New clause 1 - Exclusion of prisoners convicted of assaulting police officers, etc, from power to release short-term prisoners on licence

Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 8:45 pm on 6th March 2001.

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`In section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (power to release short-term prisoners on licence), after subsection (2)(b) there is inserted—

``(ba) the sentence is for any of the following offences—

(i) an offence under section 89 of the Police Act 1996 (assaulting, obstructing or resisting a constable);

(ii) an offence under section 38 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (assault with intent to resist arrest);

(iii) an offence under section 18, section 20, or section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (wounding, causing grevous bodily harm and causing actual bodily harm) committed against a constable in the execution of his duty.''.'.—[Mr. Heald.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

With this it will be convenient to take the following: Amendment (a) thereto, at end, add—

`(iv) an offence of violence on any other member of the emergency services or staff of the National Health Service.'.

New clause 2—Exclusion of prisoners convicted of offences against children from power to release short-term prisoners on licence—

`In section 34A of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (power to release short-term prisoners on licence), after subsection (2)(c) there is inserted—

``(ca)(i) the sentence is for an offence listed in paragraph 1 of Schedule 4 to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000; or

(ii) the sentence is for an offence listed in paragraph 2 of Schedule 4 to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 which is committed against a person under the age of 18; or

(iii) the sentence is for an offence which causes the prisoner to fall within paragraph 3 of Schedule 4 to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000.''.'.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The object of new clauses 1 and 2 is to exclude certain categories of offender from the discretionary early release scheme inserted into the Criminal Justice Act 1991 by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Those arrangements allow what has become known as the home detention curfew scheme, which is often described as the special early release scheme for those who have committed serious crimes. The scheme allows prisoners sentenced to up to four years in prison to be released up to two months earlier than the usual halfway point of their sentence. Someone sentenced to three years could be let out after 16 months and someone sentenced to six months could be out in six weeks. The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), told the House on 12 June last year that someone released under the scheme would have an opportunity to be released before the halfway mark at which he would usually be released. That is not a secret. It is not a hidden proposal. That is the basis of the home detention curfew scheme. That is what it is designed to achieve. Someone who is sentenced to six months would become eligible for the scheme having served six weeks.

Members of the Committee may not have had the chance to read the latest figures given in an answer last week by the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). The official record shows that, from 28 January 1999—when the scheme began—to 31 January this year, 31,540 criminals were released early under the scheme. On average, they had received a sentence of 14.3 months, but served only 5.6 months in prison before being released—less than two-fifths of the sentence that they were given.

Those released on the scheme before serving even half their sentences included 64 criminals who had been convicted of manslaughter; seven who had been convicted of attempted murder; 4,152 who had been convicted of wounding, aggravated bodily harm and grevious bodily harm; 2,919 burglars; 1,348 robbers; 4,310 drug dealers and traffickers; 80 blackmailers; 50 kidnappers and 1,299 criminals who had been found guilty of affray and violent disorder. Such people are serious criminals and, given the almost 1,300 people who had been found guilty of affray and violent disorder, one is entitled to say that the Government's approach to the yob culture is something of a gimmick if they allow so many who have committed serious offences of disorder to laugh in the face of the court that gave them sentences more than double those that they actually served.

Since then, 1,000 further offences have been committed, including two rapes. Dozens of serious crimes of violence have been committed by prisoners who had been released under the scheme during the two-month period that they spent on the scheme. A total of 1,000 offences would not have been committed, except for the Government's policy. The Opposition have consistently opposed the scheme from day 1. When the Home Office announced it on 20 November 1997, the shadow Home Secretary, then my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) said:

``Today, we have seen a significant shift in this country's penal policy—from the victim to the criminal''.—[Official Report, 20 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 456.]

During the passage of the Crime and Disorder Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) condemned the policy, saying:

``what the Government are doing is wrong.''—[Official Report, 23 June 1998; Vol. 314, c. 928.]

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, the present shadow Home Secretary, has made clear the Conservative party's complete opposition to the Government's special early release scheme. Indeed, the Select Committee, which reported on the matter, was actively mislead when it was told that it would apply only to less serious offences. In fact, it was introduced, and is being used, to deal with offences that are more serious. It is a matter of concern that the Government have flown in the face of the views of the Select Committee and the official Opposition by insisting on going ahead with this scheme.

