I call the first panel of witnesses. Campbell Robb is the chief executive of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, and Helen Berresford is the director of external engagement for that organisation, so we have two from NACRO. Sam Doohan is policy officer at Unlock. I would like each witness to introduce themselves very quickly so we can crack on with questioning.
Great. It is nice that we can hear you in the ether. We cannot actually see you either now, so you cannot see us and we cannot see you. We would quite like to see the witnesses if that can be organised. Who would like to ask the first question? I call Sarah Champion.
There are some things in the Bill that will help to some degree, but there are some omissions. A good deal of the youth offending regime, with regard to criminal records, will stay the same. Larger changes in the Bill, particularly around cautions, are not being made for young offenders, so they will face the same regime as now and will not receive any benefit.
Another critical omission is that once the Bill passes it will still technically be possible for someone to commit a crime as a child, be convicted after they turn 18 and then receive a criminal record as if they had committed the crime as an adult. We are very keen to see some change to that. We firmly believe that we should stick to the principle that young people deserve not only a second chance but special treatment and consideration.
While there are some things in the Bill that we welcome in terms of young people—for example, the changes to remand, which will make a really big difference to what has been an ongoing issue for a while—we have a number of concerns about some of the proposals, which will likely increase the number of children and young people in custody and the time they spend in custody, with no evidence of the impact that that will have on either reducing crime or reducing reoffending. We have seen significant progress over recent years with the decrease in the numbers of children being sent into custody. That has been a really positive story, but we are very concerned that a number of the proposals in this Bill will reverse that and increase the number.
Some of the proposals will increase the sentencing, such as some of the proposals around sentence length and the starting tariffs for murder, for example, and some have implications for increasing the numbers, such as the changes to detention training orders. There are a number of different proposals that will likely increase the numbers of children and young people going into custody.
I would add that, overall, some of the welcome things around problem-solving courts and some of those things could be extended into the youth, and we need to see more of that. I would like to see some more discussion during the passage of the Bill about some of the non-custodial approaches that could be introduced in the youth estate, as well as in the adult estate.
Q Thank you. Lack of employment is a major barrier to rehabilitation after release from custody. Do you think that proposals to reform the criminal records regime go far enough to address that?
To a large degree, Unlock would say that we are happy with the direction of travel, but we do not think that the Bill in its present form goes far enough. There is something of a split in the criminal records regime, essentially between those who go to prison and those who do not, and we are happy to see that the majority of people who do go to prison will see reduced spending periods for their convictions. However, we are still quite unhappy to see that some people will still disclose for life. We believe that needs quite close attention paid to it.
Further down the regime, even when we talk about what in the grander scheme of things we might think of as quite minor offences, the criminal spending regime around road traffic offences, and speeding in particular, is radically out of step with everything else in the rest of the spending regime. People end up having to disclose, say, a speeding ticket for five years, which is longer than if they had gone to prison for a year. We think that not only does this need to change and be brought into step, but that on the whole we should emphasise not only faster spending but fewer situations in which people legally have to disclose, and a higher standard of demonstrable need to discriminate on the basis of a criminal record.
We would very much agree with that. At Nacro, we run a criminal records support service, and we receive thousands of inquiries every year from individuals who are trying, and often struggling, to navigate a very complex system. We very much welcome the direction of travel and the proposals in the Bill to reduce that burden, which is also felt by employers. That is a really important part of this: lots of the employers who we support struggle to navigate the system themselves, and that can lead to them being more risk-averse when it comes to employing people with criminal records.
I agree completely with what Sam said. There are some anomalies and outliers here, and this Bill is a real opportunity to deal with them. Motoring convictions is a great example of that, and I think that can be fairly easily dealt with. There are a couple of other points that come up in this Bill, such as the new out-of-court disposals and the diversionary caution. A simple caution previously did not have a disclosure period, and I think putting one in only increases barriers, which is contrary to the Government’s direction of travel. I think there are some real opportunities to go further and tidy that up, but we very much welcome the direction.
