Penal System

Opposition Day — [18th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 5:16 pm on 24th July 2007.

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker 5:16 pm, 24th July 2007

I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice) 5:28 pm, 24th July 2007

I beg to move,

That this House
considers that the Government's management of the prison system has become a national disgrace;
believes that the Government by ignoring official projections of the prison population and failing to plan for sufficient capacity has allowed jails to become overcrowded, reconviction rates to rise and the Probation Service to become overstretched;
further considers that the Government's resort to releasing prisoners early, including violent offenders, without risk assessment or accommodation checks is wholly unacceptable;
notes that many of those released under the scheme have previously been refused release on Home Detention Curfew and that others have already re-offended when they should have been in custody;
is concerned that offenders are also being transferred early to open prisons from which they can and do abscond at any time and that over 4,000 offenders released early on electronic tags have re-offended, committing over 1,000 violent crimes;
further believes that the modest additional prison capacity announced by the Government will be insufficient;
and calls upon the Government to halt the End of Custody Licence scheme and take immediate steps to ensure adequate prison capacity, the proper treatment and rehabilitation of offenders, and the safety of the British public.

I am not surprised that the Government appear to have done their level best to minimise debate on this issue today. The first duty of any Government is to protect the public. Let us be clear about what that means. It means that if a Minister issues an instruction to release offenders early from prison, and those offenders go on to commit crimes, the public quite obviously have not been protected and Ministers have failed in their duty.

The early release of prisoners is "simply wrong"—not my words but those of the former Lord Chancellor, just weeks before he announced the scheme. So much for rebuilding trust in politics. Already, 2,000 prisoners have been released early on to the streets, equivalent to two prisons. They have been released without risk assessment and without accommodation checks, even though it is a requirement of the scheme that they have an address to go to. Nearly 1,400 of them have previously been refused release on home custody detention; apparently those offenders were unsuitable for release early with an electronic tag, but it is perfectly acceptable to release them on to the streets with no tag.

A fifth of the offenders released in the first week had committed crimes sufficiently serious that they were jailed for over a year. Three hundred and forty-four of them were violent offenders. The Prime Minister says that they had not committed serious violence, so apparently that makes their release acceptable. People who are jailed for violent assault or causing actual bodily harm are apparently entirely suitable to release from our prisons early. Well, it might be all right by the Government that more than 300 violent offenders have been tipped out of jail, but it is not all right by the public and it is not all right by us.

One hundred and forty-nine of those released had been in prison for burglary; 22 for robbery; more than 400 for theft; and 65 for drug offences. The Government do not even know what 32 of those released were imprisoned for in the first place. The former Prime Minister repeatedly said that the scheme would be temporary; the new Lord Chancellor says that it might be permanent. That is a measure of Ministers' grip on the prison system.

Now we know that at least six of the released prisoners committed crimes, including two offenders who carried out a robbery while on their way to see a probation officer. Their original crime, assaulting a police officer, was not considered serious enough, according to the Prime Minister, to merit an apology. Eighteen early release prisoners still remain unlawfully at large.

Our position is unequivocal: those offenders should never have been released early in the first place, still less with more than £200 in their back pockets. That was their reward for getting out of prison early, and it is why the National Association of Probation Officers says that offenders are queuing up to get on to the scheme.

When he announced the scheme on 19 June, the Minister said that

"release on licence is not the same as Executive release. Releasing people on licence means that their sentence continues."—[ Hansard, 19 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 1242.]

Even by this Government's standards, that is remarkable spin. How can an offender's sentence be continuing if he is let out of jail, free to commit other offences? As the Prison Officers Association said,

"The fact that they're not calling it executive release is just word games."

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas PPS (Mr Liam Byrne, Minister of State), Home Office

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not understand what release on licence means. It is a long-established concept, whereby for the duration of the sentence imposed by the court, the prisoner is subject to recall to prison if he commits a further offence. The concept is clear, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not appear to understand it.


I think Ian Lucas has failed to understand that release on licence is an early opportunity to reoffend and the majority of people would prefer that we did not offer criminals extra opportunities to do harm to society....

Submitted by Edward Morris Continue reading (and 1 more annotation)

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice)

How does the hon. Gentleman think that the 18 offenders who have not been tracked down will be recalled? As far as the public are concerned, those offenders are not continuing their sentence; they are free, out on the streets and able to commit further offences, which they could not otherwise have committed if they had been behind bars.

We all know why the Government are releasing prisoners earlier: the prisons are full. The reason they are full is that the Government, not least the Lord Chancellor, repeatedly ignored warnings that more capacity would be needed. As long ago as 1992, in his report on the Strangeways riot, Lord Woolf warned that the prison population would double from 44,000 to well above current levels by next year, 2008. In 2000, when the current Lord Chancellor was Home Secretary, his officials predicted that the prison population would be at current levels by this year. Two years later, the lowest Home Office projection for the prison population today was 5,000 above the current capacity. The Government were told that greater capacity was needed, and they simply ignored the projections. Their great claim is to have provided another 20,000 prison places. Well, let us examine that claim.

Only three new prisons in the past 10 years were commissioned by the Labour Government; the rest were commissioned by the previous Conservative Administration. In the year when the Government came to power, the number of new prison places was 4,716. By 2005, the number of new places had fallen to 940. During the current Lord Chancellor's watch, prison capacity building fell by 86 per cent. over three years. The Government also tell us that they are providing an additional 9,500 prison places by 2012, but on their own projections, that will not be enough. Total capacity will still be 4,000 places short of their medium projection for the prison population by that time, assuming that prisons will be full to the gunnels, with prisoners continuing to be doubled up. As Harry Fletcher of the National Association of Probation Officers said,

"They've had eight, nine years and really done nothing... There's been no substantial building programme and no provision for probation."

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

The hon. Gentleman prayed in aid Lord Woolf, but he should not forget that Lord Woolf also said that

"no solution will be really effective, apart from reducing prison population... building more prisons is not the solution, not least because it means that more and more resources are being sucked into the hugely expensive process of building prisons", instead of

"making effective non-prison sentences".

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice)

If we were able to rehabilitate offenders, we could reduce the prison population. We cannot rehabilitate them while prisons are so full, and I shall return to that point later.

The early release scheme can only be, in the words of the Prison Officers Association, a short-term fix. The Government have admitted that 25,000 offenders will be released early in the next year, but they will reduce the prison population by only 1,200.

At the current rate of incarceration, it is likely that prisons will fill up again and we will face a new crisis by the autumn. If the Government demur from that prediction, we would like to hear from them. As the Prison Officers Association has said, building new prisons

"should have been done years ago".

Last summer, in a BBC interview with Andrew Marr, the current Lord Chancellor said:

"I've never had a problem about building more prisons...I was one of the Home Secretaries who greatly increased the capacity of the prison service".

Clearly, that was nonsense, but he went on to say:

"I wish it were possible to deal with criminals outside prison, but most people who end up in prison go there because community punishments have failed. So it isn't a difficulty for me about getting people into prison and keeping them there until they are better reformed."

That was better. But then earlier this month there was an interesting front-page report in The Times, which stated:

"The Government will not be able to build its way out of the prison crisis, Jack Straw suggested yesterday. He indicated that the only way the pressure could be relieved was by sending fewer people to jail and using more non-custodial sentences...The Lord Chancellor...called for a 'national conversation' about the use of prison. He also spoke of the need to make community sentences more effective to build confidence and trust in non-custodial sentences."

A year ago the Lord Chancellor said that he wanted to lock people up and that community sentences did not work; now he is saying that he wants to send fewer people to jail, have more community sentences, and have a conversation. So what is his current view? Is he going to be Judge Dredd or Mary Poppins? If he wants to build confidence in community sentencing, he has a very long way to go. Under the home detention curfew scheme that he introduced in 1999, more than 4,000 prisoners who were released early have reoffended, committing more than 7,000 crimes. More than 1,000 of those were violent offences, including one murder, 56 woundings and more than 700 assaults. Earlier this month, "Panorama" revealed serious flaws in the tagging of offenders. The public do not want a conversation with him. They want to feel safe. They want to walk home from work in the knowledge that they will not be mugged by somebody who should have been safely behind bars. They certainly do not want to be told that the answer is to weaken the sentencing of dangerous offenders.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the other things that the public and the judiciary need to be confident about is that, when sentences are passed by a judge, those sentences will be served? The expectation of the court will be that the sentence will be served as it was passed and the danger of early release schemes is that those sentences are not in fact served. That in its turn will undermine the public's confidence in the judiciary.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. One of the worst effects of the early release scheme is that it undermines public confidence in sentencing, just as the Government undermined it in relation to their changes to determinate sentences, which mean that there is automatic early release after half the sentence is served—a proposal that we opposed.

Ten years ago, the present Lord Chancellor said that indeterminate sentences gave

"justice, above all for the victim, but also for the offender."—[ Hansard, 19 June 1996; Vol. 279, c. 902.]

Now he wants to review those sentences. Perhaps he should have a word with the Home Secretary about his plans. Only last Thursday, she was berating hon. Members for not supporting the sentences. The former Home Secretary, Mr. Blunkett is worried. In his column for The Sun he said:

"It's no time for a u-turn on crime...what has been happening since the fragmentation of the Home Office...?"

He said that the Home Secretary

"has no control...over the froth that's being talked about indeterminate sentences".

That is the problem with splitting the Home Office, which is no doubt why the current Secretary of State for Justice opposed the idea last year. One Department talks tough and the other lets prisoners out early.

