Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation


Wednesday 26 June 1996



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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Sir James Molyneaux

Adams, Mrs. Irene (Paisley, North)

Bates, Mr. Michael (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury)

Brooke, Mr. Peter (City of London and Westminster, South)

Canavan, Mr. Dennis (Falkirk, West)

Dalyell, Mr. Tam (Linlithgow)

Deva, Mr. Nirj Joseph (Brenord and Isleworth)

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James (Minister of State, Scottish Office)

Galloway, Mr. George (Glasgow, Hillhead)

Hood, Mr. Jimmy (Clydesdale)

Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

McFall, Mr. John (Dumbarton)

McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick (New Forest)

Mans, Mr. Keith (Wyre)

Marland, Mr. Paul (West Gloucestershire)

Michie, Mrs. Ray (Argyll and Bute)

Rathbone, Mr. Tim (Lewes)

Squire, Ms Rachel (Dunfermline, West)

Thomason, Mr. Roy (Bromsgrove)

Wray, Mr. Jimmy (Glasgow, Provan)

Mr. M. Hennessy, Committee Clerk

3 Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation Wednesday 26 June 1996


Draft Community Service by Offenders (Hours of Work) (Scotland) Order 1996

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Community Service by Offenders (Hours of Work) (Scotland) Order 1996. Community service by offenders was introduced in Scotland by the Community Service by Offenders (Scotland) Act 1978, which was consolidated into the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995. At the moment, community service can be given for between 40 and 240 hours. The Scottish Office believes that it is time to revise both the minimum and the maximum sentences, to reinforce the message that community service is a properly demanding sentence of the court. A working group set up by the Scottish Office to review the national standards for community service in Scotland, with representation from all relevant interests, including the judiciary, police and local authority service providers, first recommended in 1994 that consideration be given to reviewing the minimum and maximum number of hours of unpaid work that an offender may be required to perform under a community service order. In the White Paper, "Firm and Fair", issued in June 1994, the Government set out their proposals for changes in the maximum number of hours of community service and invited comments from interested parties. No contrary comments were received and the proposal to increase the maximum received strong support from those responding. Since then, the Government have also reviewed the minimum sentence and we announced our intention to change the provision last autumn. The order will increase the minimum number of hours for which a community service order can be made from 40 to 80. I am sure that the Committee will agree that a minimum of 40 hours is not appropriate for an order that can be made only where the court would otherwise consider imposing a custodial sentence. At the other end of the spectrum, the order increases the maximum hours for which an order can be made in solemn proceedings from 240 to 300. That change will, in accordance with most other sentencing provisions, give the sheriff, when sitting with a jury, and the High and Appeal Courts, a greater discretion than hitherto to impose a higher penalty, commensurate with the seriousness of the offence. The Government looked long and hard at community service and its operation and determined that it must be seen by the offender and the public as demanding and challenging and a credible alternative to a custodial 4 sentence. As last week's White Paper "Crime and Punishment" makes clear, the Government remain committed to provision of a range of non-custodial disposals sufficient to enable the courts to use alternatives to custody where appropriate to the offence and consistent with public protection. However, those disposals, especially community service at the top end of the range, must provide a properly rigorous response to the offence and discourage or prevent further offending. To that end, the proposed changes in the number of hours form a part of a coherent overall strategy. A circular has recently been issued to local authorities requiring them to ensure that a sufficient number of physically challenging and demanding tasks are made available for community service offenders and that the nature of the work and its product, including marking of protective clothing worn by those involved in a community service scheme, are brought much more to the public's attention. A national community service environmental initiative has been launched; it focuses on major projects, such as graffiti removal, footpath building, renovating public open space and waterway clearance, which are of clear benefit to the community, but demanding of the offender. We are determined that there should be no misconception that community service participation is a holiday camp or a soft option—it is hard and useful work that benefits the community. The changes to the community service hours are positive, will assist the disposal in its objectives and deserve our shared support. I commend the order to the Committee.

