Criminal Justice Bill (Third sitting)

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Committee stage
Thursday 14th December 2023

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
Criminal Justice Bill 2023-24 View all Criminal Justice Bill 2023-24 Debates Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 12 December 2023 - (12 Dec 2023)
Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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Q Finally, you may have seen from the evidence we took on Tuesday that there is quite a lot of interest in vetting. I think we came out with more solutions, in different ways, than we had perhaps anticipated. Where do you sit on what is an appropriate vetting regime that is practical and that gives confidence to the public about the people who are protecting us?

Nick Smart: The purpose of vetting is to make sure that the right people get into the organisation. There is certainly a reputational risk in having the wrong officers in the organisation; we have seen the damage it can do to trust and confidence in the police service. I believe that the measures that the College of Policing will instigate for licence and vetting units are a positive step to make sure that they adhere to a certain standard.

Having His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary review vetting units as part of its inspections is a sensible way of safeguarding and making sure that they are working effectively. As with any issue, if you want to enhance the vetting it will mean more staff, which will cost more. The current budgets are set, so if you put more people and resources into more robust vetting, which is a sensible idea, something at the other end will have to give, because there is no endless money pit for the police budget.

Yes, we welcome it and we believe that it is the right thing to do. As an observation, an officer is vetted at the time of joining, but you could have repeat vetting at some point during their service, to make sure that they still have the appropriate vetting. Also, when you get promoted to superintendent level, for example, you go to management-level vetting, which is slightly more intrusive. If you are a counter-terrorism officer, you may get some even more enhanced and developed vetting that takes more time and resources. We would welcome more robust vetting, and I think most chief constables would welcome it, but it is a question of resourcing and staffing to make sure that the process is fit for purpose.

Laura Farris Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Laura Farris)
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Q Can I pick up on the issues around police conduct? Clauses 73 and 74 create both a right and a duty on chief constables: a duty to oversee the duty of candour and the relevant code that will ensure it, and a right to submit an appeal of their own device. Is that consistent with feedback that you have heard from chief constables about how they could better manage their subordinates?

Nick Smart: In terms of the appeals process?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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In terms of the two things. Do you think that that is the range of tools that they need in order to better manage?

Nick Smart: In terms of the appeals process, having a JR is really expensive and takes time. If the officer is to be dismissed, a JR prolongs the period unnecessarily. An appeals tribunal should be swifter, so if the officer is dismissed the process is more satisfactory for everybody concerned. We believe that this is an appropriate tool for chief constables.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q There are some new powers in the Bill. The power relating to the seizure of bladed articles is consistent with powers that already exist, but is an expansion of them; there just needs to be a reasonable belief that the bladed article may be used in the commitment of a further crime. What is your view on that?

Nick Smart: It plugs a gap. Previously, officers who were lawfully on premises could not seize knives that were essentially held there—we all have knives in our house—but there are examples of domestic situations in which a knife could be used to commit a heinous offence. This provision allows us to seize that knife if there are reasonable grounds to believe that a criminal act will be committed. We would support this.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q In the past, have you heard that officers have had a reasonable suspicion but have found that they lacked the requisite power to act?

Nick Smart: Basically, yes. There are examples of officers who have attended various incidents, perhaps with people with mental health problems, in domestic situations where knives had been lawfully bought but could be used in a criminal act, and the officers have not been able to seize them properly. Again, where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a criminal act may be committed with a bladed article—a weapon—it is entirely appropriate that we have the power to seize it and stop that from happening.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q Right next to that in the Bill is clause 19, which relates to the power to enter premises without a warrant. Police can enter without a warrant when there is a reasonable suspicion that stolen goods are on the premises. Can you comment on that?

Nick Smart: I think it is a reasonable belief rather than a suspicion. Giving that power to our officers is welcome. It comes with the caveat that there is a legitimacy angle. Officers not having to obtain warrants to enter premises presents a big trust and confidence issue for the public, and rightly so. That is where the quality of policing comes in with respect to officers’ guidance, understanding and application, and with respect to His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary making sure that those powers are used appropriately and that there is accountability.

It plugs a gap. For example, we all have an iPhone, and we all have Find My Friends on it. If somebody has lost a bit of tech and the app can pinpoint an address, that, along with other reasonable lines of inquiry, gives the officer the reasonable belief to enter the premises and recover the property. That seems appropriate.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q Do you have confidence that the threshold test of reasonable belief would be uniformly applied across police forces?