AsQ always, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. What we have just touched on is central to the way that we can try to rehabilitate some offenders. There is a vicious circle, which I am sure most Members of Parliament will have come across, where we are trying to rehabilitate a young offender and get them into work, but the cost of the disclosure rules often put the employers off or make the person have to return to crime—that is probably not a good way of putting it, but they are forced into criminal activity because they cannot get gainful employment.
Have we got the balance right? To what extent is an employer entitled to know somebody’s criminal history? Can we do more to work with employers to get them to understand? Companies such as Timpson, for example, have been very good at taking on people who have criminal pasts, and rehabilitating them. Does the Bill move in the right direction on this? Does it protect employers from potential criminal activity from employees and does it make it easier for people to get into work?
The direction of travel is certainly positive. At the same time, we do not think the balance is right yet in the overall rationale for employers at the basic level, who are not obliged to ask for a criminal history and have a free choice whether they do or not. The fact that employers can ask because they are nosy is not fair to applicants at any level.
A 2001 study commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions said that a lot of the problems around employers asking come from the recruiter and the person who chooses to ask. The study broke that down across several categories, including age and position within a company. There are various factors that make people more willing to ask and more willing to discriminate if people disclose a criminal past.
Another factor that came out from that was that employers would, if given scope to do so, claim that just about any job you can imagine had some tangential relationship to someone’s previous criminal history. Perhaps in a very loose sense, that could be argued to be true, but we see driving convictions being held against people in jobs that do not involve driving, or people with a driving ban, who cannot legally drive, having that conviction held against them for pushing trolleys in the car park in Asda. There is some rationale in allowing employers to ask, but we do not think the balance is there yet. It is being used just to discriminate.
The balance point is a really important one. We work with employers as well, and understanding their needs is a really important part of that. For a lot of the employers we have supported, it is about transparency and knowing what they can ask and understanding that point. The system is so complex and arbitrary at the minute, and the transparency is not there, so the faith and trust in the system are not automatically there. We have to get to a point where it is transparent, easy to navigate and much simpler.
Sam’s point about motoring convictions is absolutely right. We have supported people who have had job offers withdrawn because an employer has come across their motoring conviction, which has absolutely nothing to do with the job that they would be doing. It is about relevance for the job. That is a really important factor.
As both my colleagues have said, this is a step in the right direction. There is more we would like to see in the Bill. The other point is that, when we get through this, whatever the new regulations are, the Government, working with ourselves and employers, need to really think through how we talk about this. We need to run campaigns and explain to employers and work with businesses and business organisations, so that we do not just all talk about Timpson—which is brilliant at this and does a very good job, but we want to have dozens of organisations. We know they want to do more in this space, but feel put off and worried by the complexity that comes with it. We would like to see a bit more in the Bill, but we also want to work afterwards with the Government and employers to make the measures work better.
Q In our farming business, we once hired a young man and we did not know until he started work that he had just come out of a young offenders institution. He was a lodger in my mother’s house. He was absolutely fantastic, but if we had known, we may not have hired him. I genuinely do not know the answer to this question, but to what extent are probation service staff, who probably know more about these offenders than anyone else outside their own family, able to engage with employers to help them make that decision, or is that not in the probation service’s remit?
We work every day with thousands of people who are coming out of prison, trying to settle them. We work with employers across the country to find either permanent or short-term opportunities. Criminal records are just one barrier to many people who are trying to get work when they come out of prison. It is about training and education, rehabilitation in prison and what is available then, and suitable accommodation. There is whole range of factors.
The new changes to the probation system, which I know the Justice Committee has looked at recently, are hopefully opening up some opportunities for all of us who work in this space, to provide a more rounded service. These changes to criminal records will help a bit, but they will make a big difference if we can go just that bit further.
Can I ask our witnesses about problem-solving courts? We have had them before. In fact, when I was the Minister of State for Justice and Equalities before the 2010 election, we had a number of different problem-solving courts, such as mental health and drugs courts. My recollection is that they worked very well, saved the system a lot of money in the long run and helped individuals, but they cost a bit more to operate. My experience of them was that they were a good thing, but they were all abolished during the austerity years by the coalition Government. So, we know they work. Do you agree with that assessment? Would you like to see problem-solving courts simply rolled out, so that we can make the savings that they make for individuals sooner rather than laterQ ?