The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside was right about another thing: the new Prime Minister shares the blame for the current crisis in our prisons. In his diaries, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside describes the 2004 spending review, in which the then Chancellor would agree to fund only two thirds of the additional prison places requested. The then Chancellor removed the Home Office from the current spending review and froze its budget. Clearly, in his judgment law and order was not a priority. That is why we have the catastrophe of overcrowded prisons. Some 17,000 prisoners are doubling up in cells—twice as many as when Labour came to power. More than 1,000 cells designed for two people are occupied by three. That means that nearly a quarter of the entire prison population is housed in cells designed for one fewer person. The price of such overcrowding is that the rehabilitation of offenders is made impossible. As the prison service annual report says:

"Crowding...dilutes the resource available for constructive activity. High throughput and frequent daily movement impact directly on regime delivery by diverting staff resources and making it more difficult to assess prisoners and allocate them to appropriate interventions."

The number of prison officers has risen at only half the rate of the increase in the prison population, and prisoners are being transferred early to open prisons. Last summer, the governor of Ford open prison in my constituency warned that the transfer of prisoners who should really be in category C conditions

"will mean almost inevitably that the abscond rate will go up."

She went on to say:

"Ministers have apparently been briefed to this effect and are taking this risk."

The chief inspector of prisons has warned that high-risk offenders are being transferred to open prisons, some without any proper risk assessment. Murderers are walking out of open prisons at will. In an overstretched probation service, some officers supervise up to 80 offenders and, as a result, reconviction rates have soared. Of the people discharged from prison, 65 per cent. reoffend within two years—up from 59 per cent. in 1998. Among young people, the recidivism rate is even higher. Reoffending accounts for more than half of all crime.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I note that the hon. Gentleman has referred to Ford open prison in his constituency, so will he support it being upgraded to category C?

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice)

The problem is that the prison governor made that proposal behind the backs of people in the local community. Uniquely, they have an agreement with the prison not to house more serious offenders locally. I think that the local community would be willing to have a higher category prison located in the area, but only if the debate is held openly with them. In my view, it was disgraceful of the governor to make that proposal at the same time as she was negotiating renewal of the agreement with the local authority. I think that the right hon. Gentleman should be careful before he asks other hon. Members about matters to do with their constituencies.

The Government's social exclusion unit has estimated the cost of reoffending to the taxpayer at more than £11 billion a year. It is essential that that depressing spiral is broken. Nearly one fifth of prisoners have been convicted of drugs offences, and drugs are rife in prisons. Ninety per cent. of prisoners have a significant mental health problem. Prison suicides have leaped this year, but we will never deal with such problems without adequate prison capacity.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Is not a significant part of the problem the fact that there are 8,000 foreign prisoners in British jails? The Government have not done nearly enough to ensure that they are repatriated to their country of origin, so that they can serve their full sentences in secure detention, at the expense of their own taxpayers.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice)

I agree with my hon. Friend, and one of the ironies of the current early release scheme is that it does not apply to foreign nationals. One would have thought an obvious way to deal with the overcrowding problem would be to remove foreign national prisoners more swiftly, perhaps before the end of their sentences. That would be preferable to releasing domestic prisoners and putting them out on the streets, where they are able to reoffend.

As I said, 90 per cent. of prisoners have a significant mental health problem, but we will never deal with that without adequate prison capacity. Not only have the Government missed their own pitifully low target to reduce overcrowding, but they appear to be complacent about the situation. The Prime Minister was barely briefed on the matter last week, and the Minister with responsibility for prisons, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Mr. Hanson, told "The Westminster Hour" on Sunday that

"in general terms, the Labour Government has got it right now."

What could he have meant by that? What does he think is "right" about the prisons being at bursting point? Last year, the Lord Chancellor said that he was proud of the Government's record on law and order in that respect. Is pride what he feels when he learns that prisoners whom he has released have committed robbery?

In the biography of the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside, an "adviser" famously remarks:

"God alone knows what Jack Straw did for four years..."

He added that the Home Office was "a giant mess." Actually, we know what he did. He talked tough on sentencing, but he failed to build prisons. He promised action on violent crime, but it soared by a third. He said that he would protect the public, but he let prisoners out on tags, and they committed the most serious offences. In spite of my belief in rehabilitation, when it comes to his record, I am afraid that the Lord Chancellor is a serial offender who has no chance of going straight.

The Lord Chancellor should have begun his new role with an urgent meeting with the Prime Minister to review capacity. He should have looked at the thousands of foreign nationals who remain in our prisons and asked why more are not being deported. He should have asked what happened to the prison ship Weare, which was bought by the Home Office for £3.7 million, and skilfully sold off last year for a rumoured £2 million. Instead, within days of taking office, he released hundreds of violent offenders on to the streets. The Government's management of the prison system has become nothing less than a national disgrace. They are failing prisoners, who cannot be rehabilitated in overcrowded conditions. They are failing the staff, who are being asked to do an almost impossible job. Above all, they are failing the public, whom the Government are putting at risk.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 5:45 pm, 24th July 2007

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

"welcomes the record of the Government which has since 1997 cut crime, reformed the penal system, invested in record prison places, created a legislative framework which provides tough and effective sentences, introduced risk assessment and offender management systems, introduced and seen ever increasing numbers of offenders complete accredited programmes, enabled record numbers of offenders to pay back to the community through unpaid work, ensured that offenders in the community who pose a risk to the public are recalled to custody, radically reformed the youth justice system and brought the prison and probation services together under the National Offender Management Service with a renewed focus on protecting the public and reducing re-offending."

I welcome this debate, and I am grateful to the Opposition for enabling it, because there is no more important priority for this Government—and, I hope, all Governments—than ensuring the safety of our citizens. I am proud of our achievements in that respect. Nick Herbert forgot to mention that over the past 10 years, crime has fallen by 35 per cent. There are record numbers of police, and the chances of being a victim of crime are the lowest for 25 years. We have provided 20,000 new prison places and will be building another 9,500. More offences and offenders than ever before—over 1.3 million in 2006—are being brought to justice. More of the most violent and dangerous offenders are being sent to jail for longer.

That record contrasts starkly with that of the Conservatives in their 18 years in government. They failed: in their 18 years in government, crime doubled, police numbers fell, and the number of people convicted plummeted by a third, with only one crime in 50 leading to a conviction. The party's complacency was insulting to the British people, who responded by evicting it from office. Ten years later, the Conservatives' approach is just as incoherent as it was back in 1997. They talked tough, but they failed to support many of the measures that we introduced to cut crime. They opposed tougher sentences for murder, and for sexual and violent offences. They opposed indeterminate sentences for those who commit serious sexual or violence offences. They opposed the new five-year minimum custodial sentences for unauthorised possession of firearms, and at first they dismissed our antisocial behaviour measures as gimmicks. For all their fancy words about more prison places, the Opposition have consistently voted against the taxation and public spending that would allow any new prisons to be built.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Of course I will give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman; indeed, I will refer to him in a moment, so bring him on.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

Will the former Home Secretary tell us precisely where the 20,000 additional places are that he claims have been built? Which prisons are they in? What new buildings are they in? Is it not true that the majority of those new places are simply the result of prisoners doubling up in single cells and trebling up in double cells?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am afraid that I cannot provide the hon. and learned Gentleman with all the information, but some of the places are in new prisons. Some are in additional units in existing prisons, and some are the result of doubling or trebling in prison cells, which is far better— [Interruption.] I thought that the Opposition, too, were in favour of making the best use of existing accommodation, which is what we have done. The number of rehabilitation courses that prisoners have been able to take has vastly increased since the Conservative Administration.

Later, we will come on to the details of the pledges made by the hon. and learned Gentleman, who continues to imply what the shadow Home Secretary has made explicit. The shadow Home Secretary has offered to "spend what it takes" to build new prisons. He admits that he has no idea how much that is, but we can give him all the calculations that he needs.

At the same time, the Conservatives have made wild pledges to cut—not to increase—£21 billion of public spending. They disagree with one another about what their policy should be. The shadow Home Secretary is dreaming up uncosted plans for new prisons, while the hon. and learned Gentleman who adorns the Front Bench is saying that prison is not the answer and is calling for a review of sentencing. The hon. and learned Gentleman says that he is on a massive "voyage of discovery", but that voyage is clearly taking place on a mystical vessel crowded out with Conservative Front Benchers, all heading for some fantasy island, with just one problem—they have no captain, no map, no compass and they cannot agree on whether to go forward, back, left or right.

There is, I will concede, one thing on which the Conservatives do agree—they want new prisons, but they do not want them in their own back yard. James Brokenshire, for example, a shadow Home Affairs Minister, says that he wants more prisons, as long as they are not in his parliamentary constituency, Hornchurch, where a plan for a prison in Rainham is, apparently, "wholly inappropriate". We have a little indication that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs is in the same position. Even when there is a proposal to increase the category of his open prison at Ford from D to C—yes, to relieve some overcrowding, by making it more secure—he says that he is wholly opposed to that as well.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice)

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied with the management of a prison from which, on average, over the past two years two offenders a week, including murderers, have absconded?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman must know, first, that if the prisons are open prisons, which I assume he supports, there will be some absconds. If his policy is for no open prisons, let him say so. The number of absconds from open prisons has dropped dramatically from more than 1,000 in 1996-97, when there was a Government whom he supported, to nearly half that number, 556, in the last year for which we have figures. Secondly, if his concern is about absconds from an open prison, why on earth is he opposing proposals— [ Interruption. ] He says build a fence, but his proposals are to do exactly that.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I say straight away to the right hon. Gentleman that over the years I have had a great deal of respect for the way in which he has approached these matters, particularly when he was Home Secretary. The Opposition are not always right, and the Government are not always right. There is much to be said for moving forward in a consensual way sometimes. One of the Government's experiments with night courts at Bow street, for example, was something of a disaster and had to be abandoned. Occasionally, things go wrong.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

If I may return the compliment without ruining a fine career ahead of him, I have always had great respect for the hon. Gentleman. We have always had sensible and respectful conversations about these matters. It is true of all Administrations that some of their proposals, which they think will work—especially in the area of criminal justice, where they are inevitably dealing with the most unpredictable, chaotic members of the community—will not work. That does not necessarily mean that they should not try them. I personally thought that night and evening courts would work, but that turned out not to be the case. That has worked in other countries, but not here.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs made much of the fact that rates of opening new places had not kept pace with some estimates of likely demand for places. Forecasting in this area, I readily accept, is not an exact science, but before the Opposition start pulling the mote from our eye, they ought to examine the beam in their own. The record of the previous Administration was dire. Shortly before I became Home Secretary, more than 1,000 police cells had been used to cope with overcrowding on a considerable scale throughout the early and mid-1990s.

