Sentencing Policy

Opposition Day — [14th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:52 pm on 17th June 2008.

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means) 6:52 pm, 17th June 2008

We now move on to the debate about sentencing policy and the early release of offenders. I must tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.

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Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice) 7:16 pm, 17th June 2008

I beg to move,

That this House
is concerned that a failure to plan adequate prison capacity has led to the End of Custody Licence scheme and the early release of 26,000 prisoners;
notes that the current rate of prisoner release is running ahead of initial projections so that an additional 5,000 prisoners will be released early in a full year;
expresses grave concern that no decision on whether to suspend this scheme will be taken until 2009, at the earliest, when prison capacity reaches 86,000 due to the Government's delayed prison building programme;
agrees with the Lord Chief Justice that early release schemes erode the sentences originally handed down;
further notes the low levels of public confidence in community sentences;
recognises the objections of local communities that prisoners released early on home detention curfew are being housed in over 150 residential areas, without consultation, under the Bail Accommodation and Support Service scheme managed by ClearSprings;
further notes criticism of the Youth Justice Board for failing to meet targets on youth crime;
further expresses concern over plans to link resources to sentencing through the creation of a Sentencing Commission;
and calls upon the Government to introduce honesty in sentencing, cancel the End of Custody Licence scheme, suspend the Bail Accommodation and Support Service policy and take immediate steps to ensure adequate prison capacity in the interests of public safety.

This is the third debate that we have called in the House within a year on the early release of offenders. Since we debated the matter in July 2007, the situation has deteriorated. Last July, the prison population was more than 80,000; now, it is more than 83,000—an increase of almost 3,000, even after factoring in the early release scheme that started in June 2007. Last July, the Government had released 3,800 prisoners early; now, they have released 26,300 prisoners early. The prison estate is running at 99.8 per cent. of total capacity. In July, 86 prisons were overcrowded; now, 89 are. In July, 60,337 prisoners were in overcrowded jails; at the end of May this year, there were 63,176—another increase of 3,000. Almost one year has gone by, and that is what the Government have achieved.

Sentencing policy and the continuing early release of offenders is a cause of real public concern, yet we return to the issue this evening because the Government simply are not listening. That is why the debate has had to be called. We have repeatedly asked Ministers to explain how they are going to provide the necessary prison capacity to hold all those sentenced by the courts, but instead of action we have been presented with a litany of poor excuses. Ministers say that they have provided 20,000 new prison places, and I am sure that we will hear it said again this evening. They do not say that almost 17,000 prisoners are now doubling up in cells—twice as many as when Labour came to power; that those extra places have been provided by doing such doubling up; and that almost one quarter of the entire prison population are housed in cells that are designed for one fewer person.

Ministers say that they are embarking on a record prison-building programme, but the truth about their record is that after years of opposition from the former Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, they started the programme too late and it is already falling behind. Ministers say that they are tackling reoffending, but reconviction rates have increased. Even after the counting change, which Ministers are now so quick to fall back on, reoffending rates by ex-prisoners have risen since the Government came to power.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

indicated dissent.

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D

And I would like to indicate...

Submitted by Dee Speers Continue reading

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

The Secretary of State shakes his head, but in a letter on 27 November 2007, he confirmed to me that there was an increase in actual reoffending by ex-prisoners between 1997 and 2004. As the former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, said this morning, reoffending rates are "embarrassing".

After more than a year, what has the new Ministry of Justice, dedicated to protecting the public and reducing reoffending, actually delivered? It has managed to release a record number of prisoners early on to our streets. We have now had 10 months to evaluate the end of custody licence scheme: a policy that has greatly damaged public confidence in the criminal justice system, that was described by the previous Lord Chancellor as "simply wrong"—a month before he introduced the scheme—and that was dubbed a "very temporary measure" by the former Prime Minister.

On Friday next week, on the anniversary of the end of custody licence, we expect that more than 28,000 prisoners will have been released early on to the streets in 11 months. The rate of release is running well ahead of initial projections. When the latest figures were published, I wrote to the Secretary of State to ask for an explanation. He replied by saying that the original estimate was quickly updated after the scheme started—in other words, the Government got it wrong in the beginning. He now admits that revised projections after the first week of the scheme led to a projected one-year total of 28,600 prisoners to be released early. But that revised—and, I assume, current—projection is still a gross underestimate. We have looked at the rate of releases, and we expect the total to be more like 31,000 in a year—5,000 more than Ministers cited when the scheme was launched.

When will this so-called temporary scheme end? The Justice Secretary will not say, or pretends not to know. In an interview with the Press Association earlier this month, he said:

"If you ask me when it's going to come to an end, that depends on the availability of prison places and I'm afraid to say 'not yet' is the answer."

He has refused to say when the scheme might be suspended, but others in the Government have been rather more forthcoming. On 7 May, the Prime Minister said in the House:

"When we have built up the number of prison places from the 60,000 that we inherited—now 80,000—to 82,000 and then 86,000, we will make our decisions on the right thing to do about early release."—[ Hansard, 7 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 696.]

So now we know; end of custody licence will not be suspended until many thousands more prison places are brought on-stream. The Justice Secretary confirmed that in response to my letter and parliamentary question, perhaps unwittingly helping to clear up the ambiguity. He now estimates that prison capacity will reach 86,000 by "around September 2009". In other words, we should expect at least another 15 months of this policy, and along with it another 35,000 prisoners being let out early on to our streets. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that what the Prime Minister said was right, and that no decision will be taken on ending this disgraceful scheme until September next year?

We should reflect on the price of this policy, which is much more than mere numbers. More than 500 violent offenders were released early in March, taking the total number of violent prisoners released to almost 5,000. A total of 820 offenders have been recalled to prison while on end of custody licence, 144 of whom remain unlawfully at large. At least 451 crimes have been committed by prisoners who should have been behind bars. Almost every day, the media report another victim of a criminal who has, in one way or another, been released from prison early. The Secretary of State plays down the importance of this. He recently said:

"I understand public concern about it but it is only two and half weeks off a sentence."

Only two and a half weeks? Frankly, I find that response complacent. It is no consolation to the hundreds of unnecessary victims of crime. Two and half weeks was time enough in the case of Amanda Murphy, a teacher who was beaten to death by her violent partner just days after he was released early from prison. Only last week, we learned of the case of Derek Burns, a violent offender with a string of previous convictions, who stabbed his partner in the back with a 10-in meat cleaver when he should have been in prison. He told the paramedics:

"I cannot believe they let me out. I told them I would do it."

But let out he was, because early release under the Government's end of custody licence scheme is automatic—prisoners do not even have to apply. No individual risk assessments and proper accommodation checks are carried out.

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Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

My hon. Friend is making some powerful and important points. Will he confirm that if he becomes Minister for Justice, as I hope he will shortly, he will end all forms of automatic early release and prisoners will be released only if they have earned the right to get out of jail?

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

I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that we will scrap the policy of end of custody licence and scrap the policy of automatic early release of offenders, to which I will refer shortly.

As I have already said, under the end of custody licence, no individual risk assessments and no proper accommodation checks are conducted. As the National Association of Probation Officers has warned, violent criminals are released early— often back to the homes of the partners they were in prison for beating up—getting out of jail before their victims expected it and with no warning. With this appalling policy comes a human price. The moral case alone demands its cancellation, but prison capacity apparently does not allow it.

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Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that we should be having a very different sort of debate. In the Criminal Justice Act 2003, we had the much-vaunted custody plus—an entirely new form of sentencing for our courts that was trumpeted by the Government as a huge bonus to the criminal justice system, yet five years later they have not even introduced it into our courts.

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

My hon. Friend, who speaks with great expert knowledge on these matters and sits as a recorder, is absolutely right. Perhaps the Justice Secretary could explain why, after five years, custody plus has not been introduced.

It is a measure of how serious prison overcrowding has become under this Government that a policy that in a full year saves only 1,200 prison places cannot be suspended because apparently there are not that number of places available, or likely to be available, in the near future.

There is a second question that I should like to put to the Secretary of State. The Government told us that 2,500 new prison places would be delivered in 2007.

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport

There is obviously a problem with prison overcrowding. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we could reduce prison numbers if those with serious mental health issues were identified and placed in forensic mental health institutes? Will his party commit to expanding that service so that it could take them instead of their being put in prison?

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

I agree about the problem of prisoners with serious mental illness, but there are two points to make. First, if, instead, they are put into places where they are treated, those are likely merely to be secure places of a different kind. Many of us—including, I suspect, the Secretary of State—would agree that that is a desirable thing to do. Secondly, the Bradley review is investigating how such people could be diverted to places where they can be treated properly. Although the hon. Gentleman might be able to say that that reduces the prison population, and it may be highly desirable that those offenders are not treated in prisons where it is not appropriate for them to be detained, it will not necessarily reduce the overall numbers of people in some form of custody.

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the recidivism rate for those who are treated in mental health institutions is only 10 per cent., compared with the figure for those who have been in prison? In time, therefore, the prison population would be reduced because recidivism would be reduced.

