Kit Malthouse – 2022 Speech on Community Payback

The speech made by Kit Malthouse, the Minister for Crime and Policing, in the House of Commons on 28 June 2022.

I rise both perplexed and pleased to respond. First, I am perplexed because, in seven years in this House, I do not think I have heard quite such a series of distortions of events, or indeed such a naked use of a global pandemic to derive political advantage. I know that when the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) goes to tweet or Facebook the clips of her being outraged in this debate, she will point out—to her, no doubt, small number of viewers in Lewisham West and Penge—that the pandemic had an impact on the whole of the country, not least the criminal justice system.

I am also perplexed at the sudden reversal in the Labour party’s view of community payback. It was only a year ago that the former shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), said that community payback

“has nothing to do with tackling crime”.

She accused us, in promoting community payback, of “stigmatising” certain sections of the community. She called our desire to have more community payback teams out in the community, doing exactly the kind of work that the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge now seems to celebrate, a “distasteful gimmick”, as did, at the same time, the now shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). So while I welcome the hon. Lady’s conversion, it is the cause of some confusion. Perhaps we are in happier, more Blairite times in the Labour party now, under new leadership, although how long that will last I do not know.

Having said that, I am pleased to celebrate the work that has been done on community payback, particularly over the last year as it has roared back into life, and to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the outstanding work of our operational staff across England and Wales, who, in spite of a huge number of challenges, have continued to deliver projects day in and day out.

The community payback requirement is of course delivered in groups, sometimes indoors—painting and decorating schools for example—and covid-19 had a severe impact on our ability to deliver. I am afraid that resulted in a backlog of cases where hours have not been met 12 months after sentencing, which is a stipulation of the requirement. However, we are committed to ensuring that all eligible offenders who did not complete their community payback because of covid-19 will be required to meet their hours.

The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge, on whom I wanted to intervene, seemed to indicate that hours had been written off from community sentences. She may not be aware of this, but we are not able to write off community sentence hours as that is entirely a judicial decision. We have undertaken to present every single case where somebody goes over their 12-month requirement period back in front of a judge for them to take a decision—to extend the time limit, we hope, but at the very least for those people to complete their hours.

Andy Carter (Warrington South) (Con)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I sat as a magistrate in a breach court in Merseyside last week, hearing from the probation service on cases that it had not been possible to complete in a certain period of time, and the periods for delivery of that community payback were being extended. A point was made from the Opposition Benches that in Greater Manchester some payback cases were not being completed; of course where that is happening, the probation service can and does bring breach cases to court for magistrates to resentence or revoke the order.

Kit Malthouse

I salute my hon. Friend for doing his civic duty as a magistrate and he is right that these decisions are effectively for the independent judiciary and we are very limited in what we can do in terms of flexibility. My hon. Friend also rightly highlights that we regularly take those who fail to complete their community service requirement in front of judges for alternative sentencing or for reaffirmation of the sentence. I hope my hon. Friend made the right decision when sitting as a magistrate; I am sure he will have done.

In stark contrast, our brethren in Scotland decided, other than in certain cases, to write off 35% of the hours accumulated because of the covid-19 backlog. We in this part of the United Kingdom took a completely different decision, recognising the importance of sentencing both to victims and for rehabilitation and punitive purposes, so we are persisting. That does however mean that we have a backlog, but also that we had to develop some necessary solutions to make sure sentences were delivered despite social distancing regulations.

The independent working projects, which the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge mentioned, were introduced as a temporary delivery method in response to covid-19 restrictions and have enabled us to maximise delivery during the pandemic and as the probation service recovers from the impact of the pandemic. All the products created by offenders during these projects were for the benefit of the community or for local charities. They have included a range of robust and practical tasks such as producing hats and scarves for Ukrainian refugees and making face masks and personal protective equipment during the pandemic. I am sure the hon. Lady would not see those jobs as any less valuable than cleaning up a churchyard. Those projects are still being deployed in a limited and targeted way to support our recovery and will be phased out by the autumn.

We cannot shy away from the fact that the probation service and community payback were, like the rest of the country, deeply impacted by the pandemic. As a result we have built up a backlog of cases and we need to make sure those and future cases are all delivered within 12 months. We are boosting our delivery capacity and maximising our efficiency, and to do that we are investing an additional £93 million in community payback over the next three years.

Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab)

On probation, I attended the justice unions parliamentary group yesterday and subsequently had discussions with members of Napo, the probation officers’ union. They were at pains to point out the huge caseload many of their members are carrying and the difficulties that presents in terms of assessing cases and identifying those suitable for community service and community payback.

