Amendment 212

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (8th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 15th November 2021.

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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede:

Moved by Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

212: After Clause 124, insert the following new Clause—“Short custodial sentences(1) The Sentencing Code is amended as follows.(2) In section 230 (threshold for imposing discretionary custodial sentence), after subsection (2) insert—“(2A) If the court finds that the offence is so serious that neither a fine alone or a community sentence can be justified for the offence, it must state its reasons for being satisfied that the offence is so serious (having regard to the considerations in subsection (2B)), and, in particular, why a community order with appropriate requirements could not be justified. (2B) In this determination, the court must take account of the following principles—(a) passing the custody threshold does not mean that a custodial sentence should be deemed inevitable; (b) custody should not be imposed where a community order could provide sufficient restriction on an offender’s liberty (by way of punishment) while addressing the rehabilitation of the offender to prevent future crime; (c) sentences should not necessarily escalate from one community order range to the next at each sentencing occasion;(d) the decision as to the appropriate range of community order should be based upon the seriousness of the new offence(s);(e) section 65 (a relevant previous conviction to be treated as an aggravating factor) should not be interpreted so as to meet the custody threshold in respect of the sentence for one or more offences that would not themselves justify custody; and(f) where the offender being sentenced is a primary carer for a child, imprisonment should not be imposed where there would be an impact on dependants which would make a custodial sentence disproportionate to achieving the aims of sentencing.”(3) After section 230, insert—“230A Impact of custodial sentence on child or unborn child(1) This section applies where a court is considering imposing a custodial sentence on—(a) a primary carer for a child, or(b) a pregnant woman.(2) The sentencing court must—(a) consider the impact of a custodial sentence on the child or unborn child, and(b) presume (subject to victim impact and any other sentencing considerations) that a non-custodial sentence is in the best interests of the child or unborn child.(3) In this section—(a) “child” means a person under the age of 18, and(b) “primary carer” means a person who has primary or substantial care responsibilities for a child.””

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, the purpose of Amendment 212 is to encourage sentencers to used community-based sentences rather than short prison sentences. It proposes strengthening the custody threshold as a principled starting point for reducing the current use of custody for lower-level sentences.

I favour this amendment over the potentially bolder Amendment 213 in the name of my noble friends, which seeks a presumption against a ban on short prison sentences. The danger of Amendment 213 is that if it restricts access to short prison sentences, in the current climate it could result in up-tariffing, which would not be a desirable result for the length of prison sentences.

As the law is currently drafted, imprisonment is reserved for serious offences. It is already established in statutory terms that an imprisonable sentence should be given only if there is no alternative. However, despite that, in practice people routinely continue to be imprisoned for low-level lawbreaking, fuelling an expensive merry-go-round of multiple short prison sentences.

The amendment proposed builds on principles already accepted in the sentencing guidelines. It enshrines these into legislation to better clarify the current statutory custodial threshold. Specifically, it intends to better ensure that custodial sentences are appropriately reserved for serious offences by better clarifying the assessments that are required to be made. The impact of imprisonment on dependent children should be considered in the sentencing of primary carers. This would limit the relevance of previous convictions in determining custodial sentences.

Persistence is a key driver of the current use of short-term custody and needs to be tackled head on. This amendment emphasises that short periods in custody should not be seen as an inevitable response to a person with a history of relatively minor offending.

The intention of this amendment is to shape the approach of judges and magistrates when considering a custodial sentence in a substantial proportion of cases which currently result in short prison sentences. However, it is important to emphasise that nothing in the proposed provisions would prevent a court from imposing custodial sentences of any length, including short custodial sentences.

In conclusion, I sit as a magistrate in central London. I put short custodial sentences in place, the vast majority of which are for people who have previously tried community orders and have either reoffended or have breached them on multiple occasions. It is very rare for a magistrate to give a short custodial sentence to somebody who has not previously been on a community order. Nevertheless, I think there is a genuine issue here—primarily the strength of the community orders which are available to courts. When the Minister responds to this debate, perhaps he will say something about the strengths and current revamping of the probation service. When sentencing judges or magistrates make short custodial sentences, the confidence that they have in community orders is an important consideration. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 213. My noble friend Lord Ponsonby was somewhat critical of it. I agree with what he is seeking to achieve in Amendment 212. Amendment 213 goes a little further and is a little more precise. If I may say so, I think it is a better amendment.