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Indeed, a reduction in reoffending is an important way of reducing pressure on prison population growth in the long term, and the point that he makes may represent one means of achieving that. I doubt that there will be disagreement between hon. Members of any party about the desirability of removing offenders with serious mental illness from our prisons. The issue is one of resources and potential expense. It is true that there has been a big displacement of prisoners from former mental health institutions into the criminal justice system; it is not just the prison system that has picked up on that, but the police. We all recognise that problem.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

Would the hon. Gentleman tell the House what his first priority would be? Would it be to obtain more secure mental health facilities, or would it be simply to build more conventional prisons?

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

I will come on to explain to the hon. Gentleman, if he has not read our policy document, that we propose an increase in capacity above what the Government propose to deal with overcrowding. On the question of how to deal with mentally ill prisoners, we shall await the outcome of the Bradley review, and if the hon. Gentleman is sensible, he will do the same. I must make progress, but I hope that I have answered the many questions put to me by the Liberal Democrats.

I have a second question for the Justice Secretary. The Government told us that 2,500 new prison places would be delivered last year, but they comprehensively missed that prison-building target. They managed to increase capacity by just 1,367 places—just over half their target—and there is no sign that things will be better this year. Since January, there are nearly 3,500 more prisoners in our jails, but far less than half that number of new places. Let us remember that most of those new places are just last year's new places delivered late. Strip those out, and prison capacity this year has increased by fewer than 300 places.

With prison capacity and early release, the familiar pattern of this Government's policy continues: release criminals more quickly and build prison places more slowly. The Government will not admit that even if they deliver the promised extra places by 2014, total prison capacity will still be many thousands of places short of their own median projection for the prison population by that time. They published a consultation paper on titan prisons, and they say that they intend to press ahead with plans to build three massive prisons—in the north-west, London and the south-east. Those prisons will take up 50 acres, which is a footprint larger than two Wembley stadiums. They will be the biggest prisons in Europe, in the face of all of the evidence that smaller prisons are more secure and superior for the purposes of rehabilitation. After all the urging by prison reform experts about the importance of local family links to the reduction of reoffending, why are the Government pursuing the policy of titan jails?

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Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Given the Government's record of not consulting local communities, even over bail hostels, does my hon. Friend expect them to consult local communities on titan prisons? Does he agree that there should be a full local planning consultation process involving local councils? Titan prisons should not be driven through by the new planning infrastructure commission.

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

I agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that the Government have pursued the policy of titan prisons—a name that they chose—because they wish to subvert local planning procedures and thereby increase capacity without having to obtain the consent of local people. That is wrong, just as the policy of siting very large prisons away from the prisoners' local communities is wrong.

The Government's paper trumpets the potential efficiencies of titan jails, but admits that the Ministry of Justice has not done enough research to present a cost-benefit analysis. If these monstrous warehouses ever get built, projections show that they will be overcrowded by almost a third from day one. Old habits certainly die hard. In the short term, prison capacity pressures were going to be addressed by the acquisition of a prison ship. Whatever happened to that? What happened to that ghost ship? Perhaps the Secretary of State could update us. The Sun is certainly keen for an update.

Years of failure and today's belated and inadequate prison-building programme have come at a price. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in May, the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, clearly warned of the dangers when he said:

"The present situation is extremely worrying. I don't think prisons will blow up tomorrow or next week but there is certainly a danger of that. The prison service is very good at handling prisoners, but they are at bursting point. We are getting into the danger area."

Can the Secretary of State tell the House what the current state of the prison-building programme is, how many new places will be opened this year, and why the prison-building programme this year and last year fell so far behind plans?

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

The hon. Gentleman just quoted the previous Lord Chief Justice and his motion ill-advisedly quotes the present Lord Chief Justice. I say ill-advisedly because it is not good to draw judges into debate in that way. Does he recognise that both of those learned judges have considered a wider range of issues at length, including the effect of heavy spending to meet growing prison numbers on the very expenditure that could be used to keep people out of prison?

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

The plans that we have set out effectively propose diverting resources spent on reconvicting prisoners in order to try to prevent them from reoffending, which would be the transfer of resources that the right hon. Gentleman seeks. All of us want to see a reduction in the long-term growth of the prison population, but the question is how that is to be achieved. The Government's approach is wrong, as I am about to set out, and those who believe that there is an easy way of preventing the sentencing of prisoners in the first place by diverting prisoners into community sentences in which the public have no confidence are misguided.

Faced with the reality of their failure, the Government are trying a new tack. Since they do not have the prison places, they want to fetter the ability of judges to hand down custodial sentences. They call it, in the words of their amendment to our motion, "a structured sentencing framework". The new device is a sentencing commission. They pretend, in the words of the amendment, that it is about delivering "greater consistency in sentencing", but there is already a statutory duty on the Sentencing Guidelines Council and the Sentencing Advisory Panel to promote consistency in sentencing. It is by no means clear whether the Government have any idea of how compliant judges are with the guidance of the Sentencing Guidelines Council at the moment.

The Government have never said that demographic or geographic sentencing disparity is a problem that a sentencing commission is designed to iron out. The idea that a sentencing commission would simply promote consistency is a canard. The Government's proposals are nothing other than a back-door attempt to manage down the prison population by fettering judicial discretion. As we have said before, linking sentencing to resources in that way is wrong in principle because it would provide a formal mechanism for the Executive to exert control over sentencing and the judiciary.

Lord Carter himself admits that there are many drivers of the prison population, not least the amount of violent crime, reoffending rates and the volume of foreign prisoners detained after their release date, awaiting deportation. The Government's record on those external drivers of crime and the prison population is frankly appalling, as we all know. In the light of that, any artificial method of linking sentences to resources would be dangerous and wrong. Violent crime has doubled under Labour. If that trend were to continue under a system that links resources to sentencing, we may find sentences for violent offenders would be shortened because of a lack of capacity.

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

As the Secretary of State is about to intervene, I ask him whether that shortening of sentences is what he intends.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

No, and I shall deal with that point later. The hon. Gentleman's claim that violent crime has doubled is untrue. He must know that two separate changes occurred in recording crime—one in 1998 and the other in 2001. Both increased the recording of all crimes. In 1998, the change increased the recording of violent crimes by 80 per cent. overnight. The problem that we faced, to which we have now adjusted, was that, under the system that the Conservative Administration used, an awful lot of crime was not properly recorded.

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....and an 'awful lot of crime under Labour is not reported too' especially the deaths of seriously ill people whilst detained under the care of the State.

Submitted by Dee Speers

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

The Government always fall back on the defence of counting changes. As the Secretary of State knows, even with those changes, violent crime has increased under the Government. Does he at least concede that? A huge amount of crime continues to go unreported. If he is in denial about the amount of violent crime in our country or public concern about it, he is in an even more serious predicament than the Government.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am in no sense in denial about the matter. When increases in crime occur, I am ready to admit to them. It is important in such a debate to deal with reliable statistics. One violent crime is too many, but does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, according to the British crime survey, which the previous Administration rightly established in 1981, violent crime has decreased by 31 per cent. since 1997?

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

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the British crime survey misses out swathes of criminal activity, including crimes against young people. The Government rely on it when it suits them. Indeed, some crimes have been increasing according to the British crime survey recently.

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

Hold on. Instead of trading statistics across the Dispatch Box, let me make a proposal to the Secretary of State. The publication of crime figures should be on a basis that is wholly independent of the Government. They should be published by a body that reports to the House, not to the Government. Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that the Statistics Commission criticised the Home Office for its presentation and spinning of crime statistics, and that we cannot accept the defence of recounting from a Government who have been so quick to manipulate figures when it suited them?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I certainly do not concede that. The Government have progressively ensured that the Office for National Statistics is entirely independent—I personally supervised that policy over 11 years. I went to the launch of the Statistics Commission, which is independent of Government. I agree that there will be no public confidence in official statistics unless such bodies are independent. However, if, according to the hon. Gentleman, crime has increased, why did the Leader of the Opposition accept that

"crime has fallen dramatically under Labour"?

Who is right?

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

I doubt whether the Leader of the Opposition said that. Of course, some crimes—for example, acquisitive crimes—have decreased, but the right hon. Gentleman should know about public concern, especially about violent crime. The publication of crime figures is not properly independent of Government. It is our policy that they should be independent so that they are not capable of manipulation and we have a proper index of the amount of crime in which the public and all hon. Members can trust. Unfortunately, the Government's consistent manipulation of crime figures means that that trust in the figures does not currently exist.

Let me revert to the issue of the proposed sentencing commission, because it is an immensely important matter that raises issues of principle about the relationship between the House, the Executive and the judiciary, which should be independent. I repeat the point that I made to the Secretary of State. If a sentencing commission is introduced, we may find ourselves in a position whereby sentences for violent offenders, irrespective of any decision by the House, could be shortened due to a lack of prison capacity. Indeed, I assume that that is the right hon. Gentleman's real objective. Ministers would avoid their responsibility to ensure public safety, and effectively outsource sentencing decisions to a quango. Linking sentences to resources will entail a massive reduction of judicial discretion.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Let me reassure him that what he has outlined is in no sense the purpose of the proposal. I shall explain it in more detail in my speech, and I hope that he and other Conservative Members will then be reassured about it.

