My Lords, little did I think that I would get to my feet having heard parallels being drawn between judicial review and line decisions at Wimbledon, but I think that my speech will be much more boring than that.
This Bill comes hot on the heels of a previous Bill, now the Offender Rehabilitation Act, which contains important changes such as the new levels of support to be given to offenders coming out of prison, which I support. This Bill in turn looks at the more punitive aspects of government plans, which involve being tough on crime and collectively are likely to put further pressure on our already overstretched prisons and the overworked Parole Board in particular.
These are difficult times for the Prison Service in England and Wales, with rapidly rising numbers, huge budget cuts, significantly reduced staffing levels and disturbing increases in serious assaults and suicide in custody. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, has recently warned of a situation of “political and policy failure”. Although the number of offenders coming into the system over the recent past has decreased, in the past five weeks the prison population has increased by 734 people—the size of a large prison—and now stands at 84,533 souls, while the prison estate as a whole is holding 9,242 more prisoners than it is designed to hold. Cuts to the MoJ budget are due to total £2.4 billion by 2015. Now, like never before, it is time to give priority to alternatives to custody as a matter of urgency, which some of us have been trying to promote for years, and which are far cheaper, with far better outcomes in terms of reducing reoffending. The proposals in the Bill, I suggest, should be tested against these realities.
The scope of the Bill is very wide and I will focus my remarks on the first part of it. Clause 6 deals with electronic monitoring or “tagging”. Used appropriately, it is an effective tool, particularly when coupled with good supervision. However, subsection (3) of this clause gives new powers to the Secretary of State to make tagging mandatory, either by type of offence or type of sentence, thus limiting operational discretion and the flexibility to best suit the needs of individual offenders. These powers can be exercised by order, thereby limiting the role of Parliament to scrutinise, and any provision to guard against inappropriate use is currently vague. The code of practice just states that the Justice Secretary must implement a non-binding code of practice in relation to the processing of data gathered via tagging—in other words, a virtual free hand. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has said that,
“detailed safeguards in the Code of Practice will be crucial to ensuring that the processing of data”— that is, data gathered in such a way—
“is carried out in such a way that any interference with the right to respect for private life is necessary and proportionate to the legitimate aims pursued”,
thus pre-empting the possibility for human rights to be ignored. The committee suggests that the Bill,
“be amended to make the Code subject to some form of parliamentary procedure”,
to ensure that Parliament has the opportunity to scrutinise the adequacy of the relevant safeguards. I endorse that suggestion since these proposed changes, as they stand, are flawed and do not allow for proper parliamentary scrutiny, as they should do.
In Clause 7, there is a new provision allowing for recalled determinate-sentence prisoners to serve the whole remainder of their sentence in custody, rather than a fixed period of 28 days, as at the moment. This is if it “appears” to the Secretary of State that the prisoner seems highly likely to breach the conditions of their licence—thus punishing a prisoner on the presumption of future behaviour. There will be a new statutory pre-release test for these prisoners by the already overstretched Parole Board, which on top of all its other demands, will have to decide on the “likelihood of breach”, by making the same presumptions as the Secretary of State. It has been suggested that this clause places too much emphasis on the gamble of the likelihood of breach, at the expense of ensuring effective supervision and making a more positive and constructive gamble. In general, the chances of making good in the community are always higher out of prison, rather than in it. Good, effective supervision should always be built into the new release test. I look forward to the Minister’s response to this.
Under Clause 8, the Secretary of State is given the power to change the release test for these prisoners, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, thus giving him an unacceptable degree of power. Parliament must be able to scrutinise and ultimately oversee all decisions that affect the fundamental rights of citizens, such as depriving them of their liberty. Citizens of this country must be confident that such decisions will always be the responsibility of the courts and not of a single individual—including any politician—who is here today and may be gone tomorrow. Any other way would be quite unacceptable.