To clarify, this is not a blanket ban on short sentences; it is a presumption against short sentences. Previous Governments have supported this idea. The evidence is that short sentences do not lessen offending. They are mainly concerned with non-violent offences. They do not provide meaningful rehabilitation. They can have a disruptive effect on family life and relationships.

The statistics are quite awesome. According to data from the Ministry of Justice, between January 2020 and March 2021, 20,000 people went to prison to serve a sentence of six months or less—44% of the prison population. This was even more so for women during the same period. Prior to the pandemic, the figures were even starker.

As I have said, the majority of people serving sentences of six months or less are in prison for non-violent offences, such a theft and drug offences. These offences are often linked to underlying issues such as poverty, addiction, homelessness and poor mental health. We know that these people really should not be in prison at all. Prison does not help them. We also know that short sentences have proven to be less effective than community sentences in reducing offending. Community sentences include interventions such as drug, alcohol and mental health treatment. They do more to address the root causes of offending.

Short sentences disrupt family life and ties; they damage housing, employment and treatment programmes. They do not provide any meaningful rehabilitation. These sentences contribute to volatility shown in prison.

Short prison sentences have a harmful effect on women in particular, hampering relationships with their families and children. Over half of women in prison report being victims of domestic violence, which often contributes to the offence that led to the prison sentence. I have had some help from a great organisation called Revolving Doors, and I have a quotation from one of its members:

“Although I was in prison for a short time I felt traumatised by the whole experience. In fact, sending me to prison was just a waste of time and money. I was released with no explanation and no support. I found myself back in the violent relationship which exacerbated my addiction which led to further arrests and trauma.”

Another argument for a presumption against short sentences is the cost. Of course, that should not be the main thing; the main thing should be protecting society, penalising people who should be penalised and helping to reduce reoffending. However, cost does come into it. The annual cost per prison place in 2020 was £44,640, compared with £4,305 for a community order. It is quite a dramatic difference.

The public, according to surveys, understand why there should be a presumption against short prison sentences. Probably, there are people who say, “Send them in and keep them in longer—six months is too short”, but the public are quite sensible and understand what is going on. I can only refer to previous Ministers, David Gauke and Rory Stewart, who both said it was necessary to introduce the presumption against short sentences. I think we can manage to do that.

The amendment of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, as I said, goes in the right direction, but it is not quite strong enough. This is such a simple measure—so simple that it is hardly worth spending time debating it. I am sure the Minister will accept it.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked: these amendments are so simple, why waste time debating them? Well, of course, the law already proceeds on the basis that these amendments propose. Section 230 of the Sentencing Code already says that the court must not pass a custodial sentence unless it is of the opinion that the offence was so serious that a fine or community sentence is not sufficient for the offence. Any court that passed a custodial sentence without stating the reasons for doing so would find that the sentence was overturned in the Court of Appeal. Any sentence in court that fails to consider and address the impact of a custodial sentence on a child or unborn child would not be upheld on appeal. So I entirely support these amendments, but I think we should be realistic about the current state of law.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I do not intend to fall into a bit of disagreement with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, with whom I worked happily in the Constitution Committee, but the present state of the law has not really solved the problem, has it? Very large numbers of very short sentences are given, and the consequence is that prison places are used, costs ensue, and the least effective way of dealing with individuals seems to be the one that is chosen. If there is some way in which we can strengthen the presumption the sentencing guidelines already carry, that would be good. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is a complicated alternative way of doing it, but it does appear that something needs to be done.

The argument often used for short sentences is that courts have a problem in dealing with persistent repeat offenders and persistent repeat breaches of conditions of community sentences. There is a popular myth that if offenders do not respond to other measures, a taste of prison will soon put them right. There is absolutely no evidence to support this principle. Indeed, all the evidence points the other way.

I used to chair the Justice Committee in the House of Commons, and that has had a continuing interest in this problem. Its report in 2018 recommended that the Government introduce a presumption against short prison sentences. The Government welcomed this and said they were exploring options. In a follow-up report, the Justice Committee noted the Government’s stated intentions to move away from short custodial sentences.

In 2019 the Ministry of Justice published an analysis which included the assertion that

“sentencing offenders to short term custody with supervision on release was associated with higher proven reoffending than if they had instead received community orders and/or suspended sentence orders”.

The relevance of a suspended sentence among the range of possibilities should be remembered. When David Gauke, who has been mentioned, was Lord Chancellor, he seemed quite strongly to support this direction of policy and referred to the large reduction in prison places which could be achieved by it. Robert Buckland was more reluctant. When he was in front of the Justice Committee, he referred to his experience as a recorder, which told him that there were times when short prison sentences should be available to judges and magistrates for repeat offenders who failed to comply with community orders.

Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I are not arguing that a court should be wholly denied the use of a prison sentence if that is a realistic alternative which will satisfactorily deal with the particular case. We are simply trying to change the general drift of policy. In Scotland the presumption exists already, and it could be strengthened in some ways in England and Wales. We have to do something—we have to do a number of things —to deal with the burgeoning prison population and stop putting into prison people whose propensity to reoffend is not being reduced by putting them in prison again. The circumstances I have referred to do not seem to justify the extensive use of short sentences that we see now.

Photo of The Bishop of Bristol The Bishop of Bristol Bishop 7:30 pm, 15th November 2021

My Lords, I speak on behalf of my right reverend colleague the Bishop of Gloucester, who is unable to be in her place. She declares an interest as Bishop to Her Majesty’s Prisons in England and Wales. These are her words.

“I am delighted to add my name in support of Amendment 213, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I also have great sympathy for Amendment 212, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. Both aim to remedy some of the justice system’s current overemphasis on prison sentences without sufficient regard for whether prison is an effective remedy for the offender or a guarantee to the safety and benefit of the community. By and large, short sentences have proven ineffective on both counts.

Sentences of six months or less are easily long enough to be disruptive but not nearly long enough to be effective in any rehabilitative programme. Short sentences are bad news for families, as we have discussed previously in Committee, in terms of the impact of imprisonment on primary carers and their families. Short sentences damage employment prospects, mental health and more. They are therefore disproportionately punitive, not least when the majority are for non-violent offences. They are also ineffective. Close to half of all those leaving custody go on to reoffend within a year of their release. That increases to almost two-thirds of those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody. The social and economic cost of this level of reoffending has been estimated at £18 billion per annum by the Ministry of Justice’s own analysis, while the costs to the communities and victims who suffer the effects of crime are impossible to estimate.

We know that community sentences are far more effective at reducing reoffending than short prison sentences and cost far less than a prison place. How have we reached a place in the UK in which imprisonment is so overused and seen as a solution to all criminal justice problems when the evidence and data simply do not support this? The UK has some of the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe. England and Wales have a prison population rate of 133 per 100,000 inhabitants—that is 27 per 100,000 above the median for EU member states. We are even worse against the bigger European states. For example, Germany has an imprisonment rate of just 69 per 100,000. That is roughly half our rate. Perhaps not coincidentally, Germany has operated a presumption against short sentences since 1969. Overall, our prison population has increased by over 80% in 30 years, which seems to suggest a trend across a series of Governments of trying the same thing in the hope of achieving different results.

It has been estimated by the Prison Reform Trust that two-thirds of prisoners are in prison for a non-violent offence. These offences are often theft or drug-related and linked to poverty, addiction and trauma, as we have heard, yet we seem to think it better to lock someone up rather than focus time and money on addressing the root causes. For women the rate is higher still: an astonishing 80%. Almost half are on short sentences of six months or less—the majority of all custodial sentences given to women.

As I mentioned earlier in Committee, I was fortunate enough to host an event here in Parliament, and I was delighted to welcome the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson. I hope he will not mind if I remind him of some of the testimony we heard together. Niki Gould of the Nelson Trust, in which I declare an interest as president, told us that, ‘We fundamentally know that prison exacerbates women’s issues and leads to intergenerational cycles of trauma, abuse and reoffending.’ We heard that diverting 500 women through programmes such as the Nelson Trust not only is more effective at turning their lives around but comes at the equivalent cost of sending just five women to prison, and we heard, with some incredulity, from experts that 500 new prison places for more women serving more short sentences could be a better solution than long-term investment in women’s centres.

This is one of those happy occasions when the moral case happens to align with making excellent economic sense. An effective justice system that is relational, responsible and restorative would cost less in the long term. Finding a way to move beyond short sentences would better support families and children made vulnerable by family breakdown. If implemented as part of a broader package of support for problem-solving courts, women’s centres, and good and effective community sentences, it would lead to better results in terms of reoffending and rehabilitation, and, therefore, safer communities. It would come at a fraction of the price of maintaining the current revolving door of short sentences.

As we heard, in 2019 it seemed like we might have been approaching a breakthrough when the then Lord Chancellor went on the record in favour of a presumption against short sentences. If Ministers do not accept these amendments, I hope we will hear what they see as the future of short sentences and how they can be reduced.”