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

We will wait and see. It is difficult to know why the Secretary of State is so keen to pursue the idea of a sentencing commission, if not with the express purpose of finding a means of managing the prison population down. However, I look forward to hearing what he has to say about it.

Linking sentencing to resources could entail restrictions on judicial discretion. To manage down prison populations successfully in the United States—an international example, which I know the Secretary of State and Lord Carter have studied—individual state sentencing commissions allow almost no room for judges to depart from the prescribed sentence range in any given case. The ability to treat cases differently must be severely curtailed for any such system to have a chance of working.

Perhaps the Lord Chancellor should remind himself that his statutory duty is to protect the independence of the judiciary. Even if the regime is restrictive, there is no guarantee that the prison population can be effectively managed down. As Nicola Padfield of the law faculty at Cambridge university said in her evidence to the Justice Committee,

"if we create something more rigid than we have at the moment, it is likely, on the evidence that we have, to talk up sentencing levels rather than talk down the sentencing levels."

The judiciary is deeply concerned about the proposal, as the Secretary of State must know. The most senior criminal judge in the country, Sir Igor Judge, remarked that

"the point about the judicial discretion is that a judge is trying to do justice in the individual case and that is what he must be allowed to do. If I may say so, it does not matter what guidance is offered, what framework comes up, if that is interfered with, then we are going down a very strange route."

The restrictions that sentencing commissions place on judges encourage them to game the system, which leads to manipulation and perverse outcomes. There is strong evidence that, in Minnesota, judges sentence offenders to local jails rather than state prison to keep the headline prison population low. That shows that prescriptive regimes may not even work as intended. Sentencing commissions manage growth in prison populations through artificial, arbitrary and dangerous methods.

Sentencing commissions do not reduce overcrowding and manage prison populations through some magic formula. They identify pressures on the prison population, caused by the external drivers, which Lord Carter cited, and then shorten prison sentences and reduce the impact of previous convictions on certain classes of offenders. That is how they work.

It would be no surprise if such an approach reduced pressures on the system, but that is no way to keep the public safe. It is no way to build public confidence, either. The Bar Council recently said that

"we believe that it is more likely to undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system".

I ask the Justice Secretary today to reconsider the misguided policy and to confirm that the working group that Lord Gage leads does not represent a commitment by the Government to introduce such a mechanism, come what may.

The Government have found another way to reduce the prison population by stealth. More than 500 early release prisoners on home detention curfew and criminal suspects are being housed by a company called ClearSprings in more than 150 properties in residential areas. In a letter to colleagues in April, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Mr. Hanson stated:

"In acquiring the properties ClearSprings has a contractual obligation to consult with police forces, probation and Local Authorities so that local knowledge can inform the selection of addresses. This enables us to avoid inappropriate locations."

He omits mentioning that consultation is limited to those parties. It does not include the residents of streets where those de facto open jails are dumped on to local communities without warning.

Ministers have referred to residents being notified. Is the Justice Secretary aware of what notification by ClearSprings entails? For his benefit, I have a copy of the leaflet that ClearSprings put through the door of a local resident in my constituency, which was the only notification that ClearSprings gave the public when it attempted to open such a property in Arundel. It reads:

"Dear Occupants,

I am writing to you to inform you that the property next door...is now being managed by ClearSprings Management...as part of our supported housing programme."

The leaflet then supplied a contact number. In what way does that explain the role that the property will play? There was no explanation about early release prisoners or suspects being accommodated and no reassurance about the policing and security arrangements, just a flier and a national rate telephone number.

The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Delyn, has said:

"The service is proving a success".

On what grounds is the service proving a success? Here is the give-away:

"The service is reducing the pressure on prison places".

That is what the scheme is about. The Government have simply encouraged the courts to make more use of bail, as the prison overcrowding crisis has worsened. The bail accommodation and support service run by ClearSprings is the result.

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Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

The hon. Gentleman is making an appropriate statement to the House, and I totally agree with some of what he has said. Consultation with the local community has been rather thin on the ground, and it would have been infinitely better had it been more defined. However, he can take it from me that the relationship between that organisation and the police in my constituency has become very effective. There has been no objection in the community, because frankly there has been no reason to object. Does he accept that what we are attempting to do—reintroducing offenders into the community, which his party has said is an appropriate way of doing things—can have some beneficial outcomes?

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

The hon. Lady cannot have spoken to the many people, from all over the country, including from constituencies represented by hon. Members in all parts of the House, who have contacted my office to express concern about the policy. We are talking about effectively open jails, which open next to people in residential areas without their knowledge. ClearSprings does not provide active supervision of the prisoners concerned.

In many cases, the properties have been opened in wholly residential areas, where the prisoners or suspects have no access to any of the necessary support services. People who live next door to such properties have expressed concern about disruption, noise, the constant police presence and the potential effect on property values. The policy is, frankly, disgraceful, and it is made more disgraceful by the fact that an attempt has been made to conceal it from the local community.

The scheme has caused immense distress to local communities up and down the country. I might add that it was not debated in the House before it was introduced. It is a discredited policy and it must be suspended, pending a thorough review and a debate in which hon. Members in all parts of the House can relay the problems that they have been experiencing with the operation of bail hostels by ClearSprings.

Prisoners released on end of custody licence and those let out on home detention curfew are not the only ones to benefit from early release. Under the Government who pioneered stealth taxes, we now see the stealth release of prisoners. Numerous measures in the recent Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 were explicitly designed to reduce pressures on the prison population. We had the failed attempt to abolish magistrates' powers to impose a suspended sentence, as well as measures to reward tagged prisoners with days off their jail term to take account of time that they had spent in bed at home while on bail. We also had measures to align release arrangements with a technical change, smuggled late into the Act, that allowed automatic release at the halfway mark to apply retrospectively for offences committed before 2005.

Now we have learnt of another stealth release scheme, in new guidance from the Prison Service on time unlawfully spent at large. The latest Prison Service instruction says:

"In exceptional circumstances, it may be appropriate to allow a period spent" unlawfully at large

"to count towards completion of the sentence."

What circumstances? The instruction sets them out:

"For example, if the prisoner will lose irreplaceable employment and accommodation links" or

"Where the prisoner is a primary carer".

In addition,

"short periods of UAL—up to a month—may be allowed to count at the discretion of the Area Manager".

That time is time unlawfully spent at large. It gets worse—the document says that the time counted may be

"Where a prisoner has escaped".

Prisoners who escape may be allowed to count the time spent on the run as having been spent in prison. This is what the latest Prison Service instruction says:

"Where a prisoner has escaped, both the day of the escape and the day of recapture will count as part of the custodial period of the sentence".

That means two days off automatically for any prisoner who escapes. Only this Government could give time off for bad behaviour.

Those policies of stealth release may save a few prison places, but they are no solution to the problems that we face. Stealth release does lasting damage to public confidence in the criminal justice process and sends the wrong message to criminals. If ever there was a time for new thinking, it is now.

We have set out plans to restore confidence in the criminal justice system, redesign prisons for the 21st century and launch a rehabilitation revolution. We would create prison and rehabilitation trusts with clear accountability. We would pay them by results, rewarding their success in reducing reoffending. We would trust professionals, giving governors new powers and freedoms to unlock the private and third sector to run rehabilitation services in and out of prison and give offenders the support that they need to go straight.

At the beginning of April, the Lord Chief Justice criticised early release schemes and the lack of transparency in sentencing:

"Where prisoners are released in these circumstances, that is to a degree—not a big degree—an erosion of the sentence that the judge imposed and anticipated would be served. I think it would be very much better if one had a clear sentencing structure, where if you imposed a sentence you could see how long that individual might spend in prison and when they would be eligible for parole."

We agree. That is why we want to see honesty in sentencing. A Conservative Government would legislate for minimum and maximum sentences, to create that honesty in sentencing. When handing down a sentence, the court would have to explain the minimum and maximum sentence, and also the rules according to which it would be implemented.

Under our policy of earned release, no prisoner would be released before the minimum had been served. Release after that point would be conditional on the conduct of the offender in custody. That means that both the victim and the public will know when the prisoner will be considered for release on licence, and also that the offender may serve longer than the minimum if he does not earn his release by fulfilling his conferred duties in the system.

For that reform, and to address the urgent need to reduce overcrowding, we recognise the need for additional capacity. That is why we outlined our proposal in March for 5,000 more prison places above the Government's plans—not to increase the prison population, but to deal with overcrowding—that would be funded by a redevelopment of the prison estate. Our reforms have at their heart the recognition that public confidence in our criminal justice system has been gravely undermined by the early release of prisoners and a failing penal system. That confidence must be restored.