In the past two years, we have tried to correct the worst defects. Conservative proposals to exclude registered sex offenders from the scheme, which we initiated almost three years ago, became law last year through the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. I shall not embarrass the Minister by recounting the catalogue of errors that led to the release under the scheme of a number of child sex offenders before the exclusion became law. His hon. Friends have admitted to them and they are a matter of public record. However, the Government have consistently rejected the proposal in new clause 1, which, under the special early release arrangements, would prevent the release of criminals who assault police officers and resist arrest.

According to figures given by the other Minister, the right hon. Member for Brent, South, 15 criminals convicted of obstructing a constable, 13 criminals convicted of assault with intent to resist arrest and 246 criminals convicted of assaulting a police officer have so far been released early under the scheme. Indeed, a further 25 assaults on police were committed by those who should have been in prison but were released early. On average, the 246 criminals convicted of assaulting a police officer received a prison sentence of almost five months, of which they served six weeks—less than a third of the sentence handed down. That makes a mockery of the words of the hon. Member for Norwich, South, who told the House last month:

``Assault is a serious offence and assaults on the police are deplorable...We recognise our responsibility in supporting the police to protect the community...We expect the courts to use their full powers when considering sentences in cases where the police are assaulted.''—[Official Report, 15 February 2001; Vol. 363, c. 255W.]

Those are fine words, but the fact of the matter is that when the courts do their duty and impose prison sentences of, on average, five months, the Home Secretary lets such people out after six weeks under the discretion granted to him by the scheme. This is a gimmick of the Government. They say, ``Let's be tough: let the courts pass the proper sentence,'' but they let out offenders after six weeks. That approach is a nonsense and the Government must change it.

The Minister stresses his support for the police. He goes to a good deal of trouble to meet them and says that he will act tough. He must know that it is bad for police morale to release those who have been convicted of assaulting a police officer after they have served no more than a third of their sentence. That approach shows contempt for law and order in our country and it must be changed. No wonder the Minister finds it so difficult to recruit police. This is one of a number of factors that are damaging police morale. It makes a mockery of the police to deal with them in this way. It is a kick in the teeth for men and women who have a difficult job.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey used to share the Minister's view of our proposal, and twice voted against it. However, having had time to reflect, he has changed his mind, and I give him credit for that straightforward and honourable decision. The Minister must do the same. It is unacceptable for him, as the Minister responsible for the police, to allow this to happen. For the fourth time, I urge him to give our proposal some thought. He should consider the effect that it would have on the police if he were prepared to bend on this issue and to recognise the obvious sense of what we are saying at a time when it is hard to recruit police—especially in the cities, where they are more likely to be assaulted. We are pressing the Minister hard on this matter.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has tabled an amendment to the new clause that would provide the same protection to other emergency services and health workers. He has a good point, and we support him. Assault on people in the front line, such as police officers, is a particularly serious matter and is treated as a distinct sort of assault. Separate categories of offence cover the thin blue line that protects us all and the people in the emergency services, who are often assaulted by those whom they are trying to help. I hope that the Minister, having accepted our case on child sex offenders, will become another late convert to our views and say, ``Yes, you have found another category that it is right to exclude from the scheme.''

New clause 2 would exclude from the provisions of the scheme those who commit offences against children, which is a separate category under the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. It includes cruelty to children, serious assaults on children and dealing drugs to children. Children need such protection. When people go out and commit foul offences of cruelty against them, we, as a society, should be able to say, ``We are going to protect our children from this. When a judge passes a sentence, we won't cut it in half and knock off a further period: we'll let him pass his sentence and allow the normal position to prevail.'' I shall not go into our views about honesty in sentencing but, even under the present system, what the judge says should happen. Why should we do favours to people who assault police officers or emergency workers, or attack or deal drugs to children? They do not deserve the hand up that the Government are trying to give them.

There is a conflict between the Minister's rhetoric and what he does. He said recently:

``The Government believe those who offend against children should be dealt with severely by the courts''.—[Official Report, 15 February 2001; Vol. 363, c. 254W.]