Nick Smart: Yes, I do. On the scale of reasonable suspicion to reasonable belief, you have to have virtually no doubt that the item is in that property before you enter it. Rather than reasonable suspicion, where you can just have a hunch, there have to be active lines of inquiry based on intelligence to justify a reasonable belief, but if it is there, it is entirely appropriate for an officer to enter and recover a member of the public’s stolen property.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q Finally, the new package of measures in clauses 65 to 71, which deal with antisocial behaviour, is an expansion of existing powers in the 2014 legislation, such as enabling the police to put in place a public safety protection order. What impact do you think that will have on the police’s ability to respond to antisocial behaviour?

Nick Smart: I think it gives us the flexibility and dynamism we need to address issues that occur, fight crime, deter crime and reassure the public. In my force, West Yorkshire, public spaces protection orders have been used against nuisance vehicles where individuals have been wolf-whistling at females, so they link to the violence against women and girls agenda and they have been used quite successfully. Our power to create PSPOs is entirely appropriate in the circumstances and is very welcome.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q What about bringing the age limit down to bring in children of 10, up to adulthood?

Nick Smart: Again, it relates to the accountability for everybody’s actions. It is not just older people who commit antisocial behaviour; it is often youth-related and it is linked to families. We welcome the provision allowing social housing providers to remove nuisance tenants, but we understand that they have an obligation to rehouse them, so it is not just about moving them from one place to another and the same behaviour happening. There has to be community safety partnership work to ensure that there is the health, education and social care provision to change their behaviour. Otherwise, you are just displacing the problem from one area to another.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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Q I would like to go back to the issue of knife crime, which I am particularly interested in. You mentioned clause 18, but are there any other measures in the Bill that will help to tackle knife crime? There was a recent national police initiative to tackle knife crime. Could you tell us how that went?

Nick Smart: On the powers, possession with intent is a really useful operational tool for officers. It is similar to firearms legislation, in which there is an offence of possession of firearms with intent to endanger life. Having an offence for knives with a similar intent is welcome. We have seen gangs taunting each other with knives on social media, on podcasts and things like that. Possession with intent is a welcome operational tool, used in line with intelligence and obviously monitored with the usual safeguards. Operationally it is very welcome, and if it saves lives we are all for it.

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None Portrait The Chair
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Q We have a minute or two left. Do you want to share with the Committee anything you have not been asked about, but think would be helpful?

Nick Smart: If I may, there is one item—the powers of entry—which I think you alluded to. An issue that we looked at was that of immediacy. Section 18 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 allows the police to search after arrest, and that requires an inspector’s authority. In certain circumstances, if the inspector is not available or there is a policing need, the constable can go in and get retrospective authority.

In the circumstances outlined in the Bill’s powers of entry, nothing in there regards that immediacy. If the officer at the time needs to go in to recover the property but cannot get hold of the inspector—for example, if the inspector is in custody dealing with a review, or they are dealing with a complaint or a critical incident, and because they need to review what is going on and then give that authority—it would be helpful to have that provision in so that the officer can seek that respective authority from the inspector as per section 18 of PACE. The precedent is there, but a provision would tackle immediacy—

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q Can I ask you a follow-up question? If you remove the need for a warrant, do you not think that it is important to have some form of safeguard before the door is opened?

Nick Smart: Absolutely. I think in 99% of the cases the inspector’s authority would be granted.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q But even in that 1%, would it not have a corrosive effect on public trust if an officer took the decision and then would not have been authorised?

Nick Smart: There is always the potential when you go through somebody’s door without a warrant for that. I think Andy Cooke from HMIC said that mistakes will be made. However, if there is a genuine belief that you are at a property, you have somebody with a mobile phone, they have seen you and you think that they will run out the back door of the property, or try to hide or destroy that property, you must wait for the inspector to give you the authority. That gives the individual time to act and potentially lose, damage, alter or destroy that property, so that when you go through the door you do not find it for whatever reason. It is an observation; we are not saying that it should be in there, but it is a consideration. As I say, the precedent is there in section 18 of PACE, which I think certainly we, and HMIC, would say has not been abused over time.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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That is really helpful. Thank you very much, Mr Smart.

None Portrait The Chair
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Thank you for your evidence. If there is anything you would like to add or that you feel you have missed when you go back on the tube, you can always write to the Clerk.

