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Sentencing (Green Paper) Debate

14th December 2010

Jonathan Djanogly responds to a backbench debate on the recently published Green Paper: "Breaking the cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate on the Government's Green Paper "Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders", which my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice laid before Parliament last week.

Given the brevity of this debate, the many and varied contributions that we have had from hon. Members have all been very helpful and show the complexity of some of the issues that we are dealing with. The Green Paper's proposals are the initial conclusions of the wide-ranging assessment of rehabilitation and sentencing that we announced in our programme for government back in May. We are now consulting widely on the proposals set out in the Green Paper and this debate is a welcome opportunity to discuss some of those proposals.

I shall start with the point about foreign nationals that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, and about which he has long been concerned. I can confirm that as we take forward the Green Paper proposals, we will consider what more we can do to reduce the number of foreign national offenders.

Foreign national prisoners make up 13% of the prison population, and the figure has doubled over the past 10 years. That is not an effective use of expensive prison places if foreign nationals could be removed from the country. There is, however, a balance to be struck. Foreign nationals who commit serious offences should be punished by prison sentences; victims of crime would expect nothing less. But when foreign national offenders do not need to be in prison, or when they could spend some of their prison terms in prisons in their own countries, we should do everything we can to ensure that they are not a burden on our prisons.

With that objective in mind, we are looking to expand prisoner transfer agreements with other countries, so that a prisoner can serve some of their sentence in their home country whenever possible. We are also looking to divert some foreign nationals-for example, those who commit immigration document offences-away from the criminal justice system altogether, if they agree to be removed from the United Kingdom. We are considering other options, and would very much welcome further ideas in response to the Green Paper.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor made it clear last week that the current criminal justice system does not deliver what really matters. Society has a right to expect the system to protect it. We all expect offenders to be punished effectively, but we should also expect criminals to be reformed, so that when they finish their sentences they do not simply return to their life of crime and create more misery for victims.

Despite record spending, the criminal justice system falls short, in that about half of released offenders go on to reoffend within a year-and the reoffending rates for young people are even worse, with three quarters of offenders sentenced to youth custody reoffending within a year. Those high rates are unacceptable to this Government. If we do not prevent people, especially young people, from offending, they will become the prolific offenders of the next decade.

The Green Paper sets out how we propose to break that destructive cycle of crime and to ensure that offenders make amends to victims and communities for the harm that they have caused. That requires a radically different approach-a system that protects the public by punishing the guilty and reducing reoffending, makes offenders face up to their responsibilities and pay back to victims and society, and makes punishment hard work, both in prison and in the community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering referred to the mood music of the Green Paper, so let me make it clear that prison is the right place for serious and dangerous offenders, and that we will ensure that sufficient prison places are always available. I shall come to the detail in due course, but we do not propose in the Green Paper to reduce the ability of any sentencer to send a serious offender to prison, nor do we propose to introduce, as the previous Government did, any new early-release schemes.

We want offenders to be suitably punished for their crimes. Through both the tough discipline of regular working hours in prison, and more strenuous and demanding work in the community, we aim to ensure that offenders work hard and that there is greater use of tough curfew requirements.

We want prisons to be places where offenders learn about the life of work and about the routine of getting up in the morning and doing a full day's meaningful work. Too many offenders lead chaotic lives, and too many of them have never done a day's work. By giving offenders the experience of work, we can put order into their lives, better prepare them for life outside prison, increase their job prospects and reduce the likelihood of their reoffending.

We also want offenders to pay back to their victims. The Green Paper includes proposals for increased reparation to victims through a greater use of restorative justice, under which an offender can make good the wrong he has imposed on others. We want restorative justice to be victim-led and not offender-led. Restorative justice can benefit both parties. It can provide reparation to victims and help offenders face up to the realities of their crime and its impact on victims-and, as a result, prevent them from offending in future.

We also want to implement the Prisoners' Earnings Act 1996 to ensure that more offenders directly compensate the victims of crime through deductions in prisoners' wages. For lower-level offences, we want to increase the use of fines and compensation orders, so that offenders make greater financial reparation to both victims and the taxpayer. An increased use of compensation orders would mean that more victims would receive financial compensation directly from the offender.

We also want to take a new approach to offender rehabilitation, getting more offenders off benefits and into honest work. That is partly about the routine of work, but crucially it is about taking action to get offenders off drugs so as to break the cycle of offending to feed a drug habit. The Government are committed to rehabilitating offenders from drug dependency to drug-free lives. We want prisons to be places where offenders tackle their drug misuse, not places where their problems get worse, and we are therefore working on preventing drugs from getting into prisons. We are also working with the Department of Health to reshape drug treatment. Within prisons, we will pilot recovery wings, which will link more effectively with community services, and we will focus more on supporting offenders to be drug free.

We also want to look at the number of offenders in prison who suffer from a mental illness. For some people with mental health issues, prison is simply not an appropriate place. In some cases, better outcomes can be achieved by diverting low-level offenders into intensive treatment for mental health problems in the community. We are working with both the Department of Health and the Home Office to ensure that front-line services identify such people. We have proposals to create a more effective and robust community sentence, with greater flexibility for the provisions of mental health requirements. If we can get treatment right, we can help to reduce offending.

The Green Paper signals a transformation in rehabilitation financing and delivery. Significant amounts of public money have been spent on trying to rehabilitate offenders, without properly holding services to account for their results. We will reward independent providers for achieving a reduction in reoffending, and will pay for that with the savings that they generate within the criminal justice system. We will introduce more competition across offender management services, to drive up standards and deliver value for money for the taxpayer. We will increase the freedom for public service providers and front-line professionals to innovate in their work with offenders. The payment-by-results system will be trialled in at least six new projects over the next two years, and the principles will be fully rolled out by 2015.

I turn now to sentencing, which is an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering mentioned. We know that a sentencing framework must provide courts with a range of options for punishing and rehabilitating offenders and protecting the public. The problem is that the current framework has been developed in an ad hoc fashion over the past 10 years, leaving it overly complex and difficult to administer. We should not underestimate how complex the law has become. The Court of Appeal spends a significant amount of time on cases in which sentencing law is unclear. If the law is often difficult for judges to understand, it is not surprising that the public have considerable difficulties.

Rehman Chishti: Does the Minister agree that it is completely and utterly wrong that in the past 13 years we should have had more legislation than in the past 100 years? Does he also agree that we should make legislation only when it is necessary, rather than for the sake of it?

Mr Djanogly: I do. The figure of more than 3,000 new offences comes to mind. We had the situation in which a new offence was being created before the previous one had commenced.

We want to simplify the sentencing framework and make it more comprehensible for the public. We also want to enhance judicial discretion, to allow the judges and magistrates who hear the cases to make the most appropriate decisions on sentencing within the legal framework set by Parliament.

I accept that some people, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, want to see longer sentences, but we need to be proportionate. We could not accommodate the much longer sentences that he suggests without raising taxes to build more prisons.

Sentences have, however, got longer and longer over the past couple of decades, and for many years offenders have not spent their sentence in custody. We do not propose to make fundamental changes to determinate sentences. At present, offenders serving a determinate sentence spend half of their sentence in custody and half on licence in the community. If an offender breaches the condition of their licence, they may be returned to prison. We recognise-

Mr Edward Leigh (in the Chair): Order.

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