But more than that, we recognise that in the long term, the right way to prevent the unsustainable growth of our prison population is to reduce reoffending. We all know that reoffending rates have remained stubbornly high. A leaked internal memo from the Government admitted as much. It said that recidivism rates for young criminals remain some of the highest in the developed world and that they "have not significantly changed" since 1997. Ministers will claim progress, but like so much from this Government, it is all about how we measure it.

The truth is that our prisons do not do enough to rehabilitate offenders. Indeed, in their current state of overcrowding, they are doing less now than they did 10 years ago. We cannot go on administering giant human warehouses, where nothing much happens except drug taking and bench pressing. We have to create regimes where offenders work hard, learn skills and get support to break their drug addiction, so that they leave less likely to reoffend. We need to create prisons with a purpose; reducing reoffending will help break the cycle of crime. We recognise that we will not make Britain safer unless we reduce reoffending; and we will not reduce reoffending without ending overcrowding and without constructing purposeful regimes. That is the only acceptable way forward to deal with the current problem.

The truth is that the Government are paralysed. There is total incoherence across Government policy. Ministers are constantly buffeted by events. We were the ones who led calls for stronger sanctions and robust enforcement for knife crime; then the Government followed us with calls for a presumption in favour of prosecution. We led calls to tighten the bail laws; and only now, four months on, do the Government bring forward their own narrow and rather unimpressive consultation document.

We have set out our ideas for reform, so where are the Government's? If Ministers are simply to attack every positive proposal for change, if they are going to resist every new idea and if they are just going to maintain their tired refusal to act, the future really is bleak: prisons in a permanent state of overcrowding; ever more desperate emergency measures to bring the situation under control; turf wars between Government Departments and conflict with the judges whose independence is threatened; the biggest jails in Europe warehousing offenders; prisoners transported hundreds of miles around the country in a search for available places; drugs freely available in jails, which should be places of security; short-term prisoners being released with little or no support in the near certainty that they will reoffend. Politicians should not use the word "crisis" lightly, but the prison system is in a state of crisis. If Ministers do not think so, they do not deserve to be able to continue to run the system.

Last month, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron received a letter from a 17-year-old prisoner in a young offender institution. I think that the House should hear what he had to say. He said that he had been in the young offender institution

"for the past seven months. I am currently serving 30 months; I have been in before and served an 18-month sentence; I am only 17 years old. I would like to get help to stop me reoffending in the future, but I would like to tell you that I received no help and do the same things, day in, day out. I attend gym in the morning for an hour and education in the afternoon for two hours and then one hour's association in the evening. I am locked up 19 hours a day during the week and 22 hours a day of a weekend. I want to learn new things, but there is nothing for me which I haven't already done. I want to learn new skills which will help me get a job when I leave prison, but I would like to say that the Government need to look at the way the prison system for young prisoners is run and do more to help people like myself. I might as well not be in prison; I might as well be at home and locked in".

What hope are the Government offering young offenders such as him? What hope for communities blighted by their crimes?

Let us hear no more excuses from the Government. Let us hear no more pointless attacks on what a previous Government did more than 11 years ago. Let us hear from the Justice Secretary what he is actually going to do about our penal system. In the words of the Lord Chief Justice:

"We simply cannot go on like this".

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D

Mr Herbert has at least addressed the wider issues and yes nobody can fix everything right away but somebody can "walk the talk" and stop providing the public with statistics and core standards when there are massive issues such as lack of scrutiny ond overview affecting many places within all the systems.
nal systems. If funding is reliant on achieving targets then there will always be predisposition to ticking the relevant boxes especially if the regulators are ineffective (but able to convince all that they are on top of this....on the written word and not on clear evidence sadly!) The present systems are akin to the examiner marking the paper they have written.
There is no 'helicoptor view' and no Commission for Joined-Up Thinking which can only lead to "lock 'em up and throw away the key." All that matters is that its 'off my desk'!"

Submitted by Dee Speers

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 8:03 pm, 17th June 2008

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

"welcomes the Government's record in cutting crime by a third, its provision of 23,000 more prison places since 1997, and its commitment to create a total of 96,000 prison places by 2014, demonstrating that public protection is at the heart of its strategy;
further welcomes the Government's commitment to remove the End of Custody Licence Scheme when headroom allows;
notes that the use of police cells is much lower than under the previous administration;
further welcomes the tough and effective community sentences that have been introduced and the work done to increase public awareness of their role and effectiveness, and the further investment in intensive alternatives to custody to continue to build the confidence of sentencers in their effectiveness, as demonstrated by significantly reduced re-offending rates;
notes in respect of the Bail Accommodation and Support Service that ClearSprings is required to consult the police, local authorities and probation to avoid inappropriate property locations;
considers that there should be greater consistency in sentencing and the opportunity for a focused and informed debate on sentencing provided by the work of the Sentencing Commission Working Group on the potential for a structured sentencing framework;
and further welcomes the reforms which have been made to the youth justice system including the strengthening of alternatives to custody".

As Nick Herbert said, this is the third debate tabled by the Opposition on this subject in less than a year. No matter how many times one tries to compare what this Government have done on law and order with what previous Administrations did—yes, I shall make comparisons, as well as deal with what we are currently doing and what we will do in the future—our record stands up to any amount of scrutiny.

Let us look first at crime.

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Show us the evidence of Scrutiny Mr Straw and just don't quote it!

Submitted by Dee Speers

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Before I take interventions, let us first look at crime. It was the former Home Secretary, Mr. Howard who admitted in this House that crime had doubled under the Conservatives—and indeed it had. Car crime doubled, domestic burglary doubled, violent crime went up by 170 per cent., and robbery went up by almost 400 per cent. Furthermore, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Cameron, was asked on BBC "News at Ten" on 23 April—I do not need the transcript, as I saw him say it, as did many others—whether crime had fallen under a Labour Government and he said "Yes, absolutely, absolutely." He was right to say that, because it happens to be true. Not only that—

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I shall give way shortly to the Leader of the Opposition's Parliamentary Private Secretary, who is sitting there like some sentinel watching the performance on the Front Bench, so he can report back. Indeed, he is nodding with approbation.

What the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs forgot to mention in his litany of painting down the success of the police and other criminal justice agencies is that only today, Sussex police—his own local constabulary—have announced a 10 per cent. fall in recorded crime over a year. Those figures happen to be grounded on a consistent basis.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Before I give way to a junior member of the Tory Front-Bench team I shall give way, as I said I would, to the man who really has power—the Leader of the Opposition's PPS.

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Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretary To the Leader of the Opposition

In the excellent performance by my hon. Friend Nick Herbert, he referred to an instruction, so will the Lord Chancellor confirm that it is genuine, and that it is indeed the case that days on the run can be counted as contributing to the number of days in custody? If that is the case, is it possible that if a miscreant were on the run for long enough, they might actually be eligible for compensation for having been detained beyond the length of their sentence?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that that does not apply to those who have escaped. That Prison Service instruction, to which the hon. Gentleman draws such extravagant attention, does not apply to escaped people or those who are in normal parlance "on the run". It applies exceptionally to prisoners who have been released in error. Before Opposition Members say that no prisoners are released in error, I was intending to draw to the attention of a wider audience later in my speech the fact that on one single day in August 1996, 537 prisoners were released in error.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am answering the man with the power, at the back. I will deal later with those of the lower orders, however learned they are.

It says in my briefing that such releases are extremely rare. Well, that is true under this Administration, but it was not true under the previous one. The decision to override the time out when a prisoner has been released in error can happen only if agreed personally by the Justice Secretary. I have never seen such an application, and I might also add—hon. Members are welcome to check the record on this—that when Mr. Ronnie Biggs had been on the run and finally returned to custody, I insisted, as I continue to insist, that all the time he spent on the run should be deducted, notwithstanding his attempts to say otherwise, from the time he claimed to have served. He would have been out years ago had he not decided to go over the wall.

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Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

How very gracious of the Lord Chancellor to permit me to tug at his regal gown. I am honoured. Will the Justice Secretary condescend to tell us why, if crime has been reduced by such a massive amount under his Government, the prison population has gone up by 23,000?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I think that is dead easy: the two might be connected. Some statisticians disagree. I do not claim that there is an exact statistical connection, but I do say that there is some connection between the fact that crime has gone down by a third and prison numbers up by a third. I can speak so far as my own constituency is concerned. The truth is that this an element of criticism by the soft side of the Tory party, and I hope that the hon. Member for New Forest, West is making a note of who is on that soft side: Harborough is certainly wet; Woking is even wetter; Dorset is even worse—

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

No. Monmouth is on the other side, but we will come on to Monmouth in a moment.

The two things are connected. Speaking from my constituency experience, I think that the fact that many more serious criminals are now locked up, and for longer, is a reason why crime there has gone down as much, if not more, than it has in Sussex. Indeed, I am proud to say—I hope that the hon. Member for New Forest, West will agree with me on this—that the two forces that are consistently top performers in terms of public confidence and crime reduction are Sussex and Lancashire. As I said, the fact that we are jailing more people is one reason for that. I look forward to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough digesting that.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Minister without Portfolio

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. Does he regard the increase in the recidivism rate as another cause of his supposed reduction in crime?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

It has not gone up. I shall not quote the rest of the letter to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs—the part to which he did not refer—at length, but if we compare like with like—

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Well, we have to do that. Otherwise, there is no proper comparison.