Kit Malthouse

The hon. Gentleman is right that the probation service has a heavy caseload, and that is why we are in the process of recruiting significant numbers of new probation officers; there were 1,500, I think, last year with more to come in the year ahead. We have been given significant investment by the Government to expand that capability and I am very aware of the caseload pressures across the country. It is therefore even more important that we should be given the flexibility to enable people to complete their sentences within the 12 months so as not to add to the burden by having to represent those cases in front of magistrates if the deadline is not met.

This significant investment will enable us to increase the delivery of community payback from the pre-covid benchmark of around 5 million hours a year to an unprecedented 8 million hours a year. These hours will be put to good use, with a particular focus on more outdoor projects that improve local areas, allow the public to see justice being done and build confidence in community sentences. We will be delivering more placements that restore pride in communities and add value to the work of local charities, building on the success of projects like one in south Yorkshire which saw offenders undertake 2,500 hours of work to transform a derelict building into a community centre for disadvantaged young people. The ramp-up will be facilitated by the recruitment of about 500 additional community payback staff who will bolster resources in every probation region. In January, we launched a national recruitment campaign and successful candidates are now commencing in post.

Alexander Stafford

I thank my right hon. Friend for mentioning south Yorkshire. He will know that, in March, a group of offenders came to Rother Valley under this scheme to help clear up Maltby. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need more of these schemes across Rother Valley and Yorkshire so that people can see the value of community payback, and that it is often better to have people out working in communities rather than serving shorter sentences in prison?

Kit Malthouse

I completely agree and am pleased to hear about the projects in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As he will know, I have urged all Members across the House to nominate schemes in their constituencies to be fulfilled and I need everybody’s help to get us to the target of 8 million hours. If we all pull together I hope we will make sure that not just my hon. Friend’s constituency but every part of the country is looking spick and span.

This investment is also enabling us to establish new national partnerships with major organisations and charities, which are also joining this coalition to get to 8 million hours, bringing forward high-quality local projects and initiatives to be replicated in communities across England and Wales. This includes our groundbreaking partnership with the Canal & River Trust, which sees offenders clearing litter, tidying towpaths and maintaining beauty spots along 2,000 miles of waterways. The work of offenders on community payback has delivered at Perry Barr in Birmingham, clearing a towpath near the site of this summer’s Commonwealth games, which is testament to the impact such projects can have on local places and people.

Stephanie Peacock

The Minister talked about the number of hours completed and has spoken a lot about the impact of the covid pandemic but the fall in the number of hours completed began in 2017; what is his answer to that?

Kit Malthouse

There was a decline between ’17-18 and ’18-19, but the hon. Lady will remember that the last three years of decline were covered by a lockdown; the lockdown began in the first quarter. And while there was a decline it is worth pointing out that there was also a very significant decline in the previous year because this is an activity which, as I have said, takes place in groups and we were not allowed to meet in groups. I know it is not often the case that the word fairness is used in our antagonistic form of democratic debate, but it would be unfair of Opposition parties to decry the work of the probation service and community payback supervisors and say that they should have been doing that group work during the pandemic.

Stephanie Peacock

Will the Minister give way?

Kit Malthouse

No, I want to make some progress. [Interruption.] I will give way in a moment, but I have just given way to the hon. Lady.

Stephanie Peacock rose—

Kit Malthouse

All right, go ahead.

Stephanie Peacock

It is disingenuous of the Minister to call me unfair. He clearly misheard my intervention; I was talking about 2017 but he is talking about 2020. Will he answer the question about 2017?

Kit Malthouse

As I have said, the baseline was at or around 5 million hours a year for quite a period. It fluctuated from year to year because of a number of factors, not just the delivery but also whether magistrates were giving community sentences in volume, which is not something we can influence. But I am more than happy to write to the hon. Lady with the hours as we see them. [Interruption.] I do not have them to hand, but I am more than happy to write to her about those hours. Look, the number fluctuated at about 5 million-odd, and we want to get it to 8 million. We have been given £93 million and 500 more supervisors have been recruited to get us there. I hope that Opposition Members will acknowledge that community payback was impacted, and had to be, by the pandemic. I know that the Labour party would not seek to make political advantage out of the impact of that awful disease when we had to bear in mind the safety of Ministry of Justice staff.

The Opposition have submitted their own proposals on improving local engagement and participation, which the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge referred to. However, I am afraid that her quango-tastic response to the issue is both unnecessary and, I am afraid, overcomplicated. In reality, community payback is already delivering for local communities, and the Government are only strengthening our engagement with key stakeholders. We recognise that local engagement is an integral part of the community payback offer, and the probation service already works closely with local authorities, police and crime commissioners and voluntary organisations to identify demanding placements that benefit communities. We also encourage members of the public to take part and nominate community payback projects in their areas via an easy-to-use form on the website. I urge you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make some nominations in your own constituency.

