this seriously and how important it will be that we have a tool that the courts can use to begin to try to tackle the problem of alcohol-fuelled crime. The excellent report by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, who I am glad to see is in her place, endorses the fact that we cannot ignore what is happening in our country. We cannot deal with alcohol-fuelled crime without addressing it head on. The beauty of these proposed schemes is that they will empower offenders to begin to take control of their own lives and in the process provide them with support. I am delighted to welcome the government amendments.