Examination of Witnesses

Councillor Sue Woolley, Emily Spurrell and David Lloyd gave evidence.

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Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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Q Should that perhaps cut both ways? As you say, the PCC has a democratic mandate. The local authority does as well. It is elected differently, but it is still drawn from the people—of the people. Are you not concerned that it creates a power imbalance, where the PCC can make that mandate, but the other partners cannot?

Emily Spurrell: From my point of view, if the system was working as it should—again, I am reflecting on my own experience in Merseyside—you should all be talking about the same things anyway. When I look at my CSPs in Merseyside, if they are not all talking about serious organised crime, something has gone wrong. They are all talking about it, because it is an issue in all their areas. There will be some really specific issues that I think CSPs need to be able to look at but, generally speaking, if they are not talking about those issues, something else has gone wrong further upstream. It could be helpful to put this in because then, as David says, there is a reminder that you need that connection. The reality is that if they are not really talking about those things, there are bigger issues at play, in terms of why those same priorities are not being picked up.

Councillor Sue Woolley: I think that if at all possible, when you have partners around a table and they are equal partners, that is a conducive way to good practice and working. I am quite sure that works really well in some places. In my own area, that works particularly well. All partners are equal around the table; everybody works together. I am quite sure that in other areas, that bond may not be as strong. Rather than just legislating for something, I would suggest that, if at all possible, there could be something around a duty to work together. You will know the language better than me.

Emily Spurrell: That actually already exists for PCCs. It is within our duty to work in partnership as well.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q Mr Lloyd, I want to go back to what you were saying at the beginning about your role in relation to the police—in standing up for victims. With the new powers that are extended to chief constables, and particularly the new duty of candour, how do you see the role of PCCs in ensuring that is effective?

David Lloyd: We of course hold the chief constable to account in a variety of ways and in different places. Realising that there is a duty of candour is another part of the armoury, because it is something that we can push back. I know that this was very much part of the post-Hillsborough legacy. Clearly, that whole lack of candour was one of the things that went wrong. We are good at holding the chiefs to account, and it should happen locally. With this extra duty there, it is something that we will need to be reminded about—it is helpful for us to be reminded that there is a duty of candour—but we can then ask those questions as well.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q I want to pick up on the repeal of the Vagrancy Act again. It is an ambition of this Bill to fill the gap that would otherwise be left by that Act, by addressing the nuisance element that may exist within those matters. Does this Bill provide a helpful tool for filling the gap that would otherwise be left by the repeal of the Vagrancy Act?

David Lloyd: Clearly, there are people who are homeless, who are also almost aggressively begging; there are people on the streets who are aggressively begging, and are almost aggressively homeless, if that does not sound like a strange thing to say. However, I think we do need a great deal of care. I suspect that the vast majority of people who are homeless on the streets would not be seen as committing a criminal offence by any court, police officer or PCC. They require care and a way of ensuring that any drug and alcohol addiction or mental health issues are supported. It is a difficult area.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q To pin you down a bit more—please, any of you jump in—do you think there is a distinction between nuisance begging and nuisance rough sleeping? They are treated differently in the Act, but it sounds as if you are driving at two different things

David Lloyd: I think there is a distinction. We have heard evidence, and I am sure that you have heard evidence, of people sleeping in doorways who cannot be moved on by the local authority and there is nothing that can be done.

I suppose my real concern within this is that, especially as budgets get tighter and tighter, the duty around homelessness may change from being a duty on the local authority to a police issue. I do not think that that would be overly helpful if it were not structured in the right way—that it is seen that the principal duty is on the local authority rather than it being a policing issue. I think that there is a real danger of getting to the point that the police need to pick this up. Clearly, policing is not going to be able to deal with anything other than the very sharp and focused bit about this moment; there is far more to it than just this moment.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Councillor Woolley, given your role, do you have a view on that?

Councillor Sue Woolley: I think we have to be very careful that we do not unnecessarily criminalise rough sleeping. As you are probably aware, through their various services, councils work very closely with those people that might be rough sleeping. There is a combination of rough sleeping and begging.