Yet, when the courts hand out a tough sentence to an offender, he is let out when he has served a third of his sentence. That is nonsensical.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 9:00 pm, 6th March 2001

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for the huge difference between the Government's rhetoric and the reality is the rapacious demands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer? It is expensive to keep people in custody for the full period of the sentence. Perhaps the Home Secretary and the Minister are under orders from the Chancellor to build up an ever bigger cash pile for the handouts that we will no doubt hear about tomorrow.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend is right, but no doubt there is a bit more to it than that. The Government believe that, if someone comes up with a cardboard cut-out scheme, which has some sort of flimsy 24-hour popularity and which generates a headline in a newspaper, he has done his job. There is nothing long term about it and it does not work. One need only look at the child curfew scheme, which was supposed to deliver untold benefits. The Prime Minister lauded it to the skies, but what happened? Not one curfew order has been issued. There were supposed to be 5,000 anti-social behaviour orders every year, but only 150 have actually been made.

I shall not go on for too long, Mr. Hood, but when one examines these proposals, one sees that they are all cardboard cut-outs, and that they are full of problems and will not work. All the experts, such as police organisations, are tearing their hair out over the extra bureaucracy and gimmicks, when all they want is to get down to some basic, honest policing, which means having more police officers doing the job properly. All these gimmicks of extra criminal justice measures are all very well and good. Obviously, we support some of them in principle, but if the police officers are not out there, and if the courts are not supported when they pass sentences, we shall undermine everything that we want to achieve in our criminal justice system.

It is annoying to hear a Minister saying, ``Oh, those who offend against children should be dealt with severely by the courts.'' That is blaming the courts, as though they are not doing their job. When the courts hand out a sentence, the Home Secretary, under a discretionary power, reduces it so that only one third of it is served. What way is that to deal with criminals? Every time that happens, a message is sent out that what is said is not meant.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is implicit from what he has just said that the only form of sentence that he considers to be such is imprisonment?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

No. I never said that. I like measures that work.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

That is a good way of putting it. It is good that the Minister is using that expression. It shows that we are getting through even to him.

The hon. Member for Taunton is wrong to say that I think that imprisonment is the only thing that works. It can work and it is important to be able to send people to prison, because some of them will not reform. I am perfectly happy to concede that there are good community penalties which work. I have never been someone who says that only prison works. However, it is laughable and makes a farce of the court if someone is given a prison sentence and is told that he will serve five months for assaulting a police officer, which is a serious matter, and is then let out after a third of that time. It undermines everything that we are trying to do. I have represented hundreds of thousands of criminals over the years. They look to see what the sentence is, and they almost have a degree in what it means.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

If prison works, why does Britain have the highest number of people in prison in the developed world?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The problem is that we have a lot of crime . The hon. Gentleman might agree that one of the best deterrents is to have sufficient police officers to catch criminals. It is the fear of being caught that deters people.

Interestingly, there was an experiment recently on anti-robbery initiatives in Hillingdon, which found that the more police there were working on initiatives, targeting people, and so on, the fewer robberies were committed.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Is not part of the answer to the hon. Member for South Thanet that prison undoubtedly works for the duration of the sentence because the criminal is out of circulation? Therefore, the law-abiding are protected from him while he is serving a sentence. Is not my hon. Friend right to say that, if the criminals are to be deterred by the risk of being caught, it is important that they serve the sentence that is handed down by the courts?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I agree with that.

I remember, a few years ago, debating secure training centres and being told by the police and some communities that young offenders were likely to have real problems. I am the first to concede that many come from a damaged and fractured background. Most of us are genuinely sad about that and believe that a lot of attention should be given to them and to their problems. I am all for community penalties, but one person who continues to offend, time after time, can do a huge amount of damage. The Prime Minister has only recently realised that approximately 100,000 people commit most of the crimes in Britain, but it takes only one or two to start a crime wave. That is a huge problem and such offenders must be locked up because the public must be protected. A balance must be struck between trying to rehabilitate the individual and solving the problem for the public, and uncomfortable decisions must be taken on the margins.

If someone who is given six months serves only six weeks, the wrong message is sent to the offender, who does not need a degree to know that the courts do not mean it when they say five or six months. The wrong message is also sent to the public, who know that the courts are not being honest when they say six months because they mean six weeks. The result is the farcical situation in which a Minister says that the courts should deal severely with those who offend against children, but when the courts do so, offenders are let out early. That is daft.

I shall not continue further because the new clauses have merit.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I want to speak to amendment (a) to new clause 1, but I shall be brief, because, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire said, I have made my views clear.

I accept that the system introduced by the Government is a form of detention—it is home detention rather than detention in prison. The Minister knows that my party is generally keen to consider alternatives to custody whenever possible. For example, we have supported a trial of tagging. In principle, we have no problem with being imaginative about ensuring that people remain in the community if an adequate risk assessment suggests that they are not a significant risk and if a community sentence can be revoked. However, two other issues concerning sentencing policy must be discussed.