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, for moving his amendment, and to the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Beith, for speaking to theirs. Those noble Lords have far more experience in these matters than me, but I have something to say that might assist the Committee.

In September 2017, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, initiated a debate on prison numbers. That stimulated me to take a very close look at our penal system. It is fair to say that the increase in the prison population is caused by sentence inflation and might have little to do with short sentences.

I believe that the effectiveness of a prison sentence is inversely proportional to the appropriate length of the sentence. Thus, very long sentences to protect the public are effective in terms of incapacitation. On the other hand, very short sentences are extremely poor at rehabilitation and reducing reoffending.

The reason short sentences are so ineffective is surely that the current prison system and its regime do so little to address offenders’ weaknesses. The chief inspector’s reports have been telling us this for years. By definition, these are minor offenders and very often prolific ones. They leave prison after a short sentence with the same weaknesses in terms of education, training and conduct they arrived with. Therefore, there should be no surprise that we have a reoffending rate of about 65% within 12 months of release. The Committee should recognise that these figures are flattered by those who were never going to reoffend for one reason or another.

I am sure that the Committee will understand that most prolific minor offenders stop offending by the age of 26 or possibly 30. Moreover, this is despite a terrible start in life, the fact that rarely has anybody ever loved them, and the lack of a positive male role model. Therefore, these offenders cannot be hopeless, something can be done with them; some improvement in education, training and conduct must be achievable. The difficulty is that these improvements will not be secured through the current prison system.

Amendment 241, which we will debate later, seeks to create a system to address the problem of the ineffectiveness of short sentences. I do not have a view on which is the superior amendment of the two that we are debating—both are commendable—but I take on board the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. I slightly worry about the inflation risk with Amendment 213, and I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Beith, acknowledges that. However, I feel very strongly that if the state does decide to take a minor offender into custody, it must be certain that it is going to improve matters and do no harm.

Photo of Lord Bradley Lord Bradley Labour

I rise to speak briefly to this group of amendments, which I strongly support. I declare my interest again in the register as a trustee and vice-chair of the Prison Reform Trust. We have already debated Amendments 215 to 218, principally regarding primary carers, which I believe are closely related to today’s amendments on short sentences, so I will not delay the Committee by repeating the arguments.

However, by way of further background, it should be noted that the prison population, as we have heard, has risen by 74% in the last 30 years and is currently projected to rise by a further 20,000 by 2026, with millions being spent on providing additional prison places. Yet there appears to be no link between the prison population and levels of crime, according to the National Audit Office.

More than 40,000 people were sent to prison to serve a sentence in 2020, the majority of whom had committed a non-violent offence, and almost half were sentenced to serve six months or less. Crucially, as many organisations have pointed out, including Revolving Doors and Women in Prison, short prison sentences are proven to be less effective than community sentences at reducing reoffending.

Of course, short-term prison sentences have a particularly harmful effect on women and primary carers, as we have debated. It is important to note that in a Parliamentary Written Answer on 30 June 2021, more than 500 women were in prison on a sentence of less than two years. We have already heard from my noble friend Lord Dubs the economic case against short sentences. In addition, the National Audit Office estimated that the cost of looking after short-sentence prisoners, not including education and healthcare, was £286 million a year.

It is also interesting to note, as we have heard tonight, public attitudes to prison sentences, particularly short sentences. I know that the Government take an interest in this. In a survey conducted in 2018 by Crest Advisory, fewer than one in 10 people said that having more people in prison was the most effective way to deal with crime. Early intervention, better parenting, discipline in schools and better rehabilitation were all cited as more effective responses.

Similarly, Revolving Doors undertook a survey which found that 80% of the public think that the theft of daily essentials such as food, sanitary products and nappies does not warrant a prison sentence, and that 74% of the public think that people with drug and alcohol addictions should receive treatment programmes not prison sentences.

It is clear to me that robust, effective community sentences are preferable to a short, disruptive and cost-heavy prison sentence. Therefore, when considering sentences there should be a presumption against short prison sentences, as laid out in the amendment. To reinforce this position, we can look at the experience in Scotland, where a presumption against prison sentences of 12 months or less was introduced in July 2019 following its successful introduction of three months or less in 2011, leading to many more community sentences and a consequential reduction in short sentences. Community Justice Scotland stated that evidence shows that short-term prison sentences are not effective in meeting a person’s needs and reducing their likelihood of reoffending, and in fact do more harm than good.