Yes, I did ask the Prison Service to double and in some cases to treble accommodation because I judged, and so did the Prison Service, that that was a far better way of accommodating the increase in the prison population than by the use of police cells. We have had to use police cells again. I regret that, and I am working very hard to reduce that.

However, it was at the end of the 1980s, 10 years into the then Conservative Administration, that the biggest crisis ever hit the service. It was so bad that the then Home Secretary, now the noble Lord Hurd of Westwell, had to come to the House—I remember sitting on the Opposition Benches and listening to the statement—to announce not that over a period 1,500 to 2,000 places would be saved, but that at a stroke 3,500 places would be saved by extending remission of sentences of less than 12 months from one third to one half of sentence length. The hon. Gentleman says that we have done that, but I remind him that that was supposed to be a temporary measure. It was made permanent in the Criminal Justice Act 1991.

The end of custody licence is necessary to cope with the current prison numbers, and it is proportionate to the problem. It involves the early release of prisoners who are serving less than four years just 18 days— [ Interruption. ]

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman. A chorus of sedentary comments across the House is not helping progress in a strictly time-limited debate.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Indeed, I blame Mr. Garnier, not the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle.

The end of custody licence involves the early release of prisoners serving less than four years 18 days—just two and a half weeks—before the date when they would have been released in any event. In other words, eligible prisoners due in normal circumstances to come out today, 24 July, would, under the scheme, have been released on 6 July. I understand the point about the reassurance of the public, so it is important to put this into context.

Overall, average determinate sentence lengths for adults discharged from prison have increased by more than two months since 1995, and notwithstanding home detention curfew, the average time spent in prison has also increased from 14.7 months in 1995 to 16.8 months in 2005. That obviously does not take account of the effect of ECL, but ECL cannot have any significant effect on those numbers. The hon. Gentleman is dining out on the fact that prisoners are being released early, which they have been under all systems of sentencing.

Although it now appears that the Opposition are about to change their mind, as I will explain, I would advise them to continue with a system under which, if prisoners earn good behaviour and have to be reintroduced to the community, they are released before their full term. The proportion of the nominal sentence actually served has marginally increased, not decreased, from 46 per cent. to 48 per cent. over the period from 1995 to 2005.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the arrangements for ECL exclude many categories, including those who are serious, violent and dangerous offenders. But because ECL involves such a relatively short period of prior release, it is done by assessment against set criteria and not individual risk assessments of the kind that necessarily apply to HDC and parole, where the prior release times are much longer, and in the case of either, the offences may be more serious. As I explained, there are a number of exclusions from ECL, including those who have no release address, or who have previously broken temporary release arrangements or escaped from custody.

The logical consequence of the hon. Gentleman's argument was that no one should ever be released from prison unless we could be certain that they would not commit a further offence. The dismal truth is that quite a large number of prisoners, however long they are kept, are likely to commit a further offence. Would that it were otherwise. One of the reasons I am so keen on working to improve the effectiveness of community sentences and also public understanding, but above all the effectiveness, is so that there is less likelihood of those offenders reoffending, but some will. I strongly advise the hon. Gentleman against going into the next election saying that once someone is admitted to prison, they are never going to be released, or that the Conservatives will abandon any idea of early release for good behaviour, or that no offender will ever commit a further offence.

A luxury of opposition, as Conservative Members so ably demonstrate, is that they do not need to come up with the answers. The job of Government is to come up with answers. Although we understand that an effective penal policy must be based on more than the bricks and mortar of prisons, we have also recognised the need for additional places, which is why in the past 10 years we have provided additional prison places at twice the rate as under the previous Administration. Sorry, but that is a fact. It took the Conservatives 18 years to produce just under 20,000 places. It has taken us 10. In other words, they added an average of 1,000 places a year, whereas we have added an average of 2,000 places a year. [ Interruption. ] There is no dubiety about that—it is the truth.

In addition, my right hon. Friend the previous Home Secretary announced a further building programme to deliver 8,000 new prison places by 2012. On top of that, a further 1,500 places were announced by the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend Mr. Hanson, on 19 June. Work has started on 500 of those extra places, the first of which will come into use in January next year.

I welcome this debate, not least because I hope that, as the hon. Gentleman said, we can agree that it is time to have a sensible national debate about sentencing and the use of prison in England and Wales. Lord Hurd of Westwell sought to tackle that when he was Home Secretary back in 1987. Would that we had heard similar balanced remarks from the hon. Gentleman, who wishes to succeed him in due course. Lord Hurd told this House of

"the need to strike a balance between tough sentences for those who pose a threat to society and lesser sentences for those who pose no such threat. Hence the emphasis which we have placed on tough and challenging alternatives to custody".—[ Hansard, 16 July 1987; Vol. 119, c. 1296.]

That sentiment was expressed as the Tory Administration were seeking again to address the pressure of prison numbers. They had first sought to do so in 1984 by increasing parole in order to double the overall rate of release. I was reminded of Lord Hurd's wise words when reading the detailed comments of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, who favours a review of sentencing. He says that there are

"far too many people in prison for them humanely and safely to be kept in prison".

I agree with that, although he has gone on to say that prison does not work, which I question. Yet his bosses take a completely different view. "Build more prisons," they say, without any details of how to pay for them.

Let me come on to some of the key issues that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs must face if he is going to be serious about having a prison policy. He told the Littlehampton Gazette—of which, I hope he tells its editor, I have become an assiduous reader—that

"offenders should serve their sentence in full—period."

[ Interruption. ] He says yes. Fine—if that is the policy of the Conservative party, I invite him to consider its effect. The effect of prisoners serving their sentence—that is, their nominal sentence—in full, period, would be to add 60,000 places to the prison population over a period of at least 10 years, on top of the other projections. If he questions that figure, I am happy to make available independent statisticians in my Department or the Office for National Statistics, or he can go to the Library if he prefers. He has committed himself to 60,000 extra places, and Mr. Cameron has said something similar:

"It's ridiculous...The first step would be to scrap Tony Blair's parole reforms, which now allow 30,000 criminals a year to be freed on licence before they've even completed half their sentence."

An extra 60,000 prison places would cost £6.6 billion to build and £2.2 billion a year to run.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Of course. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will let me know whether the Conservatives' policy is that prisoners

"should serve their sentences in full—period."

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

Let me return the Secretary of State to what this debate is about—the Government's policy, which is a national disgrace. A moment ago, he quickly elided the concept of ECL and the 18-day early release system. Most ECL prisoners serve relatively short terms, not life sentences, and it is in the last 18 days of a short sentence that most of the resettlement work is done, so that the probation service, social services, the housing people and the jobcentre people can come into prisons and interview those about to be released to ensure that they can then move out into the wider world and pick up where they left off. Is there not an argument, which the former Home Secretary should get his head around, that by releasing these people early, without allowing them the opportunity to be resettled, he is merely building up a reoffending problem that is foreseeable and has been predicted?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I do not accept that. We have provided additional resources to the probation service of, I think, £300,000, and we will continue to do so. Of course I regret any reoffending by any prisoner. However, we are talking about releasing people two and a half weeks early: anybody would think that we were talking about murderers sentenced for a minimum tariff of 20 years being let out after a year. The hon. and learned Gentleman must face the fact that there is always a risk when prisoners are released. We have increased the amount of resources to the probation service by more than 70 per cent. in real terms, above what the previous Conservative Administration provided, because I recognised as Home Secretary, as did my successors, the need to have end-to-end management of sentences. We also extended the period of licence to the end of the sentence, not the three-quarters point. He is absolutely right—we are talking about short-sentence prisoners who would be let out in any event, and always in no more than two and a half weeks' time.

The oddest thing of all is the complaint that we should not give these prisoners any money, which has been part of the criticism levelled at us by the Conservatives. They are not eligible for benefit, but we are told, time and again, that we should release them on to the streets without any money at all—without the £200. That would be facile in the extreme, as well as being inhumane.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

It certainly is not. I listened with great care to the hon. and learned Gentleman, who faffed around. He did not say whether he was supporting the Leader of Opposition's policy, which is to end parole, or his senior Front-Bench spokesman's policy, which is to ensure that prisoners serve their nominal sentence in full—period.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice)

While the Secretary of State is talking about sentencing policy, could he tell me what his proposed review of indeterminate sentencing will mean? Could he assure me that the Home Secretary agrees with him that there is a problem in the operation of indeterminate sentences given that on Thursday she berated the Opposition—wrongly, as a matter of fact—for not supporting them?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

There are two different matters here—one is the concept of indeterminate sentences, which has much merit, and the other is the practice of indeterminate sentences. All sentence structures must be kept under review. The previous Administration did so when they were being wise. As I said to Mr. Malins, we are dealing with an area where prisoners' behaviour is unpredictable. We are also dealing with the response to the messages that we send out as regards 30,000 sentences. Although one can predict some of that behaviour, one cannot predict it all.

I cannot tell the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs the results of the review, as it is currently under way. It would be very curious to invite somebody—

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

If the hon. Gentleman wants to know what it is about, I suggest that he examine the terms of reference of the Carter review, which has already been established. I was going to deal with this at the end of my speech, but I will do it now. As part of my Sunday reading, I read The Sunday Telegraph, which is usually extremely informative on further splits in the Conservative party and other difficulties that the Conservatives have faced, including in Ealing, Southall and Sedgefield. I do not wish to intrude on private grief, but the public interest requires it. The right hon. Member for Witney—currently in Rwanda—said that he had asked the hon. Gentleman to establish a review of prison policy. I think that it has only just been established, and I am not asking him what the results are. I was astonished that the Leader of the Opposition was saying that they were going to have a review, and thought that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would follow it. He has only just caught up. We spend millions of pounds on researchers in Conservative central office—we have trebled the amount of money that they receive—but they are still doing poor work. If they had Googled "prisons review", they could have found out that on 10 May my predecessor announced that Lord Carter of Coles was to conduct a review about the balance between the supply of and demand for prison places, which will of course include the practice of indeterminate sentences. Moreover, the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is shortly to be renamed the Justice Committee, is conducting a review of sentences and other matters, on which I will be giving evidence later this evening.

