David Gauke admits he was Tagged

Justice Secretary David Gauke was urged to follow the Scottish model of a presumption against handing out custodial sentences as he discussed scrapping jail terms of less than six months – and admitted he had been ankle-tagged.

The SNP’s Joanna Cherry said the move could cut the prison population by several thousand if it was introduced south of the border.

But Mr Gauke said his plan to ban short sentences was “not about reducing prison populations”, saying “the big prize to be gained” was in cutting reoffending.

He also agreed that the use of more sophisticated ankle tags could be used to shift more offenders onto community sentences rather than being put in jail.

Speaking during Justice Questions in the Commons, Ms Cherry said “a system that pushes offenders through a revolving door of short prison sentences simply doesn’t work”, saying that the Government and the Justice Committee “have recognised that the system in Scotland is working”.

She told MPs a recent report recommended the whole of the UK “follows Scotland’s approach of presumption against short sentences”, and asked the minister to commit to this.

Mr Gauke said it is already the case that custodial measures are something “that should only be pursued as a last resort”, but said his department is “seeing if we can go further than that”.

He added that he hopes to expand on his proposals “in the very near future”.

He was also asked about recent technological advances in ankle tags, which use GPS to monitor the exact movements of offenders, rather than just if they stray into or away from a designated area.

Conservative MP Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) said they were “a powerful tool for courts to punish offenders in the community while keeping victims safe as an alternative to short sentences”.

Mr Gauke said he “very much agreed”, and revealed he wore one of the tags to test their effectiveness, adding: “Thankfully I had not been up to no good.

“But it was demonstration of how accurate they could be and how effective these GPS tags could be and the considerable potential of reassuring the public of community sentences.”

HI-TECH PLAN TO TRACK OFFENDERS

Converse has learnt that hi-tech new tags with GPS technology could soon be used to monitor the movements of offenders serving community sentences, and even to check whether they have been drinking.

The ankle tags would allow courts in England and Wales to impose curfews and restrictions stopping offenders from visiting particular areas like football grounds or pubs.

The initiative is part of a Government move to stop community sentences being seen as a “soft option”.

Changes are also planned to make it easier for courts to strip criminals of the proceeds of crime even if they are of relatively low value – such as a wide-screen TV – in the same way they are already able to seize luxury items such as sports cars and yachts.

Prime Minister David Cameron is launching a consultation to be led by Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke on the measures, which are likely to be mentioned in the Queen’s Speech in May, with legislation to follow in the latter part of the coming session of Parliament.

Mr Cameron said that introducing a greater punitive element to community sentences will make it easier to persuade the public that they are a tough alternative to prison in appropriate cases.

The move will inevitably lead to suggestions that ministers are hoping to cut prison numbers by increasing the proportion of offenders given community sentences, though Downing Street aides insisted this was not the primary motive for the proposals.

Mr Cameron said: “For too long, community sentences have been seen as, and indeed have been, soft options.

“This Government wants to change this and make them a proper and robust punishment.

“Criminals given a community punishment shouldn’t just be able to enjoy life as it was before during their sentence.

“They should pay for their crimes and I am determined to see this happen.”

Most electronic tags currently in use in the UK have a simpler design, with a base station connected to a mains electricity supply in the offender’s home. If the tag is not within range of the base during working hours, the authorities are automatically alerted, but the tag cannot tell police where an offender has gone when he is not at home.

New-style tags with global positioning satellite (GPS) technology have been trialled in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, allowing law enforcement authorities to track the movements of tagged offenders and giving them the option of being alerted if they go into a particular housing estate, shopping centre or pub or if they leave their home area.

A different system, piloted in Glasgow, features a tiny needle inside the tag, which can repeatedly take blood samples from the wearer and alert the authorities if they show evidence of alcohol intake.

Justice Minister Nick Herbert said the most violent and disruptive drinkers would be given Sobriety Orders, based on a successful US trial. Offenders, monitored either through the tag or by regular breath tests at a police station, could face jail if they were found to have been drinking.

Mr Herbert said: “Alcohol-fuelled violence and criminality causes mayhem in our towns and city centres.

“These new sobriety orders will allow us to tackle this problem more effectively and demand that binge drinkers who commit crime sober up.”

Changes to the arrangements for seizing the assets of criminals like drug dealers would give courts the power to confiscate a wider range of ill-gotten gains.

Law enforcement agencies seized £161 million worth of assets from offenders across the UK in the year to April 2011 – the highest amount recovered in a single year since the introduction of key powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

But the bulk of such seizures involve high-value items, such as Ferrari sports cars, from major gangsters.

Ministers aim to change the law so that lower-level offenders could see the trappings of their crime-funded lifestyles – such as TVs and computers – confiscated.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “It’s strange that in their race to find more punitive measures the Prime Minister and Cabinet colleagues are ignoring the considerable success they have on their hands.

“Community sentences consistently outperform short jail terms and intensive supervision by police, probation and voluntary mentors are cutting crime. With public backing for community payback, why go for populist gimmicks?”

Mark Leech editor of Converse, the national prisoners newspaper said: “The fact is that all these gadgets will do is make private security firms more profitable – paid for by the public – without any discernible benefit in terms of reducing crime.”