The problem with crime statistics is that they can often be used to justify very different agendas. The figures thrown up by the Public Accounts Committee's latest report on Home Detention Curfew for convicted criminals (commonly known as "tagging") are a good case in point.
Some claim the figures discredit the Government's policy of releasing low-risk prisoners nearing the end of their sentence into the community under electronic surveillance. They point to the fact that more than 1,000 crimes, including five killings, have been committed by tagged prisoners since 1999. According to the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, this amounts to a "shocking disregard for public safety" on the grounds that these crimes would never have happened if the prisoners had not been released early.
Meanwhile, the Government says the figures support the policy of tagging, pointing to the statistic that less than 4 per cent of the 130,000 prisoners released reoffended while wearing tags. Home Office ministers argue that this actually compares very well with the 67 per cent reoffending rate for all prisoners released within two years.
It does seem, as the report concludes, that not enough information has been reaching prison governors, the people who make the decision to release prisoners with a tag, about the results of their past decisions. And there must, obviously, be a thorough consideration of public safety and a rigorous discussion of whether a particular prisoner's rehabilitation will be aided. But the principle of extending community rehabilitation, under supervision, for prisoners nearing the end of their sentences is entirely justified.
Of course it is true, as the Conservatives point out, that these 1,000 crimes would not have occurred had the prisoners remained behind bars. But this is a blinkered view. It is just as true to argue that many crimes committed by prisoners released through the normal channels would not have happened if greater efforts had been made to rehabilitate them. And the evidence strongly suggests that tagging is an effective method of rehabilitation.
Indeed tagging is one of the few sensible policies this Government has introduced in the sphere of criminal justice. At the weekend, the prison population reached a record 79,843 - a hair's breadth away from full capacity. This has prompted emergency measures from the Home Secretary, John Reid. On Monday it was announced that police cells will be cleared and foreign prisoners bribed to leave the country. Without tagging the situation would be even more desperate. The Government should tighten up the safeguards - but also expand the scheme.