We have to have a rational, sensible debate about the totality of the prison estate and how we use other methods. I understand that it is very difficult because, on one level, for all of our constituents, the demand is that where a serious offence is committed, so-and-so should be jailed. I understand that—we have all faced it—and I do not apologise for the fact that I presided over an increase of 20,000 prison places, because I thought that it was necessary.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman touched upon a very important aspect of the debate, which is the reduction of reoffending rates, and the attempt to smooth the transition back into normal society for those leaving prison. At the moment, reoffending rates for some categories, particularly young offenders serving very short sentences, are as high as 92 per cent. What measures does the Secretary of State think could be taken to reduce that figure, and will he expand on the point about special provision being made to help ex-prisoners get into the workplace, find housing and make a meaningful contribution to society?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

There is a real problem with young, persistent serious offenders, many of whom have drifted into criminal behaviour at a very early age. They often come from chaotic, dysfunctional families or—even worse from their point of view—are looked-after children, typically in local authority care. There are no easy answers that allow us to break this cycle. Some of those young people have to be locked up for the protection of the public, and sometimes for their own protection, to give them an opportunity to be educated. We have expanded the custodial estate for such prisoners.

One of the reasons my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister established the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and a joint responsibility in respect of the Youth Justice Board for the Secretary of State in that Department and myself, which I greatly welcome, was to look more widely at how we divert some of those young people from offending before they get to that point, and how we might support them better if and when they do offend.

I know that time is pressing, so I want to finish by saying this. We must have a sensible debate, and I welcome the contribution that some Opposition Members have made. Conservative Front Benchers have to make up their mind about this matter. We could, if we wanted to, carry on increasing the population, not just to the levels we propose—it will have to be increased—but to the levels to which it has been increased in the United States. The US now has 2 million people in prison. Its incarceration rate is five times that of the UK, and we have one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe. Such an increase would mean not 80,000 prisoners but 400,000, and not 140 prisons, but 700. The public may want that. I do not think that they do—I think that they want to go a different way—and if they do not, all of us have to participate in this debate about the sensible level of risk and the sensible balance between putting people in prison and doing our best to take them out of crime outside prison.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Defence)

The Secretary of State has talked a lot about the state of prisons and overcrowding. Does he agree that one easy win might be to remove prison cells from the extraordinary smoking provisions that his Government introduced in the Health Act 2006? Those provisions appeared to be endorsed by his Cabinet colleagues as recently as 26 June, when the then Secretary of State for Health made the incredible assertion that a prison cell is akin to a prisoner's own home.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Yes, you can.

When I went to Belmarsh recently, two things struck me. Belmarsh is not just a high security prison, but a local prison for that part of south-east London. One of the things that struck me was that far fewer prisoners were addicted to drugs in prison, which is reflected by the numbers. The number of prisoners testing positive for drugs has dropped from about 30 per cent. to about 9 per cent., and the regimes in prison are much better than they ever were. [ Interruption. ] It happens to be true, I say to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough.

The second thing I kept thinking was that something was not in the air. There was an absence, or a great reduction, in tobacco smoke, which usually fills prisons. My view is that prisoners should be able to smoke in prison cells, if they want to—

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

So should MPs. What about us?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman says MPs should too.

I am unapologetic about the fact that alongside the doubling and trebling of prison cells, I also arranged for televisions to be introduced into prison cells, apart from for prisoners on the basic regime—those who had broken prison rules or were just being introduced to prison.

In conclusion, I agree with many of those in the Opposition, but I do not accept the rather rabid approach taken by the new shadow Justice Minister, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs. That is not true of the hon. and learned Gentleman, who is actually far to the left of many of us. He would actually let people out; I am in the middle, between the two of them. I welcome the opportunity to set out our approach to penal policy. It is a challenging area that requires hard choices and difficult decisions. We take our responsibilities seriously. This Government's record of cutting crime, increasing police numbers and increasing prison places shows that we can assure the public that their safety is our paramount concern.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 6:16 pm, 24th July 2007

I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue. I agree that there is a need for a national conversation about it, and I hope that it is slightly better informed and more valuable than is sometimes the case. The motion is extremely timely because there is a crisis in our prison system. It is one that has developed not in the past few weeks, but in the past few years. Many of us recall the situation under the previous Conservative Administration. I remember, as a chairman of a police authority, having to find a large number of police cells to help out with long-term prisoners, and those cells were no longer available for their primary purpose. That was a very difficult circumstance.

I tend to agree that the position during the past few weeks with regard to early release, and the system's lack of ability to cope with the risk assessment of some of those released, has been shambolic, and we should say so. The Government have not shown themselves in the best light through their inability to perform their basic duties appropriately.

What I cannot agree with or accept is the simplistic demand for more and more prison capacity. It does not make sense. It is not a logical response to the situation in the country. When I see Conservative Members blithely saying that they would like to double the prison population, and spend an extra £3.4 billion on building prisons—an extra penny on income tax—

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice)

The extra penny on income tax was your idea.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Our plan was a penny on income tax to go towards education, but the hon. Gentleman's party wants a penny on income tax to build more prisons, and support a policy of failure. Is that the right way? It does not seem appropriate to me at all. The Leader of the Opposition seems to be all over the place on the issue, too. Sometimes he wants to hug a hoodie, and other times, he wants—as he told the Evening Standard—to convict and lock up more and more criminals. I presume it depends on whether one catches him on a flip or a flop. The former is a flip, and the latter a flop.

The Government have a problem with their attitude, and they know it perfectly well. It was encapsulated by the response from the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Mr. Hanson at Justice questions the other day. He recognised the fact that we cannot simply carry on increasing the prison population, but went on to say:

"I want to see the figure reduced, but we are building more prison places because, inexorably, there will be people who need to be in prison."—[ Hansard, 18 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 266.]

He sees the increase in the number of people in prison as inexorable, while at the same time, he wants a reduction. I do not think that it is inexorable because we need to find ways of making our penal policy more effective. Let us be clear that only one aspect of prison is effective; it works in only way: protecting the public from the activities of those who are locked up.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that not only the length of a prison sentence is important, but the person's fitness to lead a productive and law-abiding life at the point of release—whenever that happens? There should be opportunities not simply to rehabilitate prisoners' attitudes to life but to educate and train them so that they are ready for employment.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Lady is right and that is the substance of what I shall say shortly.

Prison works in the sense that it stops offenders knocking people over the head or robbing their homes while they are inside. It does not act as a deterrent—that is obvious from the statistics—and it does not reduce reoffending. We have an extraordinary rate of recidivism. In rehabilitation terms, we have a process that does not work. The Liberal Democrats have called for some time for an evidence-based approach, whereby we support the processes that work and reject those that do not in reducing crime and offending.

The public do not want more people in prison; they want less crime on our streets. We therefore need urgently to stabilise and then reduce the prison population.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Defence)

I accept a great deal of the hon. Gentleman's comments. However, does he accept that one cannot possibly have effective rehabilitation as long as there is overcrowding? The current prison population means that there must be more prison cells. Surely he understands that.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Precisely so—there cannot be effective rehabilitation and overcrowding.

However, let us consider the people who are in prison. Are they the right people? I listened carefully to the speech of Nick Herbert and read the motion carefully. First, it does not deal properly with those with mental illness in our prison estate. The hon. Gentleman mentioned in passing that 90 per cent. of prisoners have some symptoms of mental illness, but simply went on to say that that means building more prisons. It does not. It means that we should have more treatment centres that are capable of dealing with mental illness. When one in 10 of our prisoners are functionally psychotic and in ordinary cells, it does not do them, the Prison Service or society any good.

I hoped that the new Lord Chancellor would say today that he had reviewed the position on building more prisons and reached the sensible conclusion that we need to build more secure mental health provision in the Prison Service instead. That is the logical way in which to move people who should not be in prison out of the prison estate. That would deal with their needs and those of society. A sensible approach would be to use the money that the right hon. Gentleman has earmarked for prison expansion to increase the places in secure mental health provision. We have only 1,150 places in Ashworth, Broadmoor and Rampton. That is hugely insufficient to meet the needs of the current prison population. Why do we not tackle that scarcity rather than simply building more run-of-the-mill prison cells?

Photo of Dan Norris Dan Norris PPS (Rt Hon David Miliband, Secretary of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Does the hon. Gentleman consider sex offenders to have mental health problems? How would he tackle the high levels of reoffending among that group of people? They pose a genuine concern to the public and my understanding of Liberal Democrat policy is that proposals about tackling those serious and worrying offenders are unclear.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman uses the term "sex offender", but it covers a wide spectrum of offences. I believe that there are those who need active support through a mental health programme and that it is wrong that they are not given it. However, there is a wider spectrum of those who are simply violent criminals who express their violence in sexual offences. I am not sure whether they fall into the same category—I think that the hon. Gentleman probably agrees.