It is simple: the answer is yes. The commitment in the Bill to community sentences, treatment requirements and problem-solving courts is a real step in the right direction for non-custodial, rounded approaches to sentencing and rehabilitation. When we work with problem-solving courts in the areas that have them, our experience is that they do work. We need to provide that rounded approach to non-custodial sentences, which is to do with treatment, problem solving, a good probation service, training and development. In short, the answer is yes. These are a good thing. We would like to see more of them. The evidence is generally positive, both for pathways out of addiction and into employment, and for reducing reoffending. We look forward to working with whoever is providing them to really get that.
The second thing to add is about better awareness among judges about the success of these courts and how to use them. When the Bill is passed, how do the Government intend to work with the judiciary and other providers to make sure problem-solving courts become more available and better used?
While we talk about the further end of the criminal justice system, rather than the sentencing part of it, one thing that we see as being particularly positive about problem-solving courts is that while, yes, they are potentially more expensive up front, they have a much stronger ability to head off reoffending, which saves money further down the road in potential future court cases and prison sentences.
We see it as a false economy to say that problem-solving courts cost more in the immediate term. The Government’s White Paper, which led to this Bill, put the cost of reoffending at something like £18 billion—a huge amount of money. For relatively low-level offences that, in the grand scheme of things, are typically associated with reoffending over a more protracted period, if there is no intervention, that extra money is well worth it. We just have to invest it up front and make sure that the solutions actually work.
Certainly, in the present climate, we would probably see a pilot as a political necessity. However, we would expect a pilot to be very positive. We see no reason why it would not be. It would be nice if we could make them happen tomorrow—have ring-fenced funding and have some long-term commitment to them—but if it takes a year or two years to prove the point and make them a permanent fixture of the justice system, that would be more positive in the long run.
Q Thanks. I just want to ask about sentencing and the wide range of proposals in the Bill. Have you detected anything in the Bill that you think will contribute to sentence inflation and will mean that, inadvertently or otherwise, people end up with longer sentences?
The evidence from the Bill suggests that most of the approach in it will lead to longer sentences and people in prison for longer. It is also disappointing that there is nothing in the Bill that tackles the issue of the 30,000 short sentences of under six months that are given out every year, which cause significant damage to the individuals involved. We understand the desire of the Government to meet what it feels is the public’s desire to see longer tariffs for some crimes. However, we could have done so much more, particularly on short sentences, to really think through who is ending up in prison, why and for how long.
Q I was not really asking you to tell me whether the provisions for longer sentences will create longer sentences, but whether there is anything else in the Bill that might inadvertently end up creating sentence inflation.
I misunderstood, sorry. On treatment orders and the others types of things that we have just been talking about, if they are too harsh or too difficult to pass, or if people have been set up to fail, there is a danger within those that if they are not done properly with the individual and they do not understand the consequences of what they are doing, people could end up back in prison for failing on a relatively minor breach of a treatment order. It is hard to say there is evidence of that, but there is some concern that that might be the case. I hope that answers your question.
Are all the Back Benchers content and happy? Mr Levy, I did not see you hiding behind the Perspex. You have three minutes before I bring in the Front Benchers.
Central is the answer. We as an organisation have been working in this space for nearly 50 years, and we feel that the partnership between the new probation service and organisations such as ours, both locally and nationally, is absolutely essential. We need local partnerships in sentencing and pre-sentencing, and in problem-solving courts and the treatment centres. Local charities and national charities should be working together with the statutory services, providing a wraparound—ideally, to stop people offending in the first place.
When people first hit the criminal justice system, we need to bring in organisations such as ours and others in order to be able to work with people and to keep them out of it through education, training and apprenticeships that we can offer at a whole range of levels. When they are in the system, it is about making sure that they get out as soon as possible, and that they get the rehabilitation and education they need when they are in it. Charities are definitely a part of the process, and we would want to see relationships between charities supporting this work.