We must ensure that as we try to make a real shift away from short prison sentences to community sentences, members of the judiciary have real confidence in and knowledge of the options available to them with community sentences. Magistrates, in particular, and judges, sometimes, raise with me a number of problems with community sentences, which my noble friend Lord Ponsonby mentioned in his opening remarks: first, the number of people who reappear before them having failed to complete a community sentence, with the consequence that a short prison sentence is the only option open to them; secondly, and related to that, poor local supervision of community sentences; thirdly, the lack of capacity in local areas to deliver support of community sentences, especially those with a treatment requirement; and, fourthly and finally, sometimes a lack of detailed knowledge of community sentences with such a treatment requirement.

There are a number of ways we can address these problems. The first is better understanding of treatment requirements. They essentially cover three areas: mental health, alcohol addiction and drug addiction. As these issues are often interrelated, sentences should consider not just one of the treatment requirements but, where appropriate, more than one treatment requirement at the same time to meet the often complex needs of the individual to ensure the best possibility of successful completion of the sentence. To assist the judiciary in this, information about the complex needs of individuals should be presented to the court at the earliest opportunity, combining assessment information from liaison and diversion services and probation pre-sentence reports.

Secondly, we need real investment in local mental health, alcohol and drug services so that members of the judiciary have confidence that the sentence they impose can be delivered. Thirdly, as a consequence of the reconstruction of the National Probation Service, improved supervision must be rolled out. Fourthly, there must be better training of the judiciary to ensure that the options for community sentences are well understood. Fifthly and finally, as a member of the Government’s advisory board for women offenders I say that there is a good example in the Government’s strategy for women offenders, which clearly supports a significant shift to community sentences and recognises the need to invest in locally based women’s centres as the hub for the supervision and support of sentenced women.

Taken together, I believe the presumption against short sentences would be successfully introduced, with overarching benefits across the whole criminal justice system, and therefore I strongly support these amendments. I hope the Minister will accept the arguments.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 7:45 pm, 15th November 2021

My Lords, I offer Green support for Amendments 212 and 213, with a preference for Amendment 213, which this debate has made clear is the stronger of the two. I return to the Committee after two weeks away from your Lordships’ House at the COP 26 climate talks. There we heard again and again about the need for evidence-based policy-making on the climate. It is very clear from the powerful introductions from the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord Dubs, and all of the subsequent debate, that the evidence here is clearly that short prison sentences do not work.

I very much agree with the comment by the noble Lord, Lord Beith, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that those words are there in the Sentencing Code, but clearly we need to strengthen this prescription. The figures from 2019 show that more than 44,000 prison sentences of less than six months were handed out. That was nearly half of all people sent to prison. Some 68% reoffended within a year of release, and for theft offenders, the rate was 82%. Two-thirds of the women in prison are serving a sentence of less than six months. Like other noble Lords, I go to the excellent group, Revolving Doors, and the experience of one person, Robert, subjected to a whole succession of short sentences. He said:

“Any support with drugs and alcohol I had in community stopped when I went to prison. I didn’t access any support in prison and certainly there was no planning when I was released.”

Very briefly, I turn to the reference to children in Amendment 212. The report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Human Rights and the Government’s Response to COVID-19: Children Whose Mothers are in Prison, indicated that the Government do not have clear figures on the number of women in prison who are separated from dependent children. It recommended that the Government undertake a census and ask all women coming into prison whether they have dependent children and what ages they are, and that those figures be collated and reported regularly. Can the Minister tell me, either now or in the future, whether that recommendation from the Joint Committee on Human Rights has been acted upon?

Photo of Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Hope of Craighead Chair, High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill Select Committee (Lords), Chair, High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill Select Committee (Lords)

My Lords, I support both these amendments, but I want to add a brief comment on the mechanism which they both have in common: the giving of reasons. I know from my own experience how valuable it is to marshal your thoughts when you are having to give reasons, and sometimes when you write them down you wonder whether your thoughts in the first place were correct, and you may think again as a result. So the mechanism that is being suggested is a good one and, with great respect to my noble friend Lord Pannick, I think Amendment 213 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, does add something to the code.

Of course, the code encourages care in passing custodial sentences and it sets it out very well, but it is this additional element which is of value. One particular word in the amendment adds force to it, and that is “must”. Everybody will have to do this. The noble Lord will know better than I do how often magistrates in particular pass custodial sentences without giving reasons. The point is that this discipline, which both amendments seek to inject into the system, adds value.