First, we are trying, when it is sensible to do so, to reduce the number of people in the prison system, but that has not brought about a considerable decrease in crime. The hon. Member for South Thanet rightly inquired about that. Evidence around the world and in western democracies shows the same thing--there is no direct correlation between the number of people inside and the crime figures, and no evidence that doubling or tripling the population of those who are locked up suddenly produces a reduction in crime. Indeed, without a good prison regime, it is likely to do the opposite. We are keen to have a debate on alternatives to custody that work, but we accept that risk assessment is difficult. Since taking on the job of Liberal Democrat spokesman on home and legal affairs, I have come to the view that we need a system that does not determine when people should be let out until an assessment has been made later in the sentence. We are talking not about the most serious offences, but of another category of offences.

A good argument can be made now, for good public policy reasons, to exclude certain offences from the home detention regime. I want to persuade the Minister, as he sought to persuade us to change our view on other amendments, of the merit of such a move; it would be helpful, especially in the present circumstances. Such flexibility would be useful if evidence of the Government's success in reducing offending rates and public pressure demanded it. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, who made an entirely reasonable case, might believe that it should be done in all circumstances, but I interpret him to mean that it should be result of a combination of the number of offences committed by people on home detention and the effect that it has on the morale and confidence of the police service. Those are proper and valid considerations. Had nothing been said to me about the effect on the police service, I might not have been persuaded to change my position, but that tilted the balance. We now support new clause 1, and we tabled amendment (a) because key public workers believe that they, too, should be protected.

I briefly acknowledge that there is a difference. The hon. Gentleman said, quite properly, that new clause 1 deals with specific offences against police constables. The Minister could reasonably say that it is a ring-fenced area; but even if he does not buy amendment (a), it would be right to accept the new clause, because the offences would be committed against people whose job is to enforce the law. They deserve the protection of the public while they are doing that job, and they should know that offences against them carry a particular consequence.

Amendment (a) recognises that some key workers among those who work in the public services are having a particularly hard time. That is not only an opposition view; I remember that, when the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) was Secretary of State for Health, he regularly mentioned the assaults made on workers in the health service. I know from personal experience and from second-hand information—it is not disputed across the Committee—that ambulance drivers and crews are regularly assaulted in the course of their work. Before Christmas, I spent some time with an ambulance crew. They did a brilliant job and saved a little lad's life. Ambulance staff deserve our respect and our support. That is why the new clause is so important.

We want the new clause to apply to the other emergency services and to those in the front line of the caring professions. For instance, nurses and doctors cannot turn people away from accident and emergency departments; they have no choice but to serve the public. I appreciate that many others do public sector jobs; indeed, Ministers may argue that one could make a long list of them, including Benefits Agency staff. Those mentioned in amendment (a) work in the emergency and immediate care services, and that differentiates them from other public sector workers. That leads me to new clause 2.

I understand the argument of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire that new clause 2 relates to certain specific offences. He is entitled to put that argument. I also understand that the public have a strong view on the matter. I shall be as honest about that as I have been on other matters. We are considering our position. We have not closed our minds to the argument. It is difficult to keep chopping away at the proposal that people should be detained at home. However, we shall not vote against it, and we may reserve our position this evening. I would be interested to hear the Minister's response. The debate calls for a change in the Government's position.

In moderate terms, I hope that I have joined the hon. Gentleman in putting the case. Even if the Minister says that the Government will listen to what we have said in a positive light rather than merely rebutting it, he will be doing the public a service. The change would be worth making not only for the people affected, but for him and his colleagues.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate 9:15 pm, 6th March 2001

I want to pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey to illustrate what divides the new clauses and his amendment. He disputed whether there was a link between crime figures and the prison population. I want to draw his attention to the change in the trend in crime that occurred under the most recent Conservative Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard).

As Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend sent out a consistent and robust message about crime. It made him deeply unpopular with the liberal establishment but, so far as I could ascertain as a special adviser in another Department, he managed to change the character of the Home Office. He achieved something that eluded Interior and Justice Ministers all over the western and developed world: he reversed the ever-growing trend in crime. A significant part of that achievement was down to the policy that he pursued as Home Secretary, the prison policy and the robust message sent to criminals.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I understand how the hon. Gentleman can make that argument, but the link between Government crime policy and its consequence on crime figures is speculative rather than a matter of fact. The time lag between policy and figures in this country is much less certain than in others. He needs more than a belief and a statistical link to prove that the two were as linked as he suggests.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

Of course, in the end it would be impossible to make the link scientifically, as one would have to get into the mind of every criminal to ask why offences happened and so on. On the face of the evidence available, I believe that it is reasonable to propose that a Government sending the relentless message that they were tough on crime and actually acting that way—they were prepared to lock people up and see and fund a rise in the prison population—had an effect on criminal behaviour.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

I entirely disagree that that is an appropriate link to make. Senior policemen have told me that the fall in crime over recent years has largely been down to the introduction of intelligence-led policing. That is especially true in Kent, where we have had a 23 per cent. reduction in crime since the general election.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

I am sure that the police would want to claim the credit in that way. My point is that there have been many contributions to the trend, some negative, as other factors will have caused crime to rise over the period. Rather than getting into a dispute about exactly what members of the Committee and others may or may not believe, I want to emphasise the importance of the signal that was sent. That is why I want the Minister to consider carefully the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire. It is an opportunity to send a small signal to say that this Parliament understands the importance of the police in going about their duty and will support them.

Equally, I support the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey in saying that the provision should apply to other members of the emergency services and staff of the national health service as well. We are here this evening to make such points, and I hope that the Minister will consider them. The new clause, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, would send a signal out to the police and the other emergency services. I hope that, on this small issue, the Minister will be able to entertain the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire described the Government as a gimmick Government. This is a gimmick new clause. We are trying to scrutinise the Bill, and although it is perfectly in order to produce new clauses of this type, he is merely seeking to open a line of discussion that is part of the general rhetoric of the Conservative Opposition. He is entitled to do so, so I make no criticism from that point of view. It is okay, but it weakens his case, in terms of the amount of time that such proposals leave for the consideration of the Bill itself.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

No, I will not. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman before the end of what I have to say.

Mr. Heald rose—

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I will give way to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

If the Minister is thinking of giving me some extra time, I would be delighted.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

There are three general points. First, the hon. Gentleman called for more police. He will be glad to hear that the number of police is increasing. Nearly half the police forces in the country have more police than they did in March 1997, and that will continue to advance. Secondly, he made a series of important points on sentencing, which are, as he knows, being considered in our sentencing review, and will be given due weight in that context. Some of the points related to the inquiry of Lord Justice Auld, but most of them related to sentencing review issues. There are important issues around sentencing, which is why we established the sentencing review. That is the right way to deal with the matter.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath raised the question of the Chancellor. None of this is driven by the Chancellor. The hon. Gentleman should examine the restraints placed by the shadow Chancellor on the commitments that he can make, before being saying too much on the matter.

The home detention curfew system was not set up in the way that the amendments suggest. The home detention curfew scheme received the unanimous support of the all-party Select Committee on Home Affairs, which included the hon. Members for Woking (Mr. Malins), for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and for Surrey Heath—a fine home counties trio, if ever there was one.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

No. As I said, I will give way towards the end of what I have to say, not to anybody with a point to make.

Those three hon. Members were part of the Home Affairs Committee, which stated that the home detention curfew scheme would

``provide adequate protection to the public because of the tagging element, and will give prisoners an opportunity to readjust to life outside prison.''

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

On a point of order, Mr. Hood. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a point of order. You will recall that, at an earlier stage, in another debate, the Minister accused me of seeking to mislead the Committee. In a similar vein, can I ask you if it is in order for the Minister to refer to my involvement in a report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which he knows full well never considered the proposal that curfews be used for drug dealers, those who have assaulted police or people accused of offences against children. The whole basis of the deliberations of the Select Committee on the measure was that it would be used in respect of minor offences only.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Order. The hon. Gentleman should know that that is not a point for the Chair.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I merely sought to show that there was a lot of debate before the introduction of the home detention curfews. As I said, a range of hon. Members representing home counties constituencies went along with that approach.

The fundamental point about the home detention curfew is that the list of groups of prisoners who are currently disbarred falls into four categories, defined according to two central criteria: first, the extent of the risk to the public; secondly, that of the risk of the prisoner breaching the curfew. The first of the four groups consists of those who have previously breached trust—for example, those who have failed to return. The second consists of those who are required to register with the police on release as a sex offender—which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. The third group consists of those whom the court considers to pose a serious risk of reoffending with a violent offence, and have therefore have been sentenced to imprisonment with extended supervision. The fourth group is that of those whose offending was brought about by mental illness, such that the court has made a hospital or similar order on the basis of risk to the public.

