On Tuesday in the House of Commons there was a discussion by MPs under the theme of Topical Questions – Justice and the person who was being approached by MPs was Robert Buckland who is the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. Early on in the session the MP for Hastings, Sally-Ann Hart asked the following question or perhaps she made it as a statement
Community sentencing must contain a punitive element, most likely unpaid hours. Rather than an offender working in a charity shop or suchlike, what are my right hon. and learned Friend’s plans for ensuring that offenders really do pay their debt to society by, for example, saving money for local communities and taxpayers through litter picking, and so on?
Clearly all of us including Sally-Ann Hart need to understand that volunteering is something a huge proportion of people throughout our nation do and of course although they often enjoy the work or activity, that they have chosen along with choosing when they do it. However the community sentencing takes away the choices of what to do and when to do it. Clearly that is very close to being punitive, which is described as “inflicting, involving, or aiming at punishment” and indeed most people would get very unhappy if they were forced to volunteer in an unknown context and if they were told when to do it. A different but equally valid example would be the way in which many of us would choose to get trained on subjects we consider important. As it happens, a few days ago, there was a debate about training MPs on the subject of unconscious bias which I wrote about here. It was reported that one Conservative MP had stated “I would rather gouge my eyes out with a blunt stick than sit through that Marxist snake oil crap” and in one sense this helps to explain how something that one person enjoys, will not be enjoyed by other people, particularly if they are being required to participate. However that is only touching on the punitive aspect of what Sally-Ann stated. She also referred to the impact on the rest of society
The other is the impact of most charities when it comes to assisting society and indeed reducing public costs in the form of a debt. Now it is certainly true that there are some charities that do not deliver any value to society in a way that many people would claim. The involvement in the charitable sector from think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs is clearly one element that has many questionable matters. Then there are other charities that provide health support to people that are able to pay for their health and are not part of the NHS. Then there are sports based that some people would argue are less helpful to us than some of the other charities. There are equally Arts based charities that some people might not feel they benefit from. There are many educational based charities such as Universities that may add a huge benefit to our nation but not in a way that is understood by some people such as MPs. We then have charities that the Government created by transferring their own activities and those from local Councils as a way of reducing the nations costs. However when it comes to most charities that have charitable shops we are into the real areas that benefit significant numbers of people. Clearly some charities that have shops do work overseas and so perhaps that is what Sally-Ann Hart is concerned about. However these are only a very small element and they are charities that in the main are doing a great job to improve our value as a nation.
To be fair I am only personally aware of one charity which doesn’t have a charity shop but which has benefited significantly from people doing community sentencing. This was Sussex FareShare and I recall several of the people who came to work for the charity about 15 years ago when I was involved with it. FareShare delivers food to a wide range of charites across Sussex including now in Hastings where Sally-Ann Hart is based as the MP. The food is used to enable people who are very poor and under serious threats from a range of situations to be able to eat. I recall a couple of people who came to work for the charity under conditions set out by probation because of prosecutions they had experienced due to laws that they had broken. After they had fulfilled the time they were obliged to serve to deal with the prosecution, both of the people carried on volunteering and indeed they may still be involved today for all I know. This was a much more postive impact than if they had ended up in prison and their lives had been made worse, and indeed the cost of their conditions was much less than even a few weeks in a prison, despite the cost of the probation service to oversee their voluntary work. Perhaps Sally-Ann Hart could visit FareShare and see for herself what it does and get a grasp of the benefits of such a service. In the meantime this was the response from her colleague Robert Buckland.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the important issue of unpaid work, because it is a way for offenders to make reparation to wider society for the damage that is caused by crime. As part of our White Paper plans, we will introduce a new statutory duty for important stakeholders, such as police and crime commissioners, to be consulted on the type of unpaid work projects in their area. I believe that that means we will see projects being delivered that are far more at the heart of the communities in which they live.
My own view is that if PCCs are persuaded to help work with the agencies that carry out the work that used to be done by probation, that some very positive aspects could take place. However to assume that the current or past work did not do a good job to be in the heart of our communities is very out of touch with what has taken place in many locations including in Sussex.