Additional secure mental health provision is necessary. Secondly, we need secure drug treatment centres. Again, there is a huge lack. Ten thousand prisoners are in prison for drugs offences. We know that three quarters of all male prisoners took illegal drugs in the 12 months before their imprisonment. Yet our secure drug treatment centres have only 2,500 places. Again, I had hoped that, instead of building more bog-standard prisons, we would deal with the problem, which clogs up the system. People cannot be sent for the drug treatments that the courts prescribe through legislation that the Lord Chancellor introduced when he was Home Secretary. Those orders cannot be complied with because insufficient drug treatment places are available.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the small reduction in illegal drugs that are detected in prisons, drugs remain a major problem in many of our prisons. Many offenders go to prison without a drugs problem but leave with one. Drugs are a major motor of reoffending as they are of crime generally. They are the major motor of acquisitive crime.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, when he says that 2,500 drug rehabilitation places are available, he knows that, because of Government underfunding, not nearly all of them are occupied. As well as more beds, we need more funding. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that residential rehabilitation beds are cheaper than prison?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman is right. They are cheaper—and not only by a bit. I am informed that a residential rehabilitation bed costs £674.10 a week—the hon. Gentleman holds up his excellent pamphlet on the subject, which he was good enough to send me. That is £6,000 less per annum than the equivalent prison place. The case therefore makes economic as well as social policy sense.

My third point takes me back to the comments of Angela Watkinson. We hugely underestimate the need and capacity for training and education in prison. If many prisoners share one common characteristic it is that they underperform in their scholastic achievement. Their reading age is generally 50 per cent. below what is expected of an 11-year-old; numeracy is 66 per cent. below, and writing is 80 per cent. below. All those who consider penal policy carefully agree that a major factor in the propensity for criminality is finding it difficult to cope with normal social behaviour because of that lack of attainment.

We should not only massively increase the scope for education—we cannot do that in an overcrowded system—but we must make much of the work in prisons compulsory. We should expand it so that it is much more focused on things that are socially useful. We should also pay prisoners properly for their work in prison, and let it contribute to compensation funds so that we do something for our victims, too.

I hope that the Lord Chancellor has had the opportunity to read the submission from Citizens Advice

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Indeed, Lord High Chancellor. I ask him to examine the submission from Citizens Advice, which makes sensible suggestions about what could be provided in prison, not only to help prisoners manage their affairs on entry to prison and make sure that their homes and loved ones are properly cared for, but to prepare them effectively for release so that they do not suffer an immediate crisis on leaving prison, which, without proper support, results in reoffending.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

I want to illustrate my hon. Friend's earlier point, by reminding him that the inspector of prisons has twice reported that Acklington prison in my constituency is unable to fulfil its designated training role because of overcrowding. She has run out of words to describe the situation, which she regards as unsatisfactory.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

That is not an uncommon situation, sadly. Those who work in the prison education service would give a despondent and discouraging view of what they can now provide and of what they could provide, given appropriate support.

The fourth element in reducing the prison population is doing something much more effective with what are often disparagingly called community sentences—I prefer to call them public service sentences. We have to make them much more appropriate to the crimes that are committed and much more related to the communities in which they are committed.

That point was made by James Duddridge during his ten-minute Bill speech, which immediately preceded this debate. His Bill hit the nail on the head. He talked about the effect of minor vandalism and graffiti, and about how restorative justice procedures could make people not only put right the damage that they have done within the community, but be seen to be making amends. Also, all the evidence supports the view that they would be far less likely to offend as a result of that than they would be after a short prison sentence. All the evidence shows that sentences of less than three months have very little deterrent effect—in fact, quite the reverse. They tend to encourage a sense of criminality and an identification with criminality among those who might otherwise be diverted from more serious offences. That is something on which we need to concentrate.

My final point about reducing the numbers in the estate is about the position of children. We have 2,200 people under 18 in prison. That is not the right place for children. I accept that there are young offenders who make the lives of people in communities a misery. We need to do something effective to stop them reoffending and, particularly if they are persistent offenders of a certain type, to remove them from the community, so that they can no longer inflict damage upon it. However, I do not think that prison is the right way of doing that. We have to have alternative and more appropriate ways of detaining young people.

I return to restorative justice processes, which are shown to be particularly effective with young people. We have a community justice panel in Chard in Somerset, where there is a 5 per cent. reoffending rate. Let us compare that with the rates for prison and consider which has the most effective outcome.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us why it is that as soon somebody under 18 enters the justice system they cease to be a young person or a youth and they become a child?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am very happy to call the person a child, a youth or whatever the hon. Gentleman chooses. I just note the fact that they are under 18. Therefore, for many of us they are children and they need to be treated as children, even if they are extremely badly behaved children who need particular measures to put them straight. They are still not beyond redemption, although some might take the view that they are.

I want to finish now, because this is a short debate. If those various measures were put in place, we could see a substantial and sustained reduction in the prison population. We need more research on the subject of early release. I am aware that the Lord Chancellor recently received correspondence from a professor of criminology saying precisely that. He has a point: we do not have a proper research base for the different options available for early release. That needs to be put into effect through controlled trials.

We need more active management of the prison estate. We seem to accept that some of the hugely inefficient and inappropriate Victorian prisons in the centres of cities are still the right way of keeping prisoners, even if they happen to be in the wrong places, to be very expensive and to occupy extremely expensive pieces of land that could be sold for redevelopment. I would like much more active management of the prison estate, so that we can get the most appropriate accommodation in the right places and get rid of some of the large Victorian buildings that have outlived their usefulness as prisons.

My final point touches on what I think the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs was trying to say earlier—there was a little crossfire between the two Front Benches—about what the length of time served in a sentence means. I have long advocated honesty in sentencing and I will continue to do so. It is long overdue and is important to the public attitude towards the criminal justice system. That does not mean that the Executive should have no discretion in the system, but it does mean that judges should construct sentences so that there is a clear term that is going to be served and the public understand that. There should also be an additional term that will be served if there is not appropriate behaviour on the part of the prisoner. Instead of having x minus y, we would have x plus y. If the system made it clear that a prison sentence of a certain duration meant precisely that, the public would have much more confidence in our system and would believe that justice was being done. At the moment I do not believe that they have any such confidence, and the events of the past few weeks have served to undermine that confidence still further.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Had there been a 10-minute limit placed on Back-Bench speeches, this would be the point at which I would be reminding the House of it. However, it would be very helpful if hon. Members who are now about to be called behaved as though there were one.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East 6:36 pm, 24th July 2007

I am grateful for that helpful advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and as you know, I always try to follow advice from the Chair. It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Heath. He presented his argument in a characteristically thoughtful and good-natured way, but to my mounting horror I found that I agreed with one of his points. I am beginning to assess whether to think through my arguments further.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice—or, as he prefers to be known, Lord High Chancellor—delivered a spirited rendition of the great achievements of the past 10 years. Since he has already done that I will take them as read and not repeat them. Despite all the achievements that he referred to, however, crime, antisocial behaviour and the fear of crime still have a terrible effect on many of our communities, and disproportionately so on the most vulnerable.

We need to place more emphasis on two or three key areas. We need to consider increasing the number of offences that are brought to justice—in other words, to do something about the offences that are committed, but whose perpetrators never end up inside a courtroom, for one reason or another. We need to look at reducing offending, as several hon. Members have already said, and we need to continue the search for better ways of tackling antisocial behaviour.

Just stating those aims does not result in any change. They cover difficult and challenging areas, but I welcome the fact that the Government are rightly addressing them; my right hon. Friend emphasised all three of them in his speech, albeit in perhaps slightly different terms. If we are to make real progress, it is essential that we focus our interventions on what has been shown to be most effective—this is where I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. Basically, that means using interventions that have a strong evidence base. It also means talking to offenders, who have direct experience of the criminal justice system.

For a period, I served under my right hon. Friend—perhaps in an undistinguished way—as a junior Minister in the Home Office. I learnt a great deal from talking to young people, mostly men, in young offender institutions. Surprisingly perhaps, they are quite honest. They will talk about things—what they have been involved in, their family background and so on—that they would not be so frank about in other walks of life. There is a great deal to be learnt from that. We can also learn a great deal from their experience. One of the conclusions that I reached was that they had spent far too long in an offending career before anyone even bothered to bring them into a courtroom. We should also be open to adapting the techniques pioneered in other countries to the circumstances that we find in Britain, and to measuring the effectiveness of such experiments against existing practice.

Much attention has been paid to offenders once they get into the criminal justice system—that is what today's debate is about—and many commentators have observed that the system struggles because it is attempting to address wider social problems that are beyond the remit of the prison service. This means that we need to make earlier interventions to address problematic behaviour before it reaches the criminal justice system. Where such interventions work, there are obvious benefits. They reduce the incidence of antisocial behaviour, and there is less pressure on custodial sentences. A recent report from the King's college centre for crime and justice studies stated that

"a growing number of studies show that extended time spent in the company of other problematic young people has a negative influence on an individual's development and their likelihood of staying out of trouble".

True though that might be, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that custodial sentences are still a useful and necessary option. At the very least, those in custody are not at liberty to continue offending.

So what early interventions should we explore? We know that many young offenders have more unstable lives, and that as they get beyond school age they are more likely to be unemployed and benefit dependent in one way or another. We should consider giving greater access to facilities that help to tackle this as early as possible. Sure Start schemes, for example, start at the very beginning of childhood to give people a better start in life. In Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, there are so-called large schools, in which a range of services for young people and their carers are available. We need to look more closely at such schemes and initiatives.

There are also examples of successful initiatives that introduce more structure into previously chaotic lives. One good example is the advanced skills academy in Liverpool, a military-style project run by ex-military personnel. The academy is designed for young people who are either excluded from school or unlikely to benefit from a conventional education. It offers a structured day and includes activities such as army drill and fitness sessions. It is a relatively new project, and having visited it, I believe that it is a good way to give disaffected young people pride in themselves and to put some structure into their lives.

On a national scale, Skill Force, which was established by the MOD, does a similar job. The Skill Force project that operates in All Saints school in my constituency offers young people positive role models from a military background. The young people find it easy to trust and respect those role models, and that can mean a great deal to otherwise alienated young people. I am working with Lieutenant-Colonel Tony Hollingsworth of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment and the local education authority in Knowsley to adapt these military approaches as part of the package available for 14 to 19-year-olds. I should add that, if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice has a spare £50,000 in his budget, this project would be able to make good use of it. I hope to have an opportunity to talk to him about that.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am very interested in that project. My hon. Friend Mr. Hendrick tells me that a similar project in Preston is having similar success. I can make no promises about a spare £50,000—we do not have a spare £50,000—but I will look carefully at any proposition that my right hon. Friend puts forward and do my best to be helpful.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend.