That having been said, I hope that these reasons will not just become a rota, because there is some experience in the Supreme Court where we had to give reasons for refusing leave to appeal; we had many of these cases to deal with, and we adopted a mechanism which I think the Minister will know quite well—it was the same reason given every time. That does not really meet what I think the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is getting at, and I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that when the word “must” is put there, together with the other matters in his report, it will actually add value and people will really think before they give their reasons, and not simply adopt a formula.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I would like to add a little to the evidence which has already been provided to the Minister, but he must of course know the evidence which has already been made available to him. Just in case it has not, I repeat what the recent sentencing White Paper says: short sentences

“often fail to rehabilitate the offender or stop reoffending.”

It goes on:

“A Ministry of Justice 2019 study”— an analytical exercise, full of figures—

“found that sentencing offenders to short term custody with supervision on release was associated with higher proven reoffending than if they had instead received community orders and/or suspended sentence orders.”

In other words, the Government’s own evidence points to supporting these amendments—not necessarily in the same words, but certainly the thrust of them. We should remember that, pre-pandemic, nearly half of those people who were sentenced to custody in England and Wales were subject to short sentences of less than, or equal to, six months.

There are many reasons why we must support the change—more effectively reducing reoffending, dealing with issues such as drug use and producing better outcomes for women. Short prison sentences do not provide sufficient time for addressing those issues, such as dealing with substance addiction, or benefiting from any education and training facilities on offer. There may not even be sufficient time for the prison authorities to devise a programme to address the prisoner’s needs on release day. The best we can say about short sentences is summed up by one of the former Conservative Prisons Ministers, of which there have been many in recent years, who said that short prison sentences are

“long enough to damage you but not long enough to heal you.”

Almost two-thirds of prisoners sentenced to these terms of less than 12 months will reoffend within a year. The amazing statistic is that nearly half of adults are convicted of another offence within one year of release, but anyone leaving custody who has served two days or more is now required to serve a minimum of 12 months under supervision in the community. As a result of not fulfilling their supervision orders in some minor way, 8,055 people serving a sentence of 12 months or less, and sometimes of only a few days, were recalled to prison in the year ending December 2020.

What has happened to the Conservative plan to secure a reduction in the use of short sentences? I think I know the answer, but it would be helpful if the Minister could confirm to the House what has happened to this idea. The Bill can address this issue. To finish with the words of a former Conservative Secretary of State:

“For the offenders completing these short sentences whose lives are destabilised, and for society which incurs a heavy financial and social cost, prison simply isn’t working.”

Offenders are less likely to reoffend if they are given a community order. These are much more effective in tackling the root causes behind criminality.

Given the evidence of both Conservative Secretaries of State and the evidence produced in the Government’s own studies, can the Minister explain whether there has been a U-turn or a Z-turn, or whether the course is laid out as described in the evidence that they have received?

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, this debate has raised two important issues: the justification for short custodial sentences and how we curtail their imposition in practice.

The debate saw an interesting exchange between the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and my noble friend Lord Beith, and I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that the law requires courts to avoid unnecessary custodial sentences where alternative sentences are appropriate. However, my noble friend Lord Beith is right that far too many short sentences are still imposed. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, gave us some of the figures. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, made the point that the amendment does add something to the existing law. One thing it adds is that it is focused entirely on short sentences, whereas the Sentencing Code provisions are not.

This House has heard endlessly of the damage that short custodial sentences do. There simply is no evidence to justify their regular imposition. If the Minister has any such evidence, perhaps he can tell us what it is. We regularly stress the extent to which the rate of reoffending following short sentences greatly exceeds reoffending rates for community sentences, a point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, using the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester; it was a point also made by my noble friend Lord German a moment ago.

The immediate effect of imprisonment is dramatic: families are split, jobs are lost and housing is imperilled. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made these points. None of these adverse events is reversible for short sentences, any more than for long ones. The disruption of lives for the short periods that short sentences inevitably involve far outweighs any possible good that can come of those sentences. Such sentences necessarily offer no proper chance to arrange treatment to address issues—often long-term—of mental health, drug abuse and alcoholism. They offer little or no prospect of courses, training or rehabilitation, and they do not enable contact with potential employers, offer any opportunity for engagement with the voluntary sector with a view to arranging support in the community on release, or help with family or housing issues.