4.34 pm

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): It is a bit rich that no Scottish National party Member is here to support us, after what happened on the Floor of the House today—although the Minister and I know that they always support us in their absence. I welcome several of the Minister's comments on community service. In the White Paper "Firm and Fair" the Government announced their intention to increase the maximum length of community service orders available to the courts of solemn jurisdiction from 240 to 300 hours. I have no problem with that because, like the Secretary of State—the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth)—and the Minister of State, I believe that we should be considering alternatives to court. We are at one on the need to develop non-custodial approaches such as community service orders. I note what the Minister said about the report on discipline and enforcement of community service orders, which was undertaken by social work inspectors in two local authority areas—Inverness and Edinburgh. The Inverness teams that carried out community service orders met all or most of the expectations of the social work inspectorate. In Edinburgh, only one of the teams was satisfactory: the inspectors found that much of the work was inconsistent and unacceptable. It has taken time for community service orders to bed down in the Scottish justice system, but it is working well generally. Quality and management could be improved in some areas. I note from papers produced by the Scottish Office central research unit about 5 perceptions of community service by offenders that sheriffs believed that "if Community Service were to be over-used as an alternative to non-custodial sentences then there could be a danger of de-valuing the disposal in the longer term." However, sheriffs also believed that "after a decade's use, Community Service had found its own place on the sentencing scale." It is important to use that in the progression of community service orders. Research is important for sensible future planning. It tells us that community service was considered by sheriffs to be "appropriate for a wide range of middle-order offences and offenders. Only the most serious or most trivial offences and offenders should be excluded." I agree with that. The Scottish Prison Service locks up too many people for whom alternative non-custodial sentences are appropriate. If I recall the figures correctly, 40 per cent. of the daily intake into prison is made up by people who have not paid fines. The Minister and I have the same concerns about that. First, are prisons being put to proper use in that respect? Secondly, there is an economic dimension because keeping someone in prison for one year costs £26,500. Could an individual not pay his or her debt to society better by performing a function in the community rather than by being imprisoned? The Minister knows about the Dumbarton project in my constituency—we have met a few times to discuss keeping that urban aid project going. The last time we met, the Minister mentioned the expense. But, I have spoken to social workers and sheriffs in the Dumbarton area and they tell me that the project has been a success. Many of the young people on the project do face up to their responsibilities. I have spoken to some of them who have told me that the work is, in their own words, "a pain in the neck", because of the responsibilities with which they are daily confronted. I want to see that continuing, not put off at a tangent. The report shows that some sheriffs were "dismayed at the length of time taken to start an offender on his Community Service work placement." That raises questions about whether enough work placements are available and whether the service is ready to take individuals on board, if the courts choose alternatives to custody. The only way to ensure that it is ready is for the Government, courts and authorities to work together. The research report notes that justices want to improve and develop contact with social workers and community service staff to improve their understanding of the range of services on offer. Where local schemes are in operation, justices would welcome regular reports, feedback and outcomes. That has been a weakness of community service projects to date. I want to encourage the Minister to continue with such projects and ensure that offenders face up to their responsibility and pay their debt to society. That, however, is where I part the ways with the Minister. I have been dealing with him in Committees for several years, but he now appears to speak in a different tongue—perhaps that happened when the right hon. Member for Stirling became Secretary of State. I should be happy for the Minister to stick to the rhetoric when 6 talking about young people and community service orders, as long as the practice was different. Sometimes members of our families go off line because we, as politicians and Members of Parliament, are away from home and our spouses must handle them alone. When that happens, however, the individual is encouraged. I say that not only as a parent, but as a former head teacher. During my time in school, the young people who caused me and my colleagues most problems were those who were already alienated from school. We had to ensure that such people were brought back in and not alienated further, if we were to carry out our statutory and humanitarian duty. How in the name of goodness can we encourage young people to feel that they are part of society when they have to wear protective clothing that makes it clear that they are on community service order programme. That might sound good in political rhetoric or in the run-up to a general election, but it will not help us to get such young people back. I say that not because I do not want to be tough on offenders, but because I want to ensure that they see their place in society and face up to their responsibilities. A circular, dated 24 April 1996, was issued to local authorities by Miss Lesley Clare. It told them to "seek every opportunity to publicise the benefits produced by community service schemes in the local media." What will those benefits be? To me, it would be beneficial if individuals stopped reoffending. If the Minister accepts that aim and objective, we are at one. The circular also referred to the identification of projects. It stated: "Wherever appropriate, authorities should arrange for the identification of projects by means of signs showing that the work is being or has been carried out by a community service scheme." Authorities "should arrange for vehicles used…to be marked to indicate this. Such markings may be permanent or temporary." Are we trying to stigmatise the young people on the projects? The aim even seems to be to stigmatise the tutors—Miss Clare certainly goes on to say that the staff should also wear community service clothing. Will young people be asked to wear the uniform everywhere they go? In my constituency and those of other hon. Members, some young people on community service orders perform a very acceptable function in senior citizens' homes, community centres and elsewhere. Do those young people wear protective clothing in the senior citizens' homes and community centres, so that they stand out? If so, they are being set apart from the other people in the project. The adults and senior citizens who are being helped would not want young people to be stigmatised to that extent. I ask the Minister to consider that issue seriously. I hope that he shares my objective—not only to see those young people face up to their responsibilities, but to see them assimilated back into society so that they are no longer a problem for it. If we share that same aim, the Minister must listen to the courts, social workers and local authorities that deal with the problem on the ground. I have already benefited from doing so, and I have brought the comments of those who deal with the problem to the Committee today.