I would certainly say that there will continue to be, and there should continue to be, a strong partnership between Government and the charitable sector, but it should also be clear in Parliament’s mind that Government services for probation, youths and all manner of things should not take as read that the charitable can fill in any shortfall. It is important that we work together—we can make more of a difference together than we can separately—but things such as, for example, informing employers about criminal records and the risks associated with hiring someone who has a criminal record, which is the single biggest piece of information that changes an employer’s mind about whether to hire people, are at the moment done almost exclusively by the charitable sector. We are happy to do that work—it needs to be done and it is important—but having more resource and focus from the Government to ensure that message gets out far and wide would be extremely valuable on a number of levels.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. Helen, in one of her earlier comments, said that she has some concerns about the spending periods around the system of cautions. Do the panel members have other concerns about the new two-tier system of cautionsQ ?
I am happy to go first. You are right that we are concerned about the disclosure period. One of the other points that I would raise is that obviously the new proposal is for two tiers—a diversionary caution and a community caution. One of the things that we would really like to see from this is a growing use of out-of-court disposals to keep people out of the formal justice system, which we know has a positive impact. The more we can use them, the better. What we do not want to see with this new approach is more people being given the upper-tier caution as a result of it being two tier. We want to see more people coming into out-of-court disposals more broadly. We need to be aware of the risk of more people having the one that has more conditions attached to it, which makes it more difficult.
The second point is very much about the disclosure period. If we take the disclosure period out, we have much more of a chance to use out-of-court disposals in a positive way that does not put up additional barriers and gives people the chance to move on and not to get engaged with the formal justice system.
I entirely agree with Helen about the disclosure periods for the new upper-tier caution. That is certainly a problem; I will not re-tread that entirely. One of the other concerns that we have about the new cautions is that now, at least in the adult regime, there will only be conditional cautions, which require a fairly in-depth process of paperwork to set and monitor conditions and ensure compliance. There is now no other caution option available. Those cautions will be delivered largely on an individual officer level and by individual forces.
As a result, forces will be much more hesitant to use a caution. Whereas in the past, they might have been quite content to give a simple caution and send someone on their way with a formal warning or reprimand, now the force in question will have to take on the burden of monitoring, compliance and potentially re-arresting someone if they breach conditions. They will be forced either to go above the caution and see more cases through to prosecution, even though it would not necessarily be in the public interest to do so, or not to take action at all.
As we know with the criminal justice system as a whole, when we start having these slightly weighted decisions about who falls into what tier of disposal, those who are from disadvantaged backgrounds, along the lines of race and religion, almost universally fall into the harsher end, and those who are not do not. We are creating a system that incentivises busy working police officers to say, “Actually, I am going to make this the CPS’s problem, not mine, and I have the choice of who to do it to.” Is that going to lead to good criminal justice outcomes? We think it may not. We do not know yet—I stress that—because it has not been studied, but it does have the characteristics of a system that will not have the desired outcomes.
Q Sam, you talked about disproportionality in relation to cautions, but have the panel got concerns that any of the Bill’s proposals will have a disproportionate impact on certain communities?
We do have that concern. The Government’s own impact assessment suggests that that might be the case, and that it was in the public interest to continue. We know that, at every stage, young BAME youths, in particular, are disproportionately likely to be stopped and searched, and to end up in the system in different ways. We do have that concern. We would like to see more evidence used to understand what the impact of the proposals might be. We know from previous proposals and reports, such as David Lammy’s, that the system is not working in the way that it could, and there is nothing in the Bill that will positively change that. We urge the Government to think about whether there is more that we could do on that through the passage of the Bill.
One important thing to keep an eye on is that the out-of-court disposal family is one that requires co-operation from the person who is receiving the disposal. That is fine if you have a community that is reasonably homogenous and where there is no tension with the police, because people are much more likely to co-operate. They may not see the police as being friendly, but they at least understand the interaction better.