The programme that short sentences impose on the Prison Service and probation service can be bluntly summarised. Step one: cut all ties that the offender has with family and any employer, risking housing stability and probably posing difficult and intractable financial problems on the offender and the family in the process. Step two: lock up the offender, not at a predictable prison or one selected in any way to meet the particular needs or problems of the offender in question but at one that has the space for a short-term prisoner suddenly added to the prison population. Step three: allow no time to organise meaningful help or support. Step four: release the offenders with less support than they had at the time of sentencing.

Amendment 212 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and my noble friend Lord German attempts to force sentencing courts at least to spell out a justification for short sentences. This would be salutary. The principles in proposed new subsection (2B) seem most important, and I will focus on paragraph (b), which states that

“custody should not be imposed where a community order could provide sufficient restriction on an offender’s liberty (by way of punishment) while addressing the rehabilitation of the offender to prevent future crime”.

But other principles are equally important. I particularly mention proposed new paragraphs (a) and (c), which encourage sentencers to get away from the habit of courts to commit to ratcheting up sentences from one community sentence to another and then to custody. Amendment 213 would have a similar effect to Amendment 212, with the important presumption against short sentences. It is stronger than the present Sentencing Code, in clearly focusing on short sentences.

The second issue raised by this group is that of primary carers and pregnant women. We discussed this at some length on the amendment moved by right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester on 1 November, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bradley. We considered the report of the charity Women in Prison, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, in the debate on the second group today. The sudden effect of separation is important. It is felt not just by parents who are primary carers but by their children.

We mentioned the loss of the homes of 95% of children whose mothers are imprisoned and therefore forced to lose their homes. For the children of primary carers, parental prison leads to low educational achievement, truancy, mental health issues, alcohol dependence, drug abuse and later criminality. But similar outcomes are also to be expected from short sentences passed on the primary carers of those children. The appalling effect on pregnant women and their children was also dealt with in an earlier group today.

The Government need not only to restate their opposition to short sentences but to reinforce it. For the support in principle for these amendments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, to become a reality, the law needs more teeth than it has at present. These amendments provide those teeth.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 8:00 pm, 15th November 2021

My Lords, it is important to remember what is in the amendments and what is not. We are not really debating whether short sentences are or are not a good thing; government policy on that has been stated frequently and I will restate it shortly. I am not proposing to make any sort of turn, whether a U-turn or a Z-turn. Instead, I will keep on the straight and narrow, if I can use that phrase in this context.

It is important to remember what the amendments seek to do. They would prevent the court passing a short custodial sentence unless it is satisfied that no other sentence is appropriate. They would also require the court, if imposing a short custodial sentence, to explain why alternative sentences were not considered appropriate. Let me be clear: I understand absolutely the sentiment behind the amendments and appreciate, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made very clear, that this is not saying that there are no circumstances in which a short custodial sentence could be appropriate—I fully take that on board.

I agree that short custodial sentences can, in many cases, be less effective at tackling reoffending than community sentences. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, was very clear about the importance that magistrates attach to community sentencing and how it is important that they have confidence in the community sentence regime. The words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester that were read to us also questioned whether short custodial sentences were, to use her phrase, an effective remedy. I think I have dealt with that point. I listened with real care to the testimony I heard at the event she organised and which I was very happy to attend.

The Government cannot support these proposals because they reflect existing law which is sufficiently robust. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Beith, when it comes to statute, I do not believe that saying something again makes it stronger. If something is already in statute and is not being done, it is critical to investigate why it is not being done, and not simply say the same thing again. I therefore gratefully adopt some of what has already been said to the Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.

Section 230 of the Sentencing Act 2020—let us just see how it works—places important restrictions on the courts imposing discretionary custodial sentences. It starts with a negative:

“The court must not pass a custodial sentence”— the starting point is that the court cannot pass a custodial sentence; that is the default—and then continues:

“unless it is of the opinion that … the offence, or … the combination of the offence and one or more offences associated with it, was so serious that neither a fine alone nor a community sentence can be justified for the offence.”

Section 77 of the Act goes further and makes clear that even where the threshold for passing a custodial sentence has been met, the court may still pass a community sentence after taking into account any mitigation. Even then, where a court has formed the view that only a custodial sentence can be justified, even in light of any mitigation, it may still suspend that sentence so that it does not become an immediate custodial sentence, taking into account factors such as realistic prospect of rehabilitation, strong personal mitigation, which would obviously include the effect on dependants, as we discussed in earlier groups, and significant harmful impact on others of immediate custody. We suggest that, taken together, this provides a very robust framework which would ensure that short custodial sentences are passed only where there is really no other alternative for the court.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does he take my point that none of those provisions focuses on short custodial sentences in particular, as opposed to custodial sentences in the generality?