If we go down the road of criminalising something, then we run the risk of not being able to support those people and the one thing that we do want to do as a society is to support those people. I would just play back that, during covid, we got those people off the street. When we got them off the street, we were able to put services in for them and work with them. I would love to see that happen again. However, we do have a cohort of those who engage in nuisance begging, and we also have a situation of organised gangs sitting behind those who are begging. It is not a black and white answer at all.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q Thank you. That is very helpful. My final question is for Ms Spurrell—I have not asked her anything yet—and is about antisocial behaviour and the new power for a victim who is dissatisfied with the response to ask their local PCC to conduct a review. In the context of the work that you have done and how frequently antisocial behaviour occurs and how it is not always easy to tackle, how do you see that part of your role unfolding? Do you think it would be useful?

Emily Spurrell: I think it would be useful. We obviously already have the community trigger process in place at the minute, where if someone is dissatisfied with the response from the local authority, they can ask for a review from the PCC’s office to check whether the process was followed sufficiently. I think there are challenges around that in terms of public awareness; I do not think we are seeing huge numbers of that in some areas because much of the public are not aware that that is an option.

It comes back to what we were talking about at the beginning: it is not about the PCC trying to instruct or direct; it is about being able to have the powers to question, challenge and say, “As a partnership, are we doing enough to tackle this issue?” There will be times when actually it will be the police that need to step up in that response, but there will also be times when the local authority have not made a good enough response to that particular incident. It is about having someone who has the power to take another look and say, “Actually, I think we have missed something here. How do we put that right?” and then giving reassurance and saying, “Actually, the local authority or the partnership have done everything possible and there is no more that we can do.” It is a helpful check, and it probably is just an expansion of what we already do at the minute around the community trigger.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q Do you think it is a meaningful enhancement of victims’ rights?

Emily Spurrell: It is a step in the right direction, yes. It is useful just to ensure that those victims of ASB are not dismissed as low level and are considered. We do see incidents where, if victims of ASB are not taken seriously at that first stage, things can escalate and become quite serious, so it is important that victims feel as though they have been heard and that everyone is working towards trying to find a solution, which is not always the case.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Thank you. That is all from me.

None Portrait The Chair
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Q Do either of the Opposition spokesmen want to come back? No. Can each witness give me a couple of minutes on something you have not been asked about that you think ought to be in the Bill, or something you think is good in the Bill? Let us start with you, David.

David Lloyd: I am broadly supportive of the Bill. I am particularly interested in suspending short custodial sentences. I think that makes a great deal of sense and I would highly recommend that. I have covered the piece on nuisance begging and rough sleeping that I was interested in. As a real victims champion and someone who has pushed hard on violence against women and girls since 2012, the aggravating factor for murder at the end of a relationship and MAPPA for controlling and coercive behaviour is something that, again, I highly commend and think that we need to do.

The other thing I picked up from the earlier session was the question around vetting. We need to just consider whether we need to, in many ways, vet to values. We are clearly doing it more and more in our recruitment process, but it strikes me that there are very few officers who have met the criminal threshold and therefore are likely to have on their file a criminal conviction. That does not mean to say that we do not have misogynists or racists or homophobes within the organisations. We have much to do around that. We need to just think about what else we might be able to do to vet to values, so that we make sure we have police forces that are fit for the public. I think that the very vast majority are fit, by the way—I am not suggesting for one moment that they are anything other than that—but we might want to look at that quite closely.

Emily Spurrell: I echo some of what David said there about some of those challenges. To go back to the begging point, which is a wider issue and I know that it is linked with what is going through to the Sentencing Bill, there is a real emphasis and a real push to try to reduce the number of short-term sentences and we want more people in the community. I worry whether some of the provisions for the Criminal Justice Bill, such as the aggressive begging provisions, will actually see an increase in that, which is not what we want, and the two will work counter to each other. I would just say to be mindful around that.

As for some of the bits that David alluded to around vetting and some of the work that is under way to try and increase trust and confidence, there is probably scope to go further. I know there is work being done. The Mayor of London has been quite keen to push some of that and I think he has been working with Harriet Harman on an additional level of scrutiny around the ability to dismiss officers who have been convicted of serious criminal offences and more flexibility around pension forfeiture, for example. There is more scope to do more around that building of trust and confidence within policing in terms of that scrutiny.

Around the vetting, there is work under way. I am aware that there is a national project to try and increase vetting. Echoing what the superintendent said in the previous session, trying to make sure that there is that regular touch base, particularly when officers are crossing forces, is really helpful.