4.46 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams): I want to intervene briefly. The Prime Minister cannot be everywhere, but bearing in mind that he has said that deregulation is at the heart of the Government's economic policy, I thought that it would be useful to ask the Minister whether he realised that this statutory instrument is the 8,096th since statutory instruments began to be counted in January 1994. In the past two and a quarter years, therefore, 8,095 statutory instruments have been passed. While I welcome the purport of this statutory instrument—I am one of the few trained youth leaders in the House, certainly among Conservative Members—I am sure, bearing in mind the Prime Minister's concern for deregulation, that he would want to ask two questions if he were here. I feel that it is my duty to ask those questions as if he were.

The Chairman: Order. Can I assume that they are directly related to the order that is before us? I do not want the Minister to be tempted to reply at great length to something that is not relevant to us.

Mr. Steen: I would not have made the special journey to attend the Committee if my questions were not highly relevant to the order. You do me a disservice, Sir James, to suggest that I would even consider asking irrelevant questions. My first question is, has a cost compliance assessment been worked out for the order? One of the purports of the deregulation initiative and of statutory instruments procedure is to find out whether orders will lead to increased cost. If one is going to increase the amount of community service time that any person can be ordered to do, it would have to be supervised. I believe that community service orders are first rate. Conservative Members welcome the idea of giving people the alternative of thinking about what they can do to help society instead of hating it. However, no cost compliance assessment has been done. I would have thought that, the change from 40 to 80 and 240 hours to 300 hours must mean that the supervision will result in additional cost to the Exchequer. Is that right? If it does not result in additional cost, should not greater supervision follow the extension of the hours? No one could object to the statutory instrument, other than because it is yet another statutory instrument, but I would be grateful if the Minister could help me on the cost point.

4.48 pm

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: First, may I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I realise that he takes a keen interest in all statutory instruments and their related costs. The order will give value for money. Although the immediate costs will be greater, the overall savings will be substantial. If more persons who have committed minor offences are sent not to prison but on community service orders, that will provide value for money. The hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) made the point that a person in prison for a year costs £26,500, whereas the cost of community service per order is £1,465. There were 3,187 orders in 1988 and more than 8 6,000 in 1995–96. The local community has received enormous benefits, because no less than three quarters of a million hours have been served. We believe in the renovation of national playing fields, run-down areas, canals and walkways. Taking all those considerations into account, there will be an overall saving, although, as my hon. Friend suggests, there will be a small, immediate increase.

Mr. Steen: Before the Minister leaves that point, I want to ask him about the additional costs—I hope that he will not think it discourteous of me if I leave before he concludes his speech, but I have a Committee meeting on another statutory instrument to attend. Is not it obligatory to have a cost compliance assessment in the statutory instrument? The Government usually say what the additional cost will be—whether it will be neutral, a little more or a little less. Could the Minister help me on that?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: I have just received information from the officials and their best estimate is that there are unlikely to be significant additional costs as the minimum is increased and efficiency improved, because short-term orders are more expensive to maintain. I think that that is a longwinded way of saying that there will be economies of scale. Overall, this measure will result in a great many benefits to the community.