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I accept that they do not refer specifically to short custodial sentences, but when the court is considering a short custodial sentence, the particular factors the court would have to go through before imposing it—and particularly before imposing an immediate short custodial sentence—would be all the starker. It is important that we have a consistent regime. For the reasons I have set out, I do not think it necessary or helpful to have a separate regime for shorter custodial sentences. The position on that, I suggest, is already absolutely clear, as is the requirement for a court to explain its reasons for passing sentence. It is important to recognise that the court has to explain its reasons for passing any sentence, not just a custodial sentence; otherwise, the Court of Appeal will have something to say about it. That is set out in Section 52 of the Sentencing Act.

I hear the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that when it comes to courts explaining the reasons for their sentences, it is very important that they are bespoke and not off the peg—if I can put it that way. That is very important, not least for the offender to know why that sentence has been passed. I will not say any more about the reasons given by the Supreme Court for refusing permission to appeal, but the noble and learned Lord was certainly right that I was all too familiar with receiving those reasons in my cases.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, goes further because it sets out a list of “principles” the court must take into account. I suggest to the noble Lord, who is very familiar with this area, that those principles are by and large set out very clearly already in the guidelines from the Sentencing Council. I suggest that the principles enshrined in legislation would not take us any further.

As the noble Lord knows, there are five statutory purposes when it comes to sentencing, set out in Section 57 of the Act:

“the punishment of offenders … reduction of crime (including its reduction by deterrence) … reform and rehabilitation … the protection of the public, and … reparation by offenders”.

A sentence can serve one or more of those purposes. The Act also states that, even when the threshold for custody has been passed, that does not mean that a custodial sentence is inevitable—particularly for offenders on the cusp of custody.

Imprisonment should not be imposed where there would be a disproportionate impact on dependants. We touched on that today. We looked at that in a lot more detail in an earlier group, so I hope the Committee will forgive me for not dealing with that in any more detail. I have set out the position in some detail already. It is fair to say that, when this amendment was tabled in the other place, Alex Cunningham MP fairly recognised that the principles are already accepted in the sentencing guidelines, which all courts are required to follow; they are not optional. I suggest that the amendment is unnecessary.

Proposed new subsection (3) of the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, concerns the impact of custody on the children of primary carers or the unborn child of a pregnant woman. I think that is almost identical to an amendment we discussed earlier, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton. Again, I have responded to that in some detail already, so I am not proposing to say any more about that.

I will pick up two other points. First, the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, talked about Scotland. The position in Scotland is different. It has a very different sentencing regime from that of England and Wales. The Sentencing Code here, which I have set out, contains the requirements and protections which I have sought to explain. For those reasons, we do not believe that the amendment is necessary; nor, with respect, do we believe we get much assistance in this regard from looking at the Scottish law because there is a very different system for sentencing.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, asked me about the JCHR recommendation. In the time I have had, I have an answer here for her. It is fair to say that it is slightly off-topic. Perhaps she would be happy if I were to write to her on this point, rather than take further time. I will set out the answer in writing; I hope that is acceptable.

For those reasons, we suggest that this is already covered in legislation and in the sentencing guidelines. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 8:15 pm, 15th November 2021

My Lords, I thank the Minister for summing up his response to the two amendments in this group. I feel I have been around this track a number of times over the years and we hear the same arguments again and again. The central point is surely that made by the noble Lord, Lord Beith: the current state of affairs is not satisfactory. We have the merry-go-round of short sentences so that sentencers, including myself, feel that we have to make short sentences because we have repeat breaches of community orders and some sentencers do not have confidence in them. So the merry-go-round carries on, with all the disruptive and damaging consequences which we have heard about from many noble Lords in this debate.

I am not saying that my amendment is significantly better than that of my noble friend Lord Dubs. I am saying, however, that there needs to be a holistic response of shorter sentences and better community sentences which people have confidence in, and which the offenders stick to and benefit from.

I will just come to the question from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, about giving reasons. Magistrates’ courts are not a court of record. However, we give reasons and write them down—particularly if we think that we are going to be appealed. So, yes, we do give reasons. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 212 withdrawn.

Amendment 213 not moved.

House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 9.02 pm.