Clause 25 deals with knife crime and was included at the last minute in the House of Commons. It includes minimum custodial sentencing for a second conviction. A previous conviction for “threatening” with a knife or offensive weapon will count as a first strike. The minimum sentence is a custodial term of six months for over-18s and a four-month DTO for over-16s. This clause is bound to lead to the inappropriate imprisonment of children and young people, estimated at around 200 children and 2,000 adults per year. The term covers offences ranging from threat and injury to the far less serious one of possession. It is well known that many children and young people in particular carry knives out of fear and in the vain hope of protection, and not to threaten others with the knife—I do not know if it is in vain, but it is certainly done in hope. In fact, possession-related offences have been dropping in the past three years—by 34% for children—and courts already have the powers necessary to deal with repeat offenders. I agree with many others that the measures in this clause are not necessary, could well cause more trouble than they seek to prevent and should be deleted. I sincerely hope that the Minister will give this suggestion serious consideration.
Clauses 29 and 30 deal with secure colleges. This proposal appears dear to the Government’s heart and we are told that considerable work has already gone into the idea. They think it sounds like a good idea, but I agree with the many who think it is a disastrous idea. The plan is that over time these colleges will replace all YOIs, STCs and some secure children’s homes, with the exception of a few for some particularly needy children. The rationale is to cut the costs of detention, and provide a more holistic and educational environment for young people. That sounds good. However, a glance at even the rough detail that is available shows a scenario that is not good at all.
I have a particular interest in this area, as I founded a school for children with special needs about 15 years ago. It is going strong and, I am proud to say, changing lives. It is predicated on being small—with around 35 children aged from 12 to 18 and it will never get bigger—so that every child gets all the individual attention he or she needs. There is no division into houses and it is run as a whole. It is like a family where everyone knows everyone else and its core mantra is, “It’s brilliant to be you”. The children in my school have to learn that they are valuable and worth something. They come from a range of complicated backgrounds, some staying most of the time and others going home at weekends. As I said, we change children’s lives.
A 320-place secure college is, by definition, not going to work, because a small scale is vital. Also, a regime of mixed ages and sexes, with children with extreme challenges in large numbers—however well divided up—cannot meet such children’s needs properly and is an impossible mix. The proposed idea of rules that authorise the use of force to maintain “good order and discipline” is a terrifying thought and bound to fail as well, being contrary to any understanding of best practice among professionals in the field. Is all this also to be delivered on a cut-price budget? That is an insult to the intelligence of the people who might be persuaded to run such a place, who are unlikely to provide anything like appropriate care.
So far there is no evidence of how offending rates will be reduced in the proposed system, how the education and training will work in reality or what the qualifications of the staff might be. For this cohort of children there is consensus among experts that boys should be separated from girls, and older children from younger children. The children are typically the most fragile, vulnerable, frightened—however they might seem otherwise—and poorly educated children. They are needy in so many ways and require an enormous amount of individual attention, patience and support. A culture in which use of force is authorised to enforce good order and discipline is against the law, sets itself up to fail and is, above all, completely abhorrent. It is astonishing that the Government are giving the idea the time of day, let alone allowing it to be the subject of serious debate in Parliament.
This planned pathfinder college would be vast, with 320 places, and it is inevitable that children of all ages will get lost. They would cause greater trouble than ever and find it impossible to have their needs properly met. Given the breadth and depth of need these young children have, and given that the Government are apparently prepared to spend £85 million, let them open, say, five small specialist units around the country and give a few children real help near their own homes. Secure homes are a good model, and that would be money well spent. Otherwise, pathfinder colleges costing £85 million when the MoJ budget is being cut and youth offending teams and other valuable services are being squeezed, would be a grotesque and unacceptable way of squandering our money and doing nothing but harm to our most vulnerable children.
There is a lot of material in this Bill that I have not touched on, but thankfully there are many noble Lords present who will do so much more ably than I, and I have spoken long enough. We will, of course, revisit all these issues during the passage of the Bill, which concerns some of the most challenging and needy citizens in the land.