A number of the available interventions offer great benefits. There are many different people with a lot of complex needs, and if we can tailor a range of options and interventions to suit all those different needs, we will have a greater chance of success. As I mentioned earlier, it is essential that we ascertain how effective these interventions are, regardless of the point at which they take place in an offender's career. We need to be able to measure their effectiveness, and to conduct studies of how one intervention compares with another. I believe that there is a lot to be gained from that kind of study.

Time prevents me from saying much more on this subject, but I believe that the reason we have a problem with the number of people in prison today, the number of places available and the costs involved is that we do not pay enough attention at an early stage to how patterns of offending can be prevented before they even start. The kind of interventions that I have described offer some ways forward, but there are many other ideas that are worthy of consideration. I hope that my right hon. Friend will listen hard to the large number of people who have ideas on this subject.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth 6:46 pm, 24th July 2007

When we have a debate about the NHS, mention is always made of the hard work of nurses. When we debate law and order, mention is usually made of the work of police officers. When we are discussing defence, people always talk about the bravery of our armed forces, and quite rightly so. It is interesting, however, that when we talk about prisons, we never seem to remember the important work done by prison officers. They carry out their work often at great risk to themselves. I believe that seven prison officers are assaulted every day, and those are not minor assaults but serious ones. I hope that the Lord Chancellor will mention those people when he sums up later.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

The right hon. Gentleman was not that generous in giving way to me earlier, if I dare say that to a man held in such esteem. May I just say this to him? Prison officers are not allowed to go on strike at the moment, and I believe that that is right. However, if we are going to prevent them from striking by using the full might of the law, we must recognise their contribution, through financial means. I hope that he will listen, as I do, to Colin Moses, a man whose political views are very far from my own but who exudes a great deal of common sense.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I apologise for the fact that I was not able to give way to him earlier. I am usually pretty accommodating. May I also say that that was an omission from my speech, and I am grateful to be able to add to the record my tribute to prison officers, to probation officers and to the civilian staff in prisons?

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I thank the right hon. Gentleman.

The present system of sentencing is an absolute shambles. About the only subject on which I agreed with Mr. Heath was the need for transparency in sentencing. There has been talk today of letting prisoners out of jail 18 days early, but the reality is that virtually all prisoners are let out early, usually months or even years before the sentence that they have been given by a judge has been completed. Someone sentenced to one year in prison is often out on a tag after only three months. A two-year sentence will often mean just seven and a half months in prison, and a four-year sentence, which is usually handed out for serious crimes such as armed robbery or even rape, will often result in the offender spending only one year and seven and a half months or so in prison.

As for life sentences, the term is a joke. Some research that I did last year showed that, as of April 2006, more than 50 people who had been sentenced to life imprisonment since 2000 had already been let out, including a rapist who had been let out after just under a year. Our sentencing structure is a complete and utter disgrace. It is nothing more than a confidence trick designed to make the public think that they are a whole lot safer than they are, and that sentences are a lot longer than they are.

I listened with some interest to the Lord Chancellor earlier. It appeared that he and my colleagues on the Front Bench accept the importance of prison and the need to ensure that people spend longer in prison than is currently the case. The same cannot be said for the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, however, who trotted out all the usual arguments put forward by the anti-prison lobby for allowing offenders to run amok on the streets.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the costs involved. If I cannot say anything else in my allotted time today, I want to get this across: prison is actually very cheap indeed. He mentioned a figure of about £36,000 per annum for keeping someone in prison. The Government say that it is about £32,000 a year. In actual fact, we are not talking about category A prisoners here. Everyone—even the Liberal Democrats—accepts that category A prisoners need to be in prison, and they are the most expensive to house. What we are talking about is category B, C and D prisoners, and the actual cost of keeping them in prison is well under £30,000 a year; indeed, I believe it is about £25,000. From that gross figure to the taxpayer, however, one has to remember that three quarters of people entering a prison estate are on various forms of benefits when they do so. In order to get the true net cost to the taxpayer, we have to deduct from that £25,000 the money that they would have been receiving on benefit outside prison. That brings the net cost to the taxpayer to well under £20,000 a year.

We then need to take into account the cost of leaving those people outside prison. The Carter report, to which the Lord Chancellor referred, makes it clear—on page 15, I believe—that most crime in this country is carried out by 100,000 people, of whom only 15,000 are in prison at any given time. It also makes it clear that if we doubled the current prison population from around 80,000 to 160,000, which I think would be the optimum amount, crime in this country would halve. The costs of crime were estimated by the Home Office in 2000 at £60 billion a year, and I have subsequently seen estimates of up to £90 billion a year. That is the total cost to society of the crimes committed in a year.

If we doubled the prison population and spent not £3 billion but £6 billion to house 160,000 people, taking out the 85,000 recidivist offenders, we would actually make a net saving according to the Government's own figures—yes, on the Government's own figures— [Interruption.] If Mr. Flello does not agree with what is in the Carter report, I will give way to him. As I was saying, the Government's own figures suggest that we could make a saving of tens of billions of pounds a year by putting persistent offenders in prison.

Of course, when confronted with the cost argument, all these anti-prison people such as the Liberal Democrats suddenly want to change the subject and they start talking about the rehabilitation rates, as did the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. It is certainly true that about 60 per cent. of people coming out after a short prison sentence will reoffend, but what the hon. Gentleman does not know, or does not want to know, is that people serving longer prison sentences are much less likely to reoffend. For those serving one to four years, the reoffending rate is 50 per cent.; for those serving four to 10 years, the reoffending rate within two years is 33 per cent.—and that does not include lifers.

What that demonstrates is that, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, there is no point in putting people in prison for a short time, but there is every reason to put people in for a longer time. Many people entering the prison estate, by the time they have been assessed and then put there, face only a few months of incarceration, so prison officers make life as comfortable as they can for them and leave them to it. What we should be doing is keeping hold of people for at least one to two years and ensuring that they have proper access to the vocational qualifications and the drug-related and anger management courses that they need.

There are two prisons in my constituency. One is a high-security sex offenders prison and the other is an open prison. By the way, a propos of nothing, it is the open prisons that cause the problems, because those are the ones that people walk out of. The sex offenders prison, despite the people who are in there, runs very good vocational courses. It can do that because the prisoners are in there for long enough. That is what we should be offering young offenders and prisoners in the B and C estates. We often cannot do that, because they are simply not in prison for long enough.

On of the greatest problems with prison, apart from the fact that people are completely biased against it, is the fact that we do not do enough to support the prison officers who work in the prison estates. Those who come to see me often complain that although they have access to items such as the retractable baton and gas in adult prisons, they do not have access to them in some young offenders prisons.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred earlier to young offenders as "children"—an emotive word. Let me tell him that in my work as an occasional special constable, the first person I arrested was a 16-year-old carrying two handguns—and he had a third one back at his house. In my view, that sort of person is a very serious offender, and I hope he was locked up for it—although I never quite found out what happened. According to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, that offender is an innocent little child who should be left to his own devices. The reality is that we will never tackle crime in this country unless we recognise the importance of putting a certain number of people in prison and keeping them there for long enough to change their behaviour.

The first thing we should do is to stop all forms of early release. That applies to the 18-day scheme in place at the moment—although frankly, it is small beer in comparison with what else is going on—or any other schemes, including tagging and automatic early release. All those need to stop, so that the public can be assured that when a judge hands out a sentence, it will be served in full.

Next, we should ensure that all those who go to prison are kept there long enough to get some form of vocational qualification, and to get off the drugs and alcohol that have so often brought them there in the first place. We need to raise the status of prison officers and stop thinking about them in terms of the documentaries and so-called "docu-films" such as "Scum", which presented the work of prison officers wrongly. The vast majority of prison officers, like the vast majority of police officers, nurses, doctors and other public servants, do an excellent job to very high standards.

If we did all that, we might just have a chance. Unfortunately, we are likely to carry on in the same way. We might get the prison population up to about 90,000, but the length of sentences will not be long enough to deter people from a life of crime, and we will continue to listen to the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Reform Trust—and, unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats, who do not seem to recognise that there are some people who are simply not fit to walk the streets of this country.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking 6:56 pm, 24th July 2007

I begin by declaring an interest as a Crown court recorder and a district judge who has to deal with some of these problems daily. The motion refers to

"the proper treatment and rehabilitation of offenders" and that is the main aspect on which I want to concentrate briefly this evening. I wish to focus particularly on education, sport and drug rehabilitation for younger offenders under 21.

I would like to start with two anecdotes. First, about eight or 10 years ago, I talked to a young offender at a Cheltenham remand institution and I asked him what he was doing in there. He told me that he was there because he had been disqualified from driving for the third time and was given a three-month sentence. I asked him about his criminal record, but there was nothing else on it. I then asked him why he got disqualified and he told me that he was driving without a licence and without insurance and they kept catching him. I asked whether he had ever had an accident and he said, "No, of course not. I am a great driver and I have never had an accident". I asked him why on earth he could not get a licence, for goodness' sake—"Because I cannot pass the theory test because I cannot read and write. That is it". That was a perfectly good young man, yet he was given a three-month sentence.

Let us move now to the magistrates court, where I sit as a district judge, and reflect on another young man. Today he stands in the dock; yesterday he walked into a supermarket and walked out, quite unashamedly with a whole lot of razor blades, which he was going to sell to make the money to get his drugs. There he is in the dock; he looks about 60; he is shaking and scratching his arm; he can barely hold his head up. I ask him to confirm his age—20. There is another ruined life. He began life in a dysfunctional family on a bad council estate; he was on solvents at 11, cannabis at 12; he gained no qualifications, no job, nothing. He got into serious drugs and there he goes.