If we compare the type of offences, we find that the rate has gone down, which I drew to the attention of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs in the same letter, when I stated that proven adult reoffending has gone down

"by 5.8 per cent. since 2000 against the predicted rate."

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

Will the Justice Secretary confirm that in that letter of 27 November he wrote to me:

"An estimated comparison of re-offending rates, taking into account the changes made in 2000 and the correct base figure for 1997, would in fact show only a 1 percentage point increase in actual re-offending by ex-prisoners, 1997-2004."?

Will he therefore confirm that he has admitted that reoffending rates have risen under this Government?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. If we are looking at what is happening to trends— [Interruption.] We have to compare one cohort of prisoners with an accurate and similar cohort later on. That is not a cop-out; that is the truth.

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Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

On reconviction rates, my mind goes back to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which introduced the much vaunted drug treatment and testing order—a brilliant solution to our problems! Does the Secretary of State know that in fact there was a 90 per cent. breach of those and an 80 per cent. reoffending rate—historically, terribly high—which is why they were simply dropped?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The drug treatment and testing orders were reformed into a better and more effective system. [Interruption.] I am making a serious point about community punishments to the hon. Gentleman, as he knows, because he served on the Committee that considered the 1998 Act. He complained then about the fact that the prison population was too high. It was 60,000. Lord alone knows what he is going to be complaining about tonight when it is 83,000. By definition, community offenders are not locked up and it is more difficult to deal with them. We have to see whether a particular approach works, and if it does not, to be ready to amend it. That is what we sought to do.

Perhaps I can make a little progress after those diversions. As I said, crime is down by a third. I am glad that we agree about that, not least with the backing and support of the Leader of the Opposition. It includes violent crime coming down, and a record 140,000 police officers. The chances of becoming a victim of crime are the lowest since the British crime survey began its operation in 1981.

Let us also compare our record with the system that we inherited. On youth crime, it was taking 142 days— 20 weeks—to get a young offender from arrest to sentence. That is now down to 60 days. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs criticises our record on prisons. I am very happy to compare our record with the record of the previous Conservative Administration. [Interruption.] It is no good his saying that he does not want to do that, because it was some time ago. That Administration is the paradigm for the Conservative party today. Conservatives seek to quote its record selectively when it suits them.

Hon. Members might want to use the noun "crisis" to describe the prison situation, but by God, there was a crisis for many years throughout the 1980s and 1990s. More people escaped from so-called secure prisons in a week in 1992 than escaped in the whole of last year. I am told that it got so bad that private secretaries would not bother to inform Ministers following each escape; they would tot them up at the end of the week. [Interruption.] It is true.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, prisons were beset by crippling riots. It was a rare month between 1982 and 1995 that police cells were not used, and in considerable numbers. On average in 1992, more than 1,000 prisoners were housed in police cells every night, and that was by no means a record. During one month a few years before that, 3,500 prisoners were in police cells in a single month.

We had the early custody licence in abundance on a number of occasions, but they were disguised by the previous Administration, most spectacularly when Douglas Hurd, now Lord Hurd of Westwell, extended remission from one third to one half, releasing 3,500 prisoners—not 1,200—at a stroke, the effect of which continued for many years. However, the Conservatives did not volunteer to do what I did, which was to ensure, because I thought it was right to do so, that monthly independent figures were produced on their equivalent of the early custody licence.

In 1984, Leon Brittan increased eligibility for parole for short-term prisoners. That doubled the number released early. In 1991, Lord Hurd's temporary measures were made permanent in the Criminal Justice Act 1991.

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Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

Will my right hon. Friend add two more statistics to those that he has given? One is the number of convictions during the late '80s and early '90s. That fell by a third. The second statistic is that crime trebled in the same period.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I agree with my hon. Friend on the first statistic. As for the second, crime doubled in that period.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Well, okay. Some crimes did. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend needs to sack the researcher.

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Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I know that the Minister always likes to be accurate with the House. He mentioned absconders or people who have escaped from prisons. Does he recall a written parliamentary reply to a question I tabled last week in which it was stated that there were 510 absconders from open prisons alone, never mind category A, B and C? He might want to set the record straight.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Of course I do. I think it was the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question in which I spelled out the difference between escapes, which is the correct term to use for closed prisons, and absconds, which are from open prisons, where people are free, by definition, to walk in and out because an open prison is open; it is a halfway house, as they call it in the United States. As it happens, the record in that respect is very good as well. In 1996-97, there were 1,115 absconds. That was cut by more than 50 per cent. by 2007-8. The question for Conservative Members is this: are they saying that in the unlikely event of their gaining office they will close all open prisons, or are they saying that if they keep them open there will be no absconds?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I promised to do so earlier.

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Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, not least because my constituency contains an open prison from which numerous very dangerous prisoners, including child rapists, have escaped or absconded. Whatever the difference is, it is not important. Is it not the case, however, that under the Government that the Secretary of State represents, people are trying to break into prisons to sell drugs and to prostitute themselves?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman knows that to be nonsense, but may I say how pleased I am to see him in the Chamber? Like an awful lot of Members on both sides of the House, when I received the message that a "David Davis" had decided to resign, I thought it was him. It was a great relief to us all—except, I think, the Leader of the Opposition—to discover that he is still here, young and vigorous, and that it is the other "David Davis" who has decided to go off on a frolic of his own.

Let me now return to the subject of the increase in the number of prison places. We have delivered more than 23,000 additional places since 1997, at twice the rate achieved by our predecessors, along with a commitment to increase the total to 96,000 net and 101,000 gross by 2014. There is some flexibility in the system.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs asked about the building programme. All the evidence that I have suggests that it is well on time and, in some cases, ahead of time. I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman's information originated. Over the past 12 months 2,422 places have been delivered, and we plan, and fully expect, 2,700 to be delivered in this calendar year. It is also a great credit to the Prison Service that not only is it delivering those places but—here I touch wood—in 11 years there have been no category A escapes.

We have a responsibility to provide enough prison places for those who the courts determine should be there. Prisons are first and foremost places of punishment and public protection, but they are also places of reform, which means ensuring that there is a constructive regime that gives people on the inside a better chance of going straight on the outside.

Prisons are not cushy. I was glad to note that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs told a recent CBI conference:

"I do not believe that prisons are holiday camps or that prisoners largely want to be there".

Perhaps he will talk to his hon. Friend David T.C. Davies. It is nonsense to suggest that prisoners want to be in prison, nor should they want to be there, because, as I have said, the purpose of their incarceration is first and foremost punishment.

Prison regimes have been hugely improved since, in particular, the 1980s and early 1990s. Reoffending rates have fallen—I would be happy to write to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs about that—and we have provided more opportunities for rehabilitation. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will tell the House later about the new offender compact that he is developing. There has been a tenfold increase in spending on drug treatment programmes, and the number of people failing mandatory drug tests has fallen by two thirds.

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Photo of John Battle John Battle Labour, Leeds West

Armley remand prison in my constituency has received welcome investment under the present Government. Its staff do a brilliant job in difficult circumstances. However, will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to a proposal from the former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, for what he has described as academies, by which I think he means practical, positive, small residential units to give the 3,000 young offenders in Britain a better chance to obtain the training and early intervention that will prevent them from reoffending? If my right hon. Friend would like to pilot one in Leeds, that would be most welcome.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I always take Lord Ramsbotham's suggestions seriously, and I would be happy to talk to him and to my right hon. Friend about this one.

As there has been a debate about the number of people under 18 in prison, let me say that it has been stable in recent years. The number of people whom we would describe as children—12 or 13-year-olds—in secure custody is tiny. There are seven 12-year-olds in custody, not the hundreds implied by some lobby groups, and they are there because they committed very serious offences. The bulk of those under 18 who are in custody are 16 or 17.

We have worked hard to improve the regime for those people. That is a matter for the Youth Justice Board, which provides more resources per head. Staffing levels are higher and so is the standard of the regime, but it is always open to improvement. We are dealing principally with offenders for whom the custody bar is much higher than it is for adult offenders, because they have committed either many more offences or more serious offences.

They often have intractable problems, frequently including emotional and learning difficulties. It is hard to turn them around, but we have to keep trying.

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Conservative, North Essex

On the prison building programme, does the Secretary of State accept that even if the so-called titan prisons are built on time, on the basis of the current figures he is planning that they should be more than 30 per cent. overcrowded? As he has not produced any cost-benefit analysis, what evidence does he have that these are the most efficient way of providing new prison places?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

In prisons, there is always—and there will always be under any Government, in my opinion—a level of what is described as overcrowding, which is the amount above what is called normal capacity. I can conceive of no Government deciding to increase prison places by half the number of prisoners. Regardless of whether they are categorised as overcrowded, all but a few current prisons are very different from those of 20 or 30 years ago.

The large prisons will not be warehouses, and it is ridiculous to suggest that they will be. They will be prisons within prisons. There is a good deal of evidence to show that they will be more cost-effective. It is easy for the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman blithely to assert that instead of building one prison for 2,500 on a footprint of 50 acres or hectares, it would be easier to build five prisons of 500 places. Would that we could. What happens the moment that we try to build prisons, for example at Beam Reach in the constituency of James Brokenshire, or in South Suffolk where there is also a suggestion that a prison should be built—and in both places land is available? What happens is that we do not get co-operation from the local Conservative Members; instead we get opposition, with Mr. Yeo saying they will not have any more prisons in that area. We face a problem, therefore. I understand why the public are always unhappy about a new prison being built—although they are equally unhappy about a prison closing once it has been built. However, the truth is that this appears to be a cost-effective way of delivering this number of places on time.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

If I may make some progress, I will try to give way to the hon. Gentleman shortly.

We are also clamping down on the supply of drugs into prison, and as I said to the House last Tuesday I will publish the Blakey report and our response shortly. We have also greatly increased training arrangements in prison and we are trying to do a great deal more.

Managing the criminal justice system is not easy. It requires professionalism on the part of the prison and probation services, and I hope that all Members will join me in paying tribute to their staff at every level. It also requires consistency of approach. When asked about home detention curfew, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs skated over whether the Conservatives would abolish it. [Interruption.] Perhaps they would not abolish it; perhaps he would like to clarify this? [Interruption.] Well, I heard him being asked about it, and I remind him that in the then Home Affairs Committee Mr. Malins was in unity with Mr. Howarth in welcoming the home detention curfew initiative in what became the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The Conservatives did not vote against the extension of home detention curfew on Third Reading of the Bill that led to that Act, nor did they vote against the extension of HDC in 2003.

Mr. Burns, who watches for the Leader of the Opposition, ought to be aware of the following quotation in respect of a new appointment by his leader. On the extension of HDC, a Conservative Member said:

"The Minister reassured me about certain things that concerned me, for which I am grateful. I was aware of the low level of revocation of licences for those on home detention curfew. Therefore, the official Opposition will not be voting against the measure".

That was said by a then junior spokesman who is now a highly elevated spokesman: the new shadow Home Secretary, Mr. Grieve. Since the scheme was introduced, with the approval of that Committee and of the Opposition, officially in 2003, 151,000 prisoners have been released, 85 per cent. have completed their period of HDC successfully and 4 per cent. have reoffended while on the scheme.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs devoted a significant part of his speech to the end of custody licence—ECL—which was introduced in June 2007 to create sufficient headroom to allow for prison numbers to be managed safely. That involves taking out 1,400 prisoners at any one time, which contrasts with the 3,500 prisoners whom Douglas Hurd took out of the system in 1987. Let me put this into perspective.

I said that the prisoners are released up to 18 days early—that is two and a half weeks before they would come out in any event. Although I acknowledge that someone who is a victim of a crime, in any circumstances, is 100 per cent. a victim, regardless of how unlikely the event, it is important to put on record the fact that the offending rate on the scheme is just 1 per cent., which is remarkably low.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the terrible murder of Amanda Murphy by Andrew Mournian, and nothing that I can say can be of any assistance to her relatives and friends. However, as the hon. Gentleman sought to make a point about ECL, it is important to put on record what the learned trial judge, the honourable Mrs. Justice Swift, said in sentencing that man for that terrible murder:

"It is right that I should say that the fact that you were released early cannot, in my view, be said to have been causative of what happened thereafter. It is highly likely that the events that took place would have occurred whenever you were released."

[Interruption.] No, it is not all right; it is not all right in any circumstances.

It is important that the hon. Gentleman makes accurate points. It was the learned judge in that case who, obviously without anyone's prompting, went out of her way to say that, in her judgment, whenever the offender was going to be released, as he was bound to be for his index offence, he would have committed that offence. As he says that people are released without any check on their circumstances and where they are going to go, I should tell him that they are released 18 days early with all normal arrangements, including supervision, that would apply, depending on their sentence length, were they released 18 days later.

May I also say that we will end ECL when headroom allows? I was asked whether that would be in some month next year. I wish I could say with absolute certainty when we are going to end ECL, because I understand the public concern about it. We can predict with some certainty the rise in the number of prison places over the next year, but it is very difficult to predict, as would be the case under any Administration, exactly what will happen in respect of the rise—it will be a rise—in the prison population. Let us consider what happened in the past three weeks in relation to very short-term predictions. There was a sudden and quite unpredictable increase in the prison population of getting on for 350 last week. Very tiny changes in 300 to 400 courts across the country can lead to a big aggregate increase in the prison population. We are working extremely hard, with the fastest ever creation of prison places, and the moment I judge that it is safe to do so, we will end ECL.

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

Will the Justice Secretary confirm that the combination of the automatic early release of prisoners and the ECL scheme means that many prisoners are being released before they have served even half their sentence?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The prisoners are released in accordance with the law. We have home detention curfew, and this was a matter for debate 10 years ago. The hon. Gentleman came up with some extravagant promises—I hope that the shadow Chancellor was listening if the Conservatives are serious about going into Government—when talking about minimum and maximum sentences. One of my predecessors as Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, went to enormous lengths, as will be recalled by the hon. Member for Woking and the hon. Member for Dorset North

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

West Dorset. Of course, how could I forget? The right hon. Gentleman went AWOL during the 2001 election.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe went to enormous lengths to try to introduce a system of honesty in sentencing. He produced one plan, which was in the original Crime (Sentences) Bill in 1996, but he had to withdraw it because it was completely incoherent. He then produced another plan, which I was ready to implement when we came into government in May 1997, but that also turned out to be incoherent and would not have produced honesty in sentencing.

Of course we should be explicit about the minimum and the maximum that any individual prisoner will serve, but the resource costs of what the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs implies are huge, at a time when the shadow Chancellor keeps criticising us for spending at current levels and suggests that public spending under a Conservative Administration—were that ever to happen—would be much less. No one will take the hon. Gentleman's proposals seriously unless he can say exactly what the resource costs will be and where that money will come from.

The hon. Gentleman also has to say who would decide, once a judge has determined that there will be a sentence of between two years and four years, whether two, three or four years are served. Would it be the court? I think the judges would like to have some control over that. Or would it be a prison governor? How would that work? Or would it be done by an additional layer of complicated bureaucracy for the parole board? Those are serious questions and the hon. Gentleman needs to answer them.

The hon. Gentleman also proposed a sentencing commission. As I said on 5 December last year, and have repeated since, there is no suggestion that a sentencing commission—such as an upgraded Sentencing Guidelines Council—could or should ever be used to fetter judicial discretion or to manage the prison population down. The prison population will rise for the next 10 to 15 years according to almost any scenario one can foresee, and Parliament and everybody else accepts that.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. Parliament does have a critical role to play in setting the framework for sentencing, and in deciding on the level of taxpayers' money to be spent on prison places and probation services that arise from that framework. That is nothing to do with linking individual sentences to the availability of resources. We make different judgments from those in the United States, which typically spends four or five times as much on prison places and has four or five times as many. We spend more per head than other jurisdictions in Europe, apart from Portugal. There is an argument for spending some more, and we are doing that, but we do not want to see either the low level of sentencing that some European countries have or the very high level that some states in the US go in for.

We seek a formal mechanism whereby the impact of proposed sentencing changes is assessed by an independent body, which we would call a sentencing commission, so that Government and Parliament are properly informed about the decisions that they take and understand what resources will be necessary to deliver those changes. We do not seek a restriction on judicial independence, but rather much better information about the resource implications and consistency of sentencing. The fact that offenders in Surrey found guilty of an indictable offence in a magistrates court on an either-way offence have a 9 per cent. chance of being sent to prison, whereas in Bedfordshire it is a 23 per cent. chance, raises questions about consistency of sentencing and which approach is better. I am not saying that we should ever tell sentencers what to do, but we need to have the debate and for sentencers to be aware of it.

There are already guidelines laid down by the SGC, which is chaired by the Lord Chief Justice, and that works well, but I want to build on that, not least to ensure—as many of the judiciary are aware—that there is much better information available to the judiciary. Rather than damning the report by Lord Justice Gage and his distinguished colleagues before even seeing it, the hon. Gentleman should await its publication. He was, if I might say so, tilting at windmills earlier. I do not want this—

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Well, as a member of the learned General Council of the Bar, I merely say that it is not always right. Sometimes it is a bit behind the times.

I do not want this issue to be turned into a political football—the others, yes. I tell the hon. Gentleman, in case he has forgotten, that the key words I quoted about the nature of the mechanism were the exact words that he used in a speech he made in November last year.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

Will the Secretary of State explain why he said that whereas we do not want to go in the direction of the US, which has very high rates of incarceration, nor we do not want to go in the direction of European countries, which have either always had lower rates of imprisonment than we do or have moved to them, as Finland has? Where is the evidence that their method is less effective than ours? Does not the evidence rather point the other way?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am sure that the evidence in Finland is that that system is effective in Finland. I know Finland a little, and I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that our society in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is just different. I happen to believe that there is a connection, as we debated earlier, between the fact that crime has gone down by a third and that the prison population has gone up by a third. I do not claim that there is an exact statistical connection, but we have had problems—we still do—with crime and disorder to a greater degree than Finland has. We need to develop solutions that are suitable for here, which would not necessarily suit Finland. We shall learn, of course. We always seek to learn, not least about how to make community punishments more effective. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend Mr. Hanson, will say more about that later.

The first responsibility of any Government is the safety and security of the public. This debate has been about the challenges that we face in meeting those responsibilities. It is about how we punish and reform offenders effectively, improve reoffending rates and ensure that prison is tough, fair and constructive. It is about ensuring, too, that there are sufficient resources to meet the needs of the system. According to any analysis or comparison, we are meeting those challenges. Crime is down, and we are the first Administration since the war to achieve that. There is already a record increase in prison places and a record building programme over the next six years, and a big investment in the probation service to ensure more effective community punishments.

The debate is also about a choice about a party that presided over a record rise in crime and whose economic policies, in truth, would lead not to more investment in the criminal justice system but to less, as they would across the public service. The choice is between the relative success of our approach and the unquestionable failures of theirs. I urge the House to support the amendment and to reject the motion.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice 8:42 pm, 17th June 2008

I agree with Nick Herbert on one point—there is a crisis in the prison system. It has a record population of 83,000 and there are predictions, as we have just heard from the Lord Chancellor, of further increases. Overcrowding is increasing again. There is a breakdown in the capacity of the system to deliver rehabilitation programmes, which is causing chaos, especially in the indeterminate sentences for public protection—people cannot get out of prison until they complete their programmes, but there is no capacity to deliver those programmes. That leads to a situation that is unsatisfactory to the extent of being illegal.

Prisoners travel up and down the country, sometimes effectively and sometimes not. In fact, I recently visited Bedford prison, where I was told that the equivalent of the entire population of the prison turned over once every 50 days. In those circumstances, delivering rehabilitation is near to impossible. In addition to that, reoffending rates are high. It is that crisis that has led to the use of early release schemes and home detention curfews. I think that the hon. Gentleman is right that those programmes are being used without proper consultation because of the need for speed and the need to deal with the crisis. However, I part company from the hon. Gentleman on the reason given in the motion for the crisis. In effect, the Conservative motion says that the crisis has come about because the Government did not build enough prison places, and will continue because the Government will not deliver extra prison places in the future. That is not why the crisis is with us; it is with us because the wrong people are in prison.

My hon. Friend Richard Younger-Ross mentioned the mentally ill, and we might also consider the addicted. Some 70 per cent. of prisoners suffer from two or more recognised mental illnesses. Treatment must be the first priority. Yes, some of those people will have to be treated in secure facilities, but the first priority must be to help them, not to build new prisons. That is not the only issue; later in my speech I will talk about methods other than prison building—better methods—that could be used to prevent crime.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned one member of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, Nicky Padfield. Let me mention another, Professor Friedrich Lösel, who recently wrote that with the right changes in policy, we could reduce the prison population by 30 per cent. and reduce crime. However, that would mean serious policy changes that would have to be implemented over an extended period. I will return to that subject later.

First, I want to talk about the extraordinary statement in the first line of the Government amendment, to which the Lord Chancellor alluded. It is the line in which we are invited to welcome

"the Government's record in cutting crime by a third", as though the Government could claim credit for the reduction in crime. I agree with the Lord Chancellor that there has been a reduction in crime, especially according to the British crime survey figures, although there has been a slight increase in recorded crime, but that is mainly in line with recorded crime figures across Europe. As he said, there have been a number of accounting changes that could easily explain that increase.

There has been a fall in crime, and there are three things to say about that. First, the reduction started in 1995, not 1997. Indeed, since 1995, crime has gone down by way over 40 per cent., and there were bigger falls per year in the final years of the Major Government than under the Labour Government. The second point is that there are no obvious differences between the trends in Britain and the trends in other western developed countries. In Canada, for example, crime is at its lowest for 25 years and has also fallen by a third since the mid-1990s. According to the international crime victim survey, in France, crime has almost halved since 1995. The survey also shows that in the three European countries that have kept comparable figures for the longest, namely Britain, Finland and the Netherlands, the pattern of crime over 30 years has been near identical.

It seems impossible to claim that the fall in crime is anything to do with this Government's policies. Indeed, it is quite difficult to claim that it has anything to do with any Government's policies. We are seeing the same pattern across the western world, which means that the fall must have more to do with social and economic conditions than with the details of Government policy in one country or another. Of course, this Government have form when it comes to claiming credit for global changes. They claimed the credit for improvements in the global economy.

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

Is that why Liberal Democrat policy is not to imprison drug offenders?

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

That is not our policy. Our policy is to imprison offenders. If offenders happen to be drug addicts, they should receive treatment in prison, if prison is the appropriate sentence for their crimes.

Let me return to the point about claiming credit. What will happen when those chickens come home to roost? Researchers have found an overall relationship between property crime and economic conditions. The Government have claimed the credit for reductions in property crime in times of economic prosperity, but will they bear the blame when those conditions change and crime rises? If they do, I will be surprised.

The third point to make about the claim of the fall in crime since 1997 is that, since crime seems to have fallen nearly everywhere else in almost exactly the same way—except in Belgium, where something odd happened that no one can quite work out—Britain remains near the top of the list for the rate of victimisation. Some 22 per cent. of people are the victims of crime in this country in an average year, as opposed to 15 per cent., which is normal for the developed world. So it is true that the situation here is better than it was, but it is not good, and it is still not good compared with other countries.

A more important question than whether there has been a general reduction in crime—a reduction in crime has happened everywhere—is whether we are doing as well as we could to prevent crime and to reduce reoffending, and it is not obvious to me that we are. Reoffending rates are extremely poor in Britain. The debate between the two Front Benchers was about whether the rates are worse or remain the same. The plain fact is that they are bad. About two thirds of offenders reoffend within two years. The reoffending figure is 73 per cent. for men between the ages of 18 and 20 who are given custodial sentences, and it is even higher for some sub-categories.

By contrast, in countries such as Denmark, which is very similar in many ways to ours and very similar even in having only a slightly lower crime rate than ours—it is not in the category of countries, such as Portugal, that have very much lower crime rates—reoffending rates are astonishingly lower. In 2003, the rate was 27 per cent.

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Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

Has the hon. Gentleman looked further into that research on reconviction rates and realised that the longer that people spend in prison, the less likely they are to reoffend and that the reoffending rate for people who spend four to 10 years in prison is about 33 per cent., which means that prison works?

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

I have heard the hon. Gentleman make that point in the past, but that figure is produced by the fact the people in that category commit very different crimes from the people in the categories that are given shorter sentences. However, he is right in one respect: we should be looking at what works to reduce reoffending. That is the crucial question. If prison worked in the way that he thinks it does, I would be prepared to think about it as a way forward; but, unfortunately, in general, it does not. Short sentences especially do not work.

We know about a number of different ways to sentence offenders that work better. The most obvious one is restorative justice, whereby the offender is confronted with the victim and with the harm that has been done to the victim. Reconviction rates in restorative justice have been consistently found in scientifically controlled experiments to be much lower than when offenders are given other sentences. The difference varies between 15 and 26 percentage points lower—a vast improvement. It works even better for some more serious crimes than for less serious crimes. It also helps victims with the trauma and pain of being victims and helps them to overcome their experience. One of the big questions that those of us who have been victims of crime always ask is, "Why me?" Restorative justice helps to deal with that feeling. Will the Lord Chancellor state when we are likely to see the evaluation of the London trials of restorative justice, which he promised would be published this month?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The evaluation was published on Monday. I am not trying to catch the hon. Gentleman out—he cannot be expected to be aware of everything that is published—but it was published on Monday to my virtually certain knowledge, because on Monday morning I went through the schedule of things that were due to be published, and it was one of them.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

That is good news. I hope that the evaluation shows that restorative justice was successful in that experiment.

I do not want to go through all the other possibilities on sentencing, but I must mention some of them. There is good empirical evidence that shows that specialist courts, such as drug courts, work. Some interventions outside the criminal justice system work, too. For example, early intervention has been mentioned, and it will reduce crime in the longer term. Even simple things such as teaching basic social skills to children and teaching basic parenting skills to adults work.

Even after offending behaviour has been noticed, some evidence suggests that some forms of therapy work—for example, cognitive behavioural therapy works—but it is also true that other forms of therapy do not work. The important point is to act on what the evidence tells us. There are other ways in which we can act on evidence: hot-spot policing works; other forms of policing do not. There should always be room for new proposals, as long as they are independently evaluated and we work to the evidence rather than to the prejudices of the people who are advancing the ideas.

John Battle is no longer with us, but he mentioned Lord Ramsbotham's suggestion of young offender academies. That idea is worth trying, because it would build on what we know helps to reduce reoffending. We know that reoffending is higher where offenders have no job, where they are homeless, where they lack close relationships and where they are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Aspects of Lord Ramsbotham's proposal attempt to deal with each of those problems and with other problems that we know on the evidence are related to success.

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport

Is my hon. Friend surprised that such proposals have been tried in the past? A particularly successful scheme, which taught young offenders crafts and furniture restoration, was tried in Wilton, but it was closed down under the Conservatives, who believed that short, sharp shock was a better policy.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

That is certainly the case, and I will move on to discuss what does not work. Other approaches may work, such as community justice panels, which have been tried in south Somerset—there is some evidence that that approach is successful.

We know that certain things will not work. Titan prisons have been mentioned, but the evidence suggests that they are unlikely to be successful. What do we know about unsuccessful interventions? Short, sharp shocks did not work; boot camps did not work; and there is increasing evidence that antisocial behaviour orders and tagging do not work. What do all those things have in common? They are all tough-sounding, popular and populist, but, most importantly, they do not work.

The same is true to a large extent, although not to a complete extent, of prison. Prison is by far the most popular sentence with the public, the media and David T.C. Davies, but it does not work, at least not in the way it is implemented in Britain. That takes us back to the question why our prisons are so ineffective compared with, for example, prisons in Denmark. The Government amendment boasts about the Government's prison-building programme, which is bizarre in a country where prison is so unsuccessful. That approach might make sense in another country where prison is more successful, but not here. So, the central point is that over the years, vast resources have been poured into policies that we all know do not work. It presumably happened because those policies, as my hon. Friend mentioned, are more popular than the policies that we know will work. So, what do we do? It is not enough to say that sentences must be tough if toughness means ineffectiveness. Effectiveness should be the touchstone of policy making, not toughness. But the issue is worse than that. If we put into ineffective policies public money that we could have put into policies that work and reduce crime, in effect we allow more crime than there would have been had we put the money into the right policies.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

I am reluctant to interrupt the careful flow of my hon. Friend's argument, but is not part of the problem the fact that some of the interventions that would work most effectively to prevent crime are completely outside the budgetary arrangement of the criminal justice system, residing in fields such as education, social services and the care system for children and young people? Effecting a transfer from the criminal justice system to those areas is something that our system seems congenitally incapable of doing.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

It does indeed seem to be incapable of doing so, and that is one consequence of our system's over-centralisation. Once one places all the power in central Government, one ends up with such silos. It might be easier to undertake such work if we were to localise the system to a greater extent.

The point that I was trying to make was that every pound that we spend on an ineffective programme as opposed to on an effective programme is a pound that effectively increases crime. That means that Governments in search of popularity have been responsible for there being more crime than there should have been. We need to think about the issue in a new way. Perhaps the way to put it is like this: those who fail to take effective action against crime and instead take ineffective action are objectively pro-crime; they allow extra crime to happen. That is precisely what we must stop. A consensus among politicians of all parties—I do not exclude my own from this—has brought us to this situation of crisis, record prison populations and unsatisfactory short-term expedients, such as early release schemes and the extension of home detention curfews. We must move away from that system of thought. We need a new consensus—within the bounds of morality and common decency—that is built around what works, because until we reach that new consensus, we will continue to suffer more crime than we need to.

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Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East 9:03 pm, 17th June 2008

May I begin by apologising to Nick Herbert? I missed the first few minutes of his speech, because I had other, inescapable business elsewhere in the House, but no discourtesy was intended.

It is a pleasure to follow David Howarth, not least because we share a surname. I take slight issue with one of the contentions in his speech. On reflection, he may care to rethink his position. He said that, basically, there seem to be no circumstances in which prison works. However, there can be a debate about what regime is most appropriate.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

I did not say that. I was trying to point out that in different countries, prison works. In Denmark, reconviction rates are very low, and we need to think about why their prison system works far better than ours.

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

I am sure that there is no great difference between us, but I should make two points. First, manifestly, in one sense, prison at all times does work. By definition, anybody who is incarcerated is not at large to commit further offences. That is self-evident. The second point, which may be nearer to that of the hon. Gentleman than I am comfortable with, is that some regimes work better with certain kinds of offender than others, and we need to have a better understanding of how that process works.

Part of the debate has centred on the Carter report and the working group chaired by Lord Justice Gage, which is considering that report's implications. I want at this point to make a confession. A Member of this House is a member of that working group—namely, me. I therefore need to be careful about what I say during the course of the debate. I would plead with the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs not to prejudge the report that the working group will produce. There has been a great deal of thought and work on the part of all its members as to how they should proceed. I do not want to prejudge the report, as it is not yet fully written and no definite conclusions have been arrived at, but he may find some of its conclusions interesting—he may even find reasons to agree with some of them.

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Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am particularly interested in the right hon. Gentleman's response to the Secretary of State's assertion that Lord Justice Gage's working party may produce greater consistency in sentencing. Is it actively considering that, or is it only in the mind of the Secretary of State?

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

If the hon. and learned Gentleman will let me develop my speech, I may answer that question in a slightly different way, but I hope that he will recognise it when I come to it.

It is important that I flag up some of the issues without arriving at definite conclusions from points that the working group has considered, which echo some of those made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs. The first issue is judicial independence and whether anybody who managed a sentencing system would be in any way inimical to that. Under the current process, the Sentencing Advisory Panel and the Sentencing Guidelines Council have, to some extent, an influence on judicial decision making. There is still a lot of scope for those who decide on sentences to be able to decide within the ranges that are produced what is an appropriate sentence in an individual case. They are not tied down by the guidelines, but the guidelines must have some influence on the decisions that are arrived at. There is already an element of that in the system, if not to the degree considered by Lord Carter.

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Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

The right hon. Gentleman touches on an interesting area of conflict between the Executive and the judiciary. At the moment, the court of criminal appeal provides the sort of guidance that the Secretary of State and the right hon. Gentleman have been looking for. If the new body comes to fruition, it will be an executive body that provides yet another layer of "guidance" on sentences. Although there may be some variation in sentencing between magistrates court areas, does he not accept that the variations often reflect differences in local concerns? What may be an appropriate sentence for a crime in the Liverpool area, where a particular type of crime is prevalent, may not be necessary in another part—

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. May I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that interventions are meant to be brief? There are still a number of Back Benchers wishing to make a contribution to this debate.

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

The hon. and learned Gentleman is presumably aware that the Sentencing Guidelines Council already exists and is a long way along the road of publishing fairly comprehensive guidelines on a large variety of key offences. That process is already under way. The issue of inconsistency between one magistrates court area and another is complicated, and if I got heavily into that, my speech would take longer than it should. For certain offences, there has to be consistency. The hon. and learned Gentleman intervened; perhaps he would do me the courtesy of listening to the response. There are some types of offence—not necessarily those that will be heard in magistrates courts—for which it would be absurd if there were not consistency, particularly more serious offences, and I am sure that he would agree.

The second issue that I wanted to mention concerns the data we have and how well we understand decisions taken in sentencing, whether in a magistrates court or a higher court by a judge. When they depart from guidelines, we need to know how they have arrived at a decision—whether it was by taking into account aggravating or mitigating factors. We do not have a great deal of data on that at the moment, and it is difficult to understand what is going on in such circumstances. The working group has conducted a survey of where there are such variations, and those interested in such matters may find its conclusions interesting. It is not complete yet, and the information has not been analysed, but I suspect that the information provided by that survey—probably the first of its kind—will be useful to all of us.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned the Minnesota model. Lord Justice Gage and some of the secretariat from the working group visited Minnesota and North Carolina, which have sentencing commissions. Without revealing too much of the thinking, it is understood that those two types of system are not appropriate for our judicial process. I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to go much further, but difficulties lie in the differences between the sort of legal system that exists at state level in the United States and what we have in this country. The hon. Gentleman need not concern himself overly with the comparisons that may be made between the two.

My final point concerns the relationship at the heart of the discussion between the totality of sentencing decisions and the correctional facilities available, and how we arrive at a balance between the two. I probably have more sympathy with the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs than I ought to about this, but at the moment we deal with the matter through a form of early release system. That is not unique to this Government; every Government have had to do it from time to time. In my view, that is entirely unsatisfactory because it means that decisions are fairly arbitrarily taken away from the courts. If a court decides that somebody should be sentenced in a given range, and an early release system of some sort kicks in, the offender does not serve the sentence in that range. That is unsatisfactory, yet we currently do that. It is certainly not the answer.

The second method of dealing with the problem is providing sufficient headroom in the correctional facilities that are available so that, whatever the number of people sentenced, there will always be room. That is an attractive proposition, but is any Parliament, when determining the funds for social policies—health, education and so on—likely to vote sufficient funds to a prison estate that will be larger than anyone can predict to ensure that there is never a crisis in the prison system? I suspect that, if we are honest and realistic, that will never happen.

There must be a system of balancing the two methods. Overcrowding is the other method that has