Furthermore, we have just introduced a new statutory duty via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 that requires the probation service to consult with key community stakeholders on the delivery of community payback in local areas. The duty will encourage greater collaboration with key partners such as PCCs and ensure that projects benefit communities and are responsive to local needs. The new statutory duty will cement and formalise existing relationships and create a consistent consultation process across England and Wales. That in turn will guarantee that local people have a say in the types of projects delivered in their areas, ensuring that our placements are responsive to the community’s needs.

The impact of such collaboration was evident during the community payback spring clean week, which was delivered in support of Keep Britain Tidy’s campaign in March. Between 25 March and 1 April, community payback teams were mobilised across England and Wales to deliver clean-up projects that visibly improved local areas and green spaces. More than 1,500 offenders collected 2,200 bags of litter, removed eyesore graffiti and cleared vegetation from public spaces. They delivered 10,000 hours of hard and productive work at about 300 projects. The initiative was widely supported by many hon. Members and PCCs who visited projects. The spring clean week is a superb example of the impact that meaningful and robust community payback can have on local areas.

Andrew Gwynne

I want to take the Minister back to the 8 million hours of community payback that he set out. We all support more hours of community payback, particularly on meaningful projects such as some of those that he has just listed. He skirted over the fundamental problem, though, which is that in June 2011, 185,265 community sentences were handed down—13% of all sentences—but by June 2021 that had fallen to 72,021, which was just 7% of all sentences. He said that there is little that he can do to make the courts award community sentences, but, if he is to make those 8 million hours a reality, he will have to do something to encourage them. What is he doing to ensure that more community sentences, where appropriate, are given out to perpetrators of crime?

Kit Malthouse

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the decision on a sentence is a matter for the magistrate or for the judge at the time. It is for them to decide what is a fitting punishment and, indeed, what is likely to deter the offender from reoffending. The fall that he pointed to will be entirely down to judicial discretion.

We can do a certain amount of marketing to judges and sentencers. In promoting my own pet project of alcohol abstinence and monitoring orders—the new sobriety tags that have been brought in—I have been attending judicial training courses to explain to sentencers how the sentence works and its effectiveness. In the end, a judge or magistrate wants to know that a sentence is effective, and if we can demonstrate through our work that it is effective, punitive and satisfies the public interest, and the local community sees value in that sentence, I am sure that magistrates and judges will step forward with much greater enthusiasm and help us to fulfil that 8 million hours target. The hon. Gentleman identifies the interesting point—no doubt it will be embarked on with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge)—of explaining to those who give out sentences the growing importance of this work across the whole of the country.

I hope that all hon. Members in the Chamber will become my Twitter followers. One of the great pleasures of my day is to tweet my “payback of the day”. Pretty much every day, I put out “before” and “after” pictures of a project taking place somewhere across the country showing the fantastic work that offenders have done. We seem to specialise in cemeteries—a lot of work is going into cleaning them and smartening them up. Some of the transformations have been extraordinary. I visited a project in Eastleigh, near my constituency, and what struck me was the value that the offenders themselves saw in the work. Local residents had been over to congratulate them, thank them and understand what they were doing—the offenders all wear high-vis that has “community payback” written the back—and the offenders felt a sense of pride. They had been working in a churchyard, making it look very smart and tidy, and in fact a couple of them said that they were interested in a career in landscape gardening as a result.

Across the House, we agree on the value of community payback. I hope it is agreed that the service suffered during the pandemic because of the nature of this group-based work, but that the staff at the probation service and the community payback supervisors were innovative in inventing solutions to help us deal with the backlog. Nevertheless, we all need to put our shoulder to the wheel to get us from 5 million hours to that target of 8 million hours, by which time I hope there will not be an area of the country that is not clean, scrubbed and free of graffiti and litter.

While I realise that the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge is trying to use the debate to confer some kind of political advantage, I know that she recognises—she is generally a fair-minded individual—that the staff were struggling during the pandemic, as were so many services. Now that her party has happily reversed its position, we share the view that the community payback is an incredibly valuable part of our criminal justice system, and I hope that we will all work together to promote it. I look forward to receiving a nomination from her for a scheme that she would like to see done in her constituency. Perhaps she and I could visit it together and congratulate the offenders on their work.

As for the hon. Lady’s overall claim that somehow the Conservatives have gone soft on crime and are no longer the party of crime and order, I gently remind her that she voted against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and its measures to put rapists and other serious offenders behind bars and to deal with a variety of other criminals. Until the Labour party becomes more action and less talk, I am afraid that it will not be able to aspire to the crown, which we currently proudly hold, of being the primary defender of law and order in this country.