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Clause 2 - Reduction of cases in which prisoners released unconditionally

Offender Rehabilitation Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 28th November 2013.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and have my few moments in the sun. I do not want to get the Minister’s hopes up, but I am half-way sure we will finish some time today.

To continue the constructive and, where possible, consensual, debate that we had—or perhaps not—earlier in the week, I will not say a lot on the clause. We do not intend to oppose it. For the avoidance of doubt, we welcome the extension of the licence period to offenders serving short-term sentences of less than 12 months.

A few questions arise. We shall have a more thorough debate on clause 3 about what the Government intend. Clause 2 is less contentious but it perhaps raises questions about how the licence and supervision periods will interact. If the Minister is in a position to deal with those issues it might be sensible to do so now.

There will be cost issues. We have seen some figures associated with this major extension of supervision and the involvement of probation services with offenders serving short sentences. We are sceptical about whether those figures are realistic, and I suspect that the Government do not really know. Rather than dealing with that central issue, perhaps the Minister will address the question of the relative costs of licence and supervision for the group of prisoners in question.

If I have understood the interaction correctly, it seems that the period of supervision could vary quite a lot, depending on whether the sentence is very short—a couple of weeks or a month or so—or just under two years. With a sentence of 18 or 20 months a prisoner is always subject to licensing at present, and now they will also be subject to supervision. If someone is sentenced to a period of imprisonment of just under two years it seems to me that the licence period will be quite lengthy and the supervision period will be quite short; that is different from what would happen if someone was sentenced to only a few weeks in prison.

I wonder, first, what the Government are trying to achieve by the measure, and what the net effect will be: the difference in cost and the difference in the level of contact. Who will do the supervision on the licence, as opposed to supervision per se: that is, what contact will  there be, if any, during those periods of time? What role will private as opposed to probation service providers have between the two? What level of activity is expected from the person who is under licence or supervision?

Clearly the licence is a potential sanction; it means that if there is a breach the offender is likely to be recalled for the residual period of the prison term, so perhaps the extension of the licence provision in clause 2 is designed to be more punitive, whereas supervision is designed to be more supportive. I do not know; but, again, there would in that case seem to be some inconsistency. If the objective is to get all those with short-term prison sentences back on the straight and narrow by giving them the necessary support, I do not know why those with longer sentences will effectively just have a licence period rather than a supervision period.

When we come to clause 3, we will talk, in terms of unintended consequences, about whether sentencers will have an incentive to give short periods of imprisonment where they might now give community penalties, because they will know that that will encompass quite a long period of supervision. I wonder whether the opposite could be the case here. If sentencers intending to sentence people to short periods of incarceration know that prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months will be subject to licence, they may be tempted to reduce the sentence, because they know there will be some sanction. I do not know whether that is the Government’s intention, or whether it will be an unintended consequence.

As I said, the Opposition did not table any amendments, because we do not disagree with the Government. They may simply think it is anomalous that not all prisoners are subject to licence when they come out, and the clause is more administrative than anything else. I just do not know the answer to those questions, and perhaps I should, but it is easier to put them to the Minister to give him some work to do at an early stage.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

It is a pleasure to welcome you back to the Chair this morning, Mr Robertson.

Rather than going through the detail of what clause 2 does—as the hon. Gentleman indicated, it is not controversial—let me pick up on the points he made. He is right that, with the period of supervision in clause 3, we are trying to achieve something materially different from what is sought through licence. He will appreciate that a period of licence means that someone who misbehaves during that licence is liable to be returned to custody; that is not the case throughout the period of supervision. We have been clear throughout that the purpose of supervision is primarily rehabilitation, and we very much hope that, during the period of supervision, those subject to it will be engaged in a variety of activities designed to promote rehabilitation.

As to who does the supervision during licence and the period of supervision, that will depend on the risk assessment made of the person. If the national probation service believes there is a high risk they will cause serious harm, they will be supervised through both periods by the NPS; if they are assessed as medium or low risk, that will be done by the community rehabilitation company.

On costs, the hon. Gentleman is right that it is difficult to be precise about the distinction between what cost attaches to licence and what cost attaches to supervision, because that will entirely depend on the relative lengths of each period, which, as he rightly said, will depend on the length of sentence passed. However, our intent is that all those released from custody should have a period of at least 12 months during which they are subject to licence or supervision or a combination of the two so that there is enough time to work with them, and we will come back to that in specific amendments.

On breach and recall, the hon. Gentleman is again right: there is a material difference. During licence, someone will be subject to recall for the remainder of their sentence or for a fixed period, depending on the circumstances. On the period of supervision, the court will have to consider the appropriate response to any breach of the conditions of supervision, and a range of penalties will be available, up to and including 14 days’ committal to custody, where that is appropriate.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question whether the supervision and licence periods will have an impact on sentencer behaviour. As he would expect, we have spoken to sentencers about this, and that is one reason we have made a distinction between a period of licence, which we believe it is right to have—as he says, it is anomalous that one does not exist for short-term sentences at the moment—and the period of supervision as a top-up. We believe there will be a difference in the way in which sentencers perceive those two periods.

However, the custody threshold will remain, and sentencers will be expected to have due regard to it and not to sentence to custody unless they believe it appropriate to do so. Of course, the reverse is also true: if they believe that custody is appropriate, they are entitled and expected to sentence to custody, regardless of the periods of licence and supervision that follow. We do not, therefore, believe that the way we have structured the provisions will cause perverse outcomes in terms of sentencer behaviour. I hope that is of assistance to the hon. Gentleman and the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.