Where there is less community cohesion and there are people from all manner of underprivileged backgrounds who historically do not have good relationships with the police and are less likely to be co-operative, that again puts us in a situation where the out-of-court disposals and their relatively lesser impact on someone throughout the rest of their life will end up going to people from relatively more privileged backgrounds, and those who end up being prosecuted and receiving full convictions will be people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
No, I think that is right. Sam has just explained that very well. I think that there is a risk. We can see across a number of the proposals and, as Campbell said, the Government’s impact assessment the impact on people from black and minority ethnic communities. Out-of-court disposals are a good case in point in terms of how we ensure that they do not discriminate. We can see it at every stage. We need to be looking at how we reduce the disproportionality in the justice system, and what actions we can take to do that. We can see that some of these proposals do the opposite.
We know from the evidence that community orders are more effective in reducing reoffending than short prison sentences, which are ineffective at doing that. We want to see much better use of community sentences where they are more effective. Community sentence treatment requirements are a really good example of how we can do that, ensuring that we also put in the drug treatments and mental health support that are needed alongside it. That is really important.
A lot of these orders have the potential sanction of being sent to prison if breached. We do not support that as a way forward. We do not think that that is effective. If a community sentence is not working, we already know that a short prison sentence is less effective, so it does not make sense that that is the penalty. There is evidence to show that continuing the support in the community, to ensure that we are actually dealing with the issues, is more effective. It is about ensuring that community sentences are not setting people up to fail, and that the conditions around them try to help with their different needs, such as alcohol and drug treatment, mental health treatment, and homelessness. All those different parts need to be addressed. That is where the focus is.
The one thing that needs to be considered with community orders and criminal records is that when a community order is given alongside another disposal and it becomes an ancillary order we have to be very careful about how long we set the orders for. At present, the full conviction does not become spent until the full ancillary order is completed or ended by the court. A lot of orders are given for three years or five years. Some are given for life. We need to be aware of that, so that we are using orders in a proportionate way that matches the intention of them. They should not be given out simply as a five-year ban from this location, say, which will in fact end up with someone taking six years before what is probably a relatively minor conviction is taken off their record.
Q Very briefly, the Bill proposes to expand the length and intensity of electronically monitored curfews that courts can impose. Do you think that that is an effective provision for reducing reoffending?
It is one part. To isolate it solely as being effective on its own is not something— It can be a very useful method of keeping people out of prison, but it has to be wrapped around the probationary offer and the other offers available to the individual, so that they have meaningful engagement, either through unpaid work or training or development, and are in stable, suitable accommodation, so that they are not moving all the time. So, in and of itself, it can add some benefit, but it cannot be taken as a single thing.
Q Thank you, Sir Charles, and thank you everyone for joining us this morning and for the work that you do in trying to protect the public and rehabilitate offenders. We are all very grateful to you.
May I start with problem-solving courts? Clearly, as with so many things, it is important that the implementation is right; there are some things that work and some things that do not. Can you give your views on the things that have worked and the things that have not worked in problem-solving courts that we have tried in the past—I think there was one in Merseyside a few years ago—and the lessons that we might learn from problem-solving courts in the US, as we design and implement the pilot?
This is not something that we have significant expertise in at Nacro, in terms of learning from previous pilots. With any of these things, we have to understand, as you say, what has worked and what has not worked.
The point that we made earlier about the role of building judicial confidence, which was picked up on, is a really important one, and that confidence has to be central to problem-solving courts as we roll them out. Getting the right people involved and the right support functions is important. One of the important purposes—is it not?—of problem-solving courts is that you bring the right people into the discussions and keep them engaged.
I will just refer, for example, to community sentence treatment requirements. We know from our experience of what we have seen that engaging with the judiciary in that process has a really positive impact. That is one of the things we have seen and that we would like to see much more of in the roll-out of CSTRs, and I would say the same for problem-solving courts.
In addition to building interest and engagement in the judiciary, one of the other issues is also building interest and engagement among the local population. The courts need to be credible, both to offenders and to the local population. That is probably the biggest step that needs to be taken. If local people think that someone will effectively get just a slap on the wrist and that the problem-solving court does not solve the problem, they will not bother reporting minor crimes and, to some degree, neither will the police. It is very important that that credibility takes centre stage and that the whole process has some faith that its measures will actually be successful.
Q You mentioned CSTRs, which obviously are referred to prominently in the White Paper. I strongly support them and want to see them being rolled out, because they treat the underlying causes of offending, in particular mental health problems, and drug and alcohol addiction.