It is worth talking a little about what we can do for our young offenders when they are in custody. Can we make a better fist of it? We would all agree that education is very important indeed. We know what young men are like; we were all young men. I look around the Chamber, and every colleague here this evening was once a young man—

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

Perhaps one still is. We all know what we went through.

I acquired some statistics recently and they trouble me. I asked the Government—I do not blame any particular Government as Governments of all persuasions share this problem—about the average hours during week days spent in cells by young offenders at young offenders institutions. In other words, how long were these people under 21 locked up in their cells? At Deerbolt, 17 hours; Reading, 17.1 hours; Aylesbury, 16 hours; Brinsford, 16 hours. What the hell is going on? Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What is going on when we lock our young people up for 16 or 17 hours a day. The average across all young offender institutions is 15 hours a day locked up. We are not talking about an old lag of 50 or 60. We are talking about a young man of 18 or 19, locked up for 15 hours a day on average. That is not good enough.

What are we doing about educating our young men in these establishments? Going back to my man who could not pass his driving test because he could not pass the theory test, why are we not making him read and write? Why are we not giving him some hope when he comes out? I checked a year or so ago the average number of hours spent per week on education by young men in each of our young offender institutions. In Glen Parva, it was 6.4 hours per week. What is going on? In Portland it was 7.4 hours per week, in Reading eight hours per week, and in Rochester nine hours per week. Nine, eight, seven or six hours a week is just not good enough. It is time that we realised that in the House.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point, but are those figures so low because those offenders will not go out and access the facilities available to them, or is that all that is on offer?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I do not know the answer to that. I just point out the fact that it is a national disgrace. I suspect that some facilities are not taken up, but it is nevertheless a national disgrace.

Thinking of myself as a young man, I checked how many hours a week are spent on sport—team sport, physical sport, something to get the energy levels going, something that binds people together, gives them standards of discipline and behaving properly. It is absolutely laughable how much time is spent on sport: one hour, two hours, a bit of PE here and there. There is no sign of team sports such as rugby and football. We need to focus on that.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way when he is pressed for time. I could not agree more with the emphasis that he is placing on such activities. Does he share my complete bemusement as to why, given the importance of that agenda, the Government have dropped purposeful activity of a modest 24 hours a week in prison as a key performance indicator, a target that was met only once in eight years?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I agree. It is such a shame.

There we are: those people are locked up for most of the day, with virtually no sport, and very little education. It is a miracle that not everyone who comes out reoffends the next day and reoffends more. Lest I be thought to be a softie, I am not a softie because I can pass a tough sentence when I need to, but I am trying to be constructive, too.

As for drugs, that is a subject worth days of debate. Mr. Heath and I have debated those issues before. He was right: drugs are available in many of these young offender institutions. Youngsters go in and they cannot help themselves. That young defendant at the south London court was out of control with drugs. It is cheaper to put him through a drug residential rehabilitation centre than it is to lock him away for three months or six months, saying "See how it goes." I will tell hon. Members how it goes: it goes very badly. We have to have some cross-party thinking—some thinking from hon. Members on both sides of the House—about what we can do constructively for all our prisoners, not just our young offenders. The record of the past 10, 20 or 30 years is not one of which we can be proud.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood 7:03 pm, 24th July 2007

I am conscious of the fact that Front Benchers wish to speak. I wish to add one small point to the debate and to take up the point made by my hon. Friend Nick Herbert. He pointed out that 50 per cent. of crime comes from reoffending. The evidence shows clearly that some basic things need to be provided to support people to turn away from that path. One is some accommodation to go to; another is some family support to tap into; and the third is a job and some prospect of meaningful employment.

I recommend to the Minister that he takes some time to look at an initiative in my constituency introduced by Blue Sky. That initiative was set up by Mick May in partnership with Groundwork locally and it is supported by Hillingdon council. It is the only company in the country that insists on someone having a criminal record before entering its employment. It employs ex-cons basically to clean up and to green Hillingdon and to look after the parks. They are highly visible, making a contribution to the community. If the Minister were to talk to the people on that scheme, he would recognise how crucial to their lives those six months at Blue Sky are. One young man travels two hours a day to take part because he sees it as his lifeline at that crucial moment after he exited prison.

Innovative voluntary projects such as that are making a huge difference, but the Government and the Prison Service, and the culture of "Not invented here" seem to be so resistant. We have to open our minds.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice) 7:04 pm, 24th July 2007

I thank my hon. Friends and other right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I think that the Secretary of State would agree that that was probably not the best of his speeches, but I do not want to abuse him too much in his absence. He has apologised for the fact that he cannot be here for the winding-up speeches because he has to give evidence to the Select Committee that is chaired by Mr. Beith.

Like my hon. Friend Mr. Malins, I want to confess to being a Crown court recorder and to having to deal with the sort of feeble people who appear before the courts week in, week out—feeble intellectually, socially and in terms of mental and physical health—on that great conveyor belt of people who come before district judges, recorders and pretty well every other member of the judiciary who have to deal with criminal defendants in that jurisdiction. What both my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend Mr. Hurd, who spoke cogently, if briefly, have said is key. We will never reduce reoffending until we get a better product, if I can use that hideous expression, coming out of our custodial establishments, be they young offender institutions, or adult prisons, and until we get people who are off drugs, can read, can write, are physically healthy and motivated, so that they can lead sensible and constructive lives.

The Conservative party's review of this area of debate will be led by my hon. Friend Nick Herbert. One of the many things that it will think hard about is incarceration because that is an important and central part of any criminal justice policy. I hope that that pleases my hon. Friend David T.C. Davies. It will also ensure that we do not simply incarcerate, but do something with the people whom we incarcerate when they are in prisons, young offender institutions or secure training units, so that when they come out—most people who are sent into custody are released at some stage; only about 1 or 2 per cent. of those who are sent into custody never come out again—they can go to the jobcentre, read what is on offer and get a job, and they can stagger out into the streets healthy rather than looking for the next fix.

At the moment, other than those people who are released on ECL, as it is called nowadays, I think that most prisoners get demob money of about £45 to £50. Far too many of them go straight to the nearest railway cutting and buy the next fix, and around they go again. It will not do. It is a waste of everyone's money. It is not an absence of Conservative thinking to say, "Let us think rather more carefully about what we do in prison with prisoners, just as we want to think about what we do outside prison to prevent offending and reoffending."

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

I will be brief. I have been much impressed by the achievements of some of the community restorative justice schemes in Northern Ireland. Is that something that we could have a look at?

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

Yes. The Secretary of State thought it amusing to chide me for having admitted to Mary Ann Sieghart in an article that she wrote in The Times nearly 18 months ago, when I was appointed by the Leader of the Opposition to shadow the prisons portfolio, that I was on a voyage of discovery. The one thing about being on a voyage of discovery is that one looks, learns and sees and one gains from the experience of looking and learning. Rather than arrogantly saying that we know everything, those of us on a voyage of discovery allow ourselves to be influenced by the people we have met and by what we have seen on that voyage. Part of that voyage of discovery has taken me to 25 custodial institutions, adult prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales. That is probably rather more—I am subject to correction—than the present Lord Chancellor visited when he was Home Secretary and started the fiasco that we are now having to sort out. It is true that the Minister has already been to one or two prisons. [Interruption.] He says that he has been to eight in eight weeks; that is very good, but he ought to go to many more to see the evidence of the failure of his Government's policies, and they should then come up with some better ones.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth that we tend to forget about the prison officers who have to work and live in very difficult circumstances day in and day out. Let me give an example: 18 months ago a wing of Norwich prison had to be decanted because inmates were living in their own sewage and officers were having to work in it. That is a disgusting state of affairs, and it was presided over by this Government thanks to their overcrowding policy. Because of overcrowding and the Government's incompetent management of our prison system, that disgusting wing has had to be refilled with prisoners and officers. I have some sympathy for the prisoners, who have been sent to prison because of their misdemeanours, but I have a huge amount of sympathy for the prison officers working in both private and public prisons who have to endure such unattractive circumstances in their working lives.

Mr. Howarth was right to stress the importance of early intervention. Many of the problems we face, such as the current overcrowding in our prison estate, arise because people are allowed to slip through the net at far too young an age. That might have happened because of family breakdown, drugs or drink; but whatever the cause is, the Government have failed to get a grip on it, and I encourage them to follow the right hon. Gentleman's advice on intervention.

Mr. Heath and my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack mentioned restorative justice. It is hugely valuable, but only in a limited number of cases; it works well only where there is the right defendant and the right victim and both of them agree that it is the right process to go through. If it does not work well, it goes badly wrong, but I have sometimes seen it work extremely well—in Wandsworth and in Cardiff, for instance—and it is of huge value to the criminal justice system.

Sadly, I have little time in which to deliver what should be a half-hour speech, but I shall endeavour to persuade the Government that our motion is worthy of support. On 12 July, the new Secretary of State for Justice unburdened himself to the Murdoch press by calling for a national debate on the prison overcrowding crisis. He said that he wanted to send fewer people to prison. Some of us will remember the Secretary of State as the last Home Secretary but three and the man who was in charge of prisons and criminal justice policy from 1997 to 2001—half the period that this Government have been in office—but anyone would think from what he said that he considers the mess that he and his colleagues have created to be a totally surprising state of affairs.

The Government's policy then and now is to be seen as being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. In order to demonstrate that, they have created 3,000 additional criminal offences, introduced 65 criminal justice statutes and decreed that more people should be sent to prison, and for longer. However, they have failed to understand that that will result in the prisons filling up. If they had planned sensibly, they would have ensured that there was sufficient capacity in the prisons to accommodate the additional people being sent there as a result of public policy.