That is the basis of the disbarring of prisoners from the scheme. The sentencing approach is not based on which types of crimes are particularly worthy of having access to the scheme. Only 30 per cent. of those who are eligible for home detention curfews pass the risk assessment, which shows the seriousness of that assessment. It is not a matter of reproof or reprobation of particular types of offence.

The two issues that I mentioned—the risk to the public and the risk that the prisoner will breach the curfew—are fundamental. The issues covered by new clauses 1 and amendment (a) to that new clause simply do not arise in the context of the home detention curfew. They arise in the context of an overall consideration of sentencing, of the type that the hon. Gentleman spoke about. If he wishes, I can give him a commitment. That is now one of the matters being considered in the context of the sentencing review.

The hon. Gentleman makes a separate point in new clause 2 about the issue of the risk to the public. I take that point more seriously, because it relates to the fundamental purposes of the home detention curfew. The home detention curfew legislation excludes those who are required to register as sex offenders because the risk of their reoffending, perhaps during the HDC period, has been judged serious so an individual risk assessment is not needed. The heinous nature of the offence is not the issue. As before, that is a matter for the court, taking into account sentencing and review.

Schedule 4 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, to which new clause 2 refers, consists of a list of offences that, if committed, disqualify the offender from working with children. The list was never intended to apply to anything else, and in our view it is not an appropriate guide to who is, or is not, at risk of reoffending while under a home detention curfew.

I do not consider the proposals appropriate, but before I conclude I shall give way briefly to anyone who wants to contribute.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

As far as new clause 2 is concerned, the list consists of those who are a danger to children. Why does the Minister want to release early those who are a danger to children?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

Neither I nor the Government want to let people out early. The key question in this process is whether the individual concerned constitutes a risk in the way that we have described.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I want to make two points. First, given the Minister's description of the current criteria for home detention curfews, I assume that there could be other criteria for exclusion, and that in principle there is no objection on public policy grounds to excluding specific types of offence. I presume that the Minister will accept that the offences in question fall into such categories. Secondly, is the Minister saying that the sentencing review is empowered to consider not only length of sentence and the home detention curfew system, but whether the system could be extended in relation to category of offence and assessment of the risk of reoffending?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, the sentencing review is not focused principally on home detention curfews. They do not form part of the overall approach but measures such as tagging on release very much do. I mentioned the sentencing review because many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire relate to the way in which sentences work for various categories of offenders. The category of offenders that was alluded to at the start of this short debate is being dealt with through the sentencing review process, and I can confirm that the home detention curfew does not form a central part of that approach. We accept that, in principle, one can look at criteria for home detention curfew other than those that currently apply.

I described the new clauses as gimmick amendments because under the umbrella of a criminal justice Bill it is possible to raise any number of concerns. I understand the reason for the Opposition's general refrain about setting people free early. They seek to make their political points in that way and they are entitled to do so. However, they are not entitled to argue that insufficient time is being allowed to debate the Bill in Committee, given that we are considering the new clauses that they have tabled.

In the light of those comments, I ask the Opposition to withdraw the new clause, but I doubt whether they will succumb to my blandishments.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I understand the Minister's answer but, for reasons that we all understand, only part of this Bill might be secured before the election. It would be remiss of us not to take the opportunity afforded by an umbrella Bill such as this to deal with a part of the criminal justice system that is seen not to work for victims and public servants. As the Minister anticipated, and even though the sentencing review process will be considered at some stage, when the time comes we will move our amendment and I hope that hon. Members on both the Opposition and Government Benches will support it. In turn, we will support new clause 1 if it is pressed to a vote.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 9:30 pm, 6th March 2001

We would indeed like to press new clauses 1 and 2 to a vote. Given that the Government are able to produce a 10-year crime plan while we are waiting for the old report, we need not wait for the sentencing review before making such a small change.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 8.

Division number 23 Adults Abused in Childhood — New clause 1 - Exclusion of prisoners convicted of assaulting police officers, etc, from power to release short-term prisoners on licence

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived. New Clause 2Exclusion of prisoners convicted of offences against children from power to release short-term prisoners on licence