First of all, do you share that analysis, particularly where a CSTR might be an alternative to a short sentence? If you do share that analysis, what do you think we can do to encourage the wider use of CSTRs, in addition to the extra money for the actual treatment that is being provided at the moment? I ask that because I would like to see them being used a lot more.
Yes, we would too, and I think the evidence suggests that when they are used properly they can have a significant effect, on both the addiction or the mental health issues that people are suffering from, and ultimately—we think in previous studies, but not recently—potentially on reoffending. So we are very supportive of them.
I think that, as you would expect us to say, they need to be part of a wider network that is available, ranging from wider drug treatment services, through the NHS and other public health bodies, to job opportunities. They are part of a holistic approach—part of a whole series of interventions that can help people.
On their use as an alternative to sentencing, we could not agree more. That is the work that Nacro does every day, with hundreds of people across the country. If we can use them to help support people through their mental health issues, or drug and alcohol issues, and keep them out of the criminal justice system, then absolutely; we could not agree more. We are very supportive and would want to work alongside to get more of them up and running as soon as possible.
I agree that having the judiciary, as well as the public, see them as a viable alternative is something we all need to work on once the Bill becomes an Act, so that we really get that buy-in and momentum behind them so that they can be used more widely.
We have seen an increase in their usage in the test sites. The only point I would add, without repeating my earlier comment, is that building judicial confidence will be an important part of this. That is a really important thing to learn from. Continually evaluating and learning as we roll these out will be really important, learning where they have worked and where they have not. If we can build that in, I think there is a really positive role for community sentence treatment requirements.
There is also an issue with building faith with offenders and the people who will potentially receive treatment. One of the concerns that we hear with these kinds of disposals is that people are worried that their criminal record will show that they have been in drug treatment or mental health treatment. In general, although not in the absolute, that is not a problem, because it will not show up and they will not have to disclose it. But people do not know that and they do not necessarily have a great deal of faith that it will not show up three, four or five years later, when they have turned their life around.
I mention that in particular because a DWP study from 2010, I think, found that the only group who, in employment terms, were discriminated against on a par with people with convictions were alcoholics and drug users. Therefore, ensuring that people understand the full ramifications of co-operating with a drug treatment programme—that it will be private, to a large degree, and that it will give them the opportunity to move on positively afterwards—would go a long way.
Q Thank you. Helen, you raised a point about the potential for custodial sentences following a breach of a community order. Does it reassure you that obviously that is a matter of judicial discretion, and that we expect judges to use custody only as a last resort—indeed, they are bound to do so? In order to ensure that community orders are complied with, judges need to have that option as a last resort. It is to be used rarely, but none the less it needs to be available, should it ever be required.
Our preference—and yours too, I hear—is very much about looking at community sentences, where they are more effective. If there is an option of custody, I think we really need to build that in as an absolute last resort, and it is worth looking at how we can ensure that is the case. Certainly, on a broader point, in the past we have seen increases in recall to prison, and in some cases people have been recalled for very minor breaches of their conditions, and nothing to do with committing a crime. It is really important that we ensure that is not what we are doing. If there is a condition about prison as a last resort, we have to make sure that it is for a very significant reason and that it is truly a last resort.
Broadly speaking, statutory minimums cause problems. The reduction of judicial discretion means that cases cease to be individual and start to be set by central Government policy. Although it can be argued either way, depending on your taste, were we to follow an American model, where if you get three strikes and then a very long prison sentence for a relatively minor crime, under the current British criminal records system that would almost certainly be disclosed for life, and it would not just be a fairly stiff sentence for repeat offending; it would become a life sentence immediately. That is something always to be aware of when thinking about where we set not just sentencing guidelines, but sentencing minimums in particular. If the judge thinks that six months is appropriate, we should not be the ones to argue with that.
We agree that judicial discretion is paramount. We think that is a very, very important consideration. For any changes, it is important to be aware of that and to have an urgent space to see what impact those minimum sentences are having across the piece, in terms of numbers, time and then rehabilitation.
I thank our three witnesses for a very strong performance and for answering the questions so fully—it is much appreciated.