Mr. Steen: Before the Minister concludes his remarks on that point—

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: I do not want to hold up my hon. Friend, if he has to attend another statutory instrument Committee.

Mr. Steen: The Minister has not dealt with the question of why there is no cost compliance assessment statement at the bottom of the order. There usually is and I am wondering why there is not one in this order.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: There is no requirement to provide a cost compliance assessment. If my hon. Friend were to inquire of the Leader of the House which statutory instruments have such statements, I am sure that he would receive an enlightened and full answer. I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Dumbarton on the increase in the number of hours. He referred to research, which has been helpful in identifying perceptions of sentences. That was taken into account in the review of standards in 1995. An inspection by the social work inspectorate on discipline and enforcement of community service was published on 2 May and on information and advice to sentencers on 23 May. They are the first part of a rolling programme of inspections intended to reinforce the application of realistic and rigorous standards. Some areas requiring improvement were identified and we shall take that seriously. Overall, however, the inspectorate's report was helpful and encouraging. It was generally supportive and believed that progress had been made. The hon. Member for Dumbarton asked whether it would be best for an individual to pay his debt in 9 society. I believe that the project in Dumbarton has been a success. The social work services group has agreed with the local authority that the project should continue to make its contribution to the courts. I have met with the hon. Gentleman about that project and I appreciate his interest and support. The justification for protective clothing is that the public are entitled to know who has done the work and of the benefits that will accrue from it. That is part of the overall strategy to raise the public profile and perception of community service by a rigorous disposal and by providing benefits to the public. However, there will be no uniform. If the wearing of protective clothing is necessary for health and safety reasons or to protect the participant's own clothing, it will be worn.

Mr. McFall: There are many places of disposal—old folks homes and community centres, for instance—to which these young people will be sent. Will people under a community service order be required to wear protective clothing in such establishments?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: Not necessarily. When it is worn, it will be clearly and visibly marked with the words "community service scheme". Such clothing will be worn for outdoor work requiring wet weather protection and overalls will be worn for building work or decorating.

Mr. McFall: In her letter, Ms Lesley Clare says that "protective clothing should be worn by all participants in the community service project, including supervisory staff." Will the requirement for individuals and supervisory staff to wear protective clothing be mandatory or will it be up to officials to decide, in the interests of safety, whether it should be worn?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: If protective clothing is required, those persons must wear it. Offenders will have to comply with reasonable requirements and supervision. Failure to wear 10 protective clothing in accordance with reasonable working instructions will constitute a breach and the offender will be returned to court to be dealt with. More than half of all breaches of community service orders result in custody, so it is obviously not in the interests of the convicted person to be in breach of an order.

Mr. McFall: I do not want to seem to be nit-picking, but this is an important matter, especially as projects are implemented by local authority staff. I gather from the Minister's remarks that protective clothing will not be worn in old folks homes and community centres, but it will be worn for large-scale projects in the interests of safety, and if the individual does not wear it, he will be in breach of the order. I accept that, because if the supervisory staff tell the individuals to wear protective clothing and he does not do so, that is obviously a breach. But do the supervisory staff and the local authorities have a discretion to decide whether it is in the interests of health and safety and of the individual to wear protective clothing? I want to push the Minister on that aspect.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: The officials will consult the Health and Safety Executive. Offenders should be expected to repay their debt to society. They should contribute positively to improving our environment and there should be public recognition of the discharge of their debt. The public will see for themselves that restitution has been made. We believe that the order will send a clear message to offenders warning them what they should expect to have to do. I commend the order to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Community Service by Offenders (Hours of Work) (Scotland) Order 1996.

Committee rose at three minutes to Five o'clock.


Molyneaux, Sir James (Chairman)

Bates, Mr.

Deva, Mr.

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James

Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark

McFall, Mr.

McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick

Marland, Mr.

Thomason, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(2):

Steen, Mr. Anthony (South Hams)