The only other thing I will say around that is that the big challenge we face is around how long these things are taking. It would not matter so much that people were going through a process if it was resolved quickly. Instead, we see some of the examples the superintendent was referring to, where officers accused of gross misconduct sit for years waiting for an outcome and then it gets an NFA or gets downgraded. There is a real challenge here around capacity in the system, both internally in professional standards and with the Independent Office for Police Conduct, and how we can speed up those processes so that we have a robust system that is not taking up so much time and taking officers off the streets.

My only other comment would be in relation to the introduction of the express power for the courts to direct prisoners to attend their sentencing hearings. You will obviously be aware that this came up quite strongly after Olivia was murdered on Merseyside and her family have been very clear about the insult to her mum and her family when the offender did not turn up to hear the victim’s personal statement. I really welcome this, notwithstanding some of the logistical challenges, because it is a really welcome change: offenders should be expected to listen to the impact of their crimes on their victims and their families.

Councillor Sue Woolley: Very briefly, and following on from the point that Emily just made, I would just make a point about the capacity issue, particularly around child sexual abuse reporting. We must be very careful that justice needs to be seen to be swift. What has been shown with various reports on child sexual abuse is that reports have been made but it is taking too long for those individuals—those young people—to be supported when they have then been taken through a process.

Therefore, although it is laudable and the right thing to do to ensure that reports are made in a timely fashion, let us make sure that we have the capacity at the other end to be able to support those young people.

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Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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Thank you very much.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q Can I pick up on that final point about getting defendants into the dock for sentencing? I am sure you are aware that the discretion as to whether that order will be made will sit with the judge, so there will be an assessment of the defendant’s conduct. If the judge deems that it is appropriate to bring the defendant into the dock, the parameters for the use of force will be a decision that remains with the prison authorities. Do you think that is the right approach?

Mark Fairhurst: Judges have always had the discretion to order a defendant into the dock. When we used to run a court in the ’90s, there was many a time that we would have used force on a prisoner to get them in front of a judge. That discretion has always been there. It is the right way to do things—we are best suited to decide when it is appropriate and proportionate to use force.

I would like to see dialogue between the staff in the courts and the judge because, if the prisoner is being extremely violent or aggressive, I do not think sitting them in front of a judge is the right way to do things. Maybe we could do it remotely, in a secure room, so the victim still has the opportunity to read out their impact statement, rather than proceedings being disrupted—when you do things remotely, you have the ability to mute. We could still force the prisoner to address those victims, and the victims would feel as if they were getting some sort of justice.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Q I think that is under consideration, actually. I do not know whether you have experience of this, but I wanted to ask you about the fact that, certainly in the public perception, there have been a spate of cases—very serious cases, actually; you could probably go through the half dozen most high-profile offences of the last one or two years—where it seems that almost every defendant has declined to attend their sentencing hearing. Among the people you represent, is there a perception that that has now become something of a trend? Sorry, there is probably a better word than “trend”—has it become something of a prevailing behaviour?

Mark Fairhurst: Yes, there have been some really high-profile cases over the past couple of months in particular. It does seem to be a trend, because there is no deterrent. If you are already getting a lengthy sentence, then really, in your eyes, as the perpetrator of the crime, you are untouchable.

As well as sentencing people for failing to appear, maybe we need to look at what we can do when they are serving their sentence. What privileges can we take off them? Can we stop them getting face-to-face visits from family and friends, or force them to do the visits remotely, as a consequence of their actions? Let’s take some privileges off them while they are serving their sentence so it really hits them hard, and so that people think that justice is actually being served—“You are not untouchable, and we are going to affect the way you serve your sentence.”

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Thank you; that is very helpful.

None Portrait The Chair
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Q Mr Fairhurst, I asked our other witnesses if they wanted to volunteer any further information to the Committee that they had not been asked about. Are there any other points you would like to make to the Committee, while you are online, about how the Bill could be improved or any concerns you have?

Mark Fairhurst: There is just one concern in particular with this Bill, where you are forcing serious offenders —particularly sexual offenders—to serve their entire sentence.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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That is in the Sentencing Bill.

Mark Fairhurst: Usually, they get released at the two-thirds point for good behaviour. If there is no incentive to behave in prison, that could have a knock-on effect on staff. Also, if you force someone to serve their entire sentence, we must remember that they are no longer subject to a licence in the community, so there is no supervision for them when they are released after serving their entire sentence. That is another consideration.

None Portrait The Chair
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Thank you very much for your contribution, and have a good day.

Mark Fairhurst: Thank you very much, everyone.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Scott Mann.)