Overcrowded prisons are the rock on which this Government's criminal justice policy has foundered. If we have overcrowded prisons, we can achieve nothing with prisoners. If we can achieve nothing with prisoners because the prison estate is overcrowded, we will not reduce reoffending but we will increase the danger to the public. My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth wants to reduce reoffending to protect the public—our electors and taxpayers. The Government must get their head around the simple equation that overcrowding equals sclerosis and ineffective rehabilitation of offenders. This is not about being soft; it is about being competent—it is about using money wisely, and ensuring that the citizens of our country can, as my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs said, walk out of their houses or come home from their jobs without being hit on the head by some demented drug addict who wants their purse or wallet.

As has been said in the debate, a huge proportion of those who commit crimes are under the influence of drugs. In the main, it is addicts who commit crimes, not criminals who become drug addicts. What my hon. Friend the Member for Woking said on this matter was right: until the Government deal with that fact, they will be putting the cart before the horse.

The Government make a further mistake. They assume that when they say that they have built 20,000 new prison places since 1997, the public believe that it is true. That is not true. They have increased the number of prisoners by more than 20,000, and they have sought to reduce that in a panic-driven way through the ECL scheme, which will over the course of the next year lead to an increase of 25,000 in the number of people being pushed out of prison early and produce a net reduction in the prison population of only 1,250.

Mary Riddell noted this weekend in The Observer that despite ECL, the prison population would increase by 500 a week. If that is competent management of our prison system, I am a banana—and I am not talking about Robert Peel. The Government have not produced 20,000 additional spaces, as they claim. As my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs said, they have merely doubled-up single cells, trebled-up double cells and created a continuing and growing mess. It is a mess of their own making, and I wish I had longer to speak on it. It is not only a national disgrace, but criminally reckless.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 7:17 pm, 24th July 2007

I thank Members for the tone in which they have conducted the debate.

Mr. Garnier has just admitted that he might be a banana. I am sure that my hon. Friend Dan Norris will back me up in that there are certainly some banana splits on the Opposition Benches today as there is a difference in policy approach between the hon. and learned Gentleman and Mr. Malins and other Opposition Members who have made different points.

I do not duck the fact that there are serious issues that need to be tackled in respect of the prison population, or that we face challenges in preventing reoffending and ensuring that our citizens get what they deserve: a crime-free society in which they can live safely in their homes and communities. I could go on about the fact that there is 35 per cent. less crime in our society now than there was when the Conservative party was in office, but that would not be a constructive way to approach the debate.

There is common ground on some of the challenges we face. Mr. Heath, the hon. and learned Gentleman and the hon. Member for Woking agree that we need to slow the growth in the prison population, and that is clearly true. There are 79,500 people in prison, and according to Government forecasts—which are due to be revised in October—that figure might rise to between 102,000 and 104,000 by 2012. We have planned some 9,500 new prison places—real ones—and for new prisons, extensions to prisons and units to be built over the next five years, but it is clear that a gap remains between the number of new places and the forecasted rise in the prison population. We have two options. As David T.C. Davies said, we can raise even further the number of prison places. David Davis would happily support that, and I suspect that Nick Herbert would also support it. However, I do not think that the hon. and learned Gentleman or the hon. Member for Woking would support that principle.

We need to look at how we manage prison population issues for the future. We are clear that we need to build extra prison places to meet present need, but we also need—as I have said to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome in correspondence and discussions on the matter—to try to reduce the growth in the prison population.

There is further common ground on the need for early intervention. My right hon. Friend Mr. Howarth made a thoughtful speech on that point, as did the hon. Member for Woking. We need to reduce reoffending and make prisons a place where learned skills and employability—not only in prison, but on the outside—become a reality. Mr. Hurd touched on that issue and I concur with the points that he made.

Whatever we do, we need to ensure that we reduce crime, and that is also common ground. Every drop in crime means fewer of my constituents—and every other hon. Member's constituents—suffering the burden of crime. We need to tackle the issue of clarity in sentencing and we need to consider the impact of sentencing policy on the prison population.

It has not been mentioned today, but we need to consider penal policy as it affects women. I will shortly consider the report by Baroness Corston, and I will give a response to it in the autumn. I will consider how we can reduce the number of women in prison, because a prison sentence affects not only the person imprisoned, but the families, the community and the people with whom they live, work and share lives, and it is clear that there are too many women in prison at present.

We are agreed that we need to reduce reoffending, protect the public and plan for the future. If I may make a minor political point, it has been evident today that there is a difference of approach between the hon. Member for Monmouth, who, I remind the House, urged that 160,000 people should be put in prison, at a cost that even Mr. Osborne would not—

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

Perhaps the Minister did not hear the argument. Page 15 of the Carter report clearly states that if one put in prison the 85,000 recidivist offenders who are out on the streets, the crime rate would halve. If the crime rate halved, the net saving to the state would be between £30 billion and £45 billion a year. Therefore, building more prisons is one of the best bargains that the taxpayer could have.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I do not know which Carter report the hon. Gentleman is reading, but the Carter report to which I refer has not yet been written or published by Lord Carter. We have given him terms of reference, which he is considering, but the report will be brought back to the House and Ministers in the autumn.

The Government have a clear strategy to build more prison places, to prevent reoffending, to make community sentences a reality, and to consider how we tackle the problems of drugs, housing and employability both outside and inside prison. However, with due respect to Conservative Members, there appears to be a clear split between those, such as the hon. and learned Gentleman, who wish to see a focus on drug treatment, employability and the causes of crime, including improvements in literacy and housing provision, and those such as the hon. Gentleman, who said today that he wants to double the prison population, and the right hon. Gentleman, who wants to see more prisons built, whatever it takes. But the hon. Member for Tatton is not willing to commit resources even to the 9,500 places that I have promised.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

I know that the Minister is in full flow, but I do not wish him to continue to mislead himself, because it is embarrassing for him. The split that he is trying to create will be no truer simply because he repeats a canard. There is no split between Conservative Front Benchers about the need to have capacity into which to put the prisoners whom his Government will insist on putting into prison in industrial numbers. If one cannot produce the capacity, one cannot run a proper prison system.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I will reflect on what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said about there being no splits between Conservative Front Benchers. I beg to differ, but I will not detain the House with the arguments today. I shall simply point out that the hon. Member for Tatton has not committed to a single penny of resources to meet the extra prison building programme or for the ambitious targets that the hon. and learned Gentleman sets for preventing reoffending. That is an issue that he needs to address, because we will return to it before the election in terms of resources to meet the needs of our prison population.

Hon. Members will be aware that Lord Carter has established clear terms of reference for the review of prisons and will report before the end of this year. We are considering value for money in the prison system, the efficiency of public sector prisons, the potential for further cost renewal of the prison estate, the impact of recommendations on the prison estate in terms of criminal justice policy, and the sentencing framework.

We need to undertake work on the prevention of reoffending. The figures for the past year show that more than 19,800 offenders have successfully completed offending programmes and 55,500 offenders have completed unpaid work. Many offenders have started and completed drug rehabilitation requirements, with more than 14,000 starts and 6,000 completions last year. The highest rates ever of enforcement have also been reached.

I am happy to look at what we do on reoffending. Indeed, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood mentioned the Blue Sky project. I will happily come and see that project in his constituency, because we need to learn lessons about what works. We have a target of a 5 per cent. reduction in reoffending and the Labour Government have exceeded that target by 6.9 per cent. We will increase the target to 10 per cent. in the very near future. We need to do more, but—I repeat—that requires resources, which my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Prime Minister and I are willing to commit, but which the Opposition are not willing to commit.

Other valid and real issues were raised in the debate, including early intervention, and the effect of imprisonment for public protection sentences on the prison population. There are 2,500 IPP prisoners and the number is rising. We are reviewing that issue and we need to learn the lessons of how to manage that population in the prison system in a positive way. The issue of foreign national prisoners has been mentioned. There are 8,000 foreign national prisoners in jails in England and Wales, and we need to look at what we do with the top five countries represented to try to make some progress on those issues.

The issue of mental health was raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, and we need to look at that. It also requires resources and working with the NHS to tackle problems in the community and in prison. I am proud of the fact that the Prison Service and the police are co-operating to improve facilities in hospital and drug treatment, alcohol treatment and drug treatment orders.

We also need to consider the black and ethnic minority prison population, which is disproportionately high. We need to consider the issue of recalls to prison, with more than 5,000 prisoners being recalled. What can we do to ensure that recalled individuals are identified earlier and that intervention occurs to prevent that recall? We need to consider the issues of remand in prison and bail hostels. We are putting in place 1,000 new bail hostel places over the next six months at a significant cost to the taxpayer—money that the Conservative party has, in the past, opposed. We also need to consider sentencing policy and several other issues.

Restorative justice was mentioned by Sir Patrick Cormack. As a Northern Ireland Minister, I had a great deal to do with restorative justice schemes. They have a role and we need to evaluate them. Evaluations in England and Wales are ongoing, but there is potential to bring offenders—young and old—face to face with the consequences of their crime and we should look at how we can do that locally.

There is much common ground between the Opposition and the Government. Where we differ is in the fact that the Government are willing to put in resources, build prison places, prevent reoffending and strengthen community sentences—to make a real difference with resources and will. We have them; the Conservative party does not.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 156, Noes 355.

Division number 196 Opposition Day — [18th Allotted Day] — Penal System

Aye: 156 MPs

No: 355 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments):—

The House divided: Ayes 288, Noes 175.

Division number 197 Opposition Day — [18th Allotted Day] — Penal System

Aye: 288 MPs

No: 175 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House welcomes the record of the Government which has since 1997 cut crime, reformed the penal system, invested in record prison places, created a legislative framework which provides tough and effective sentences, introduced risk assessment and offender management systems, introduced and seen ever increasing numbers of offenders complete accredited programmes, enabled record numbers of offenders to pay back to the community through unpaid work, ensured that offenders in the community who pose a risk to the public are recalled to custody, radically reformed the youth justice system and brought the prison and probation services together under the National Offender Management Service with a renewed focus on protecting the public and reducing re-offending.