Amendment 292P

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (11th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 24th November 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland 7:15 pm, 24th November 2021

The noble Lord makes a useful point. I did not have the fact, to which he referred your Lordships’ Committee, that all staff had been reallocated, but, as I do not have that fact, with the noble Lord’s leave, I will make inquiries and commit myself or my colleagues to write to him.

I commend the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for his commitment in relation to these important and difficult issues, expressed today as they have been on many other occasions in the past, but I offer the Committee the assurance that the Government are already pursuing a range of programmes and reforms in these areas and therefore consider a royal commission unnecessary.

A sentencing White Paper published last year set out the Government’s proposals for reform of the sentencing and release framework. Work is under way on the non-legislative commitments made there, and legislative proposals are being delivered by the body of the Bill. The White Paper was clear that the most serious sexual and violent offenders should serve sentences that reflect the severity of their offending behaviour—that, of course, is nothing more than the object of all sentencing exercises.

In answer to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord German, about minimum sentences, we consider that there is room for minimum sentences in the overall statutory framework. I note that proposed new subsection (2)(h) acknowledges this, in that it seeks to review

“some mandatory or minimum prison sentences” but not the overall principle by which Parliament dictates that some sentences will be mandatory. Minimum sentences have a place in the sentencing framework, particularly to deal with persistent behaviour that blights communities. These sentences are not technically mandatory; they are a mandatory consideration that the court must make before passing a sentence, and it is important to note that the court retains the discretion to ensure that individual sentences are commensurate with the seriousness of the offence. Clearly, there are appellate procedures relating to sentences which do not adequately reflect the seriousness of the offence.

However, the White Paper also makes it clear that properly robust, effective and trusted community-based sentencing options are equally as vital to protecting the public and to supporting confidence across the system and are a way of breaking a cycle of reoffending, which often will lie with these community solutions. It sets out a number of community sentencing measures to support rehabilitation, and it is made clear that this was a fundamental aim of its more targeted approach to sentencing, diverting low-level offenders away from criminality, whether this be with treatment for mental health issues, drug or alcohol misuse, more effective use of electronic monitoring, or problem-solving approaches to address offending behaviour. This work will also be supported by our recent reform of probation services, bringing together the management of offenders of all levels of risk into one organisation and delivering a stronger, more stable probation system that will reduce reoffending, support victims of crime and help keep the public safe, while helping offenders make positive changes to their lives.

The royal commission that the amendment sets out would look to address the particular needs of young people and women in custody. I again recognise the noble Lord’s laudable intention with regard to these cohorts of offender, and I commend him for this. I reassure the Committee that we are already taking action to support these vulnerable offender groups.

The youth justice sentencing framework already makes it clear that custody should be used as a last resort for children, and measures in this Bill make more rigorous community sentences available with the intention that those sentencing should have more confidence to give community- rather than custody-based disposals, where appropriate. We are also continuing to reform youth custody so that children are safer and better able to lead positive, constructive lives on their release from the penal system.

The aims of our female offender strategy are to have fewer women coming into the criminal justice system and fewer women in custody, with more female offenders managed in the community and better conditions for those in custody supporting effective rehabilitation. Publication of the strategy was the start of a new and significant programme of work intended to deliver better outcomes for female offenders, and we are making good progress.

The noble Lord’s amendment also seeks to address the overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system. The Government recognise that this is a deep-rooted issue and that the reasons behind these disparities in the representation of different ethnic groups in prison are complex. We have a broad programme, intended to draw together the wide discourse on disparities, such as the findings of the Lammy review, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report and the inspectorate’s race-thematic reports. We are clear that we wish address race disparity wherever it appears.

Finally, as to the state of prisons, illustrated by the noble Lord by reference to the Berwyn prison but intended generally, the royal commission proposed would also make recommendations to reduce the prison population, overcrowding and prison violence. In one of the largest prison-build programmes since the Victorian era, we are delivering an additional 20,000 prison places by the middle of this decade through the use of around £4 billion of funding. We will continue to monitor the need for prison places over the coming years to ensure that there is capacity to meet demand.

In relation to the important matter of prison violence, to which the noble Lord made reference, we have increased staffing levels in prisons and are improving how staff identify and manage the risk of violence. We will continue to deliver our £100 million investment in security to reduce crime in prison, seeking to clamp down on the weapons, drugs and phones that fuel prison violence.

In July, we also announced our intention to publish a prisons White Paper. It will set out our ambitions for prisons, considering information learned during the pandemic and setting out a longer-term vision for a prison system that fulfils its objectives of being safe and secure and cutting crime.

I regret that the specific matters of recruitment of prison staff to which the noble Lord referred are outwith my ability to answer at this stage. However, as with other noble Lords, if he will permit, I will have the relevant department write to him on the topic. I hope that the Committee is assured of the Government’s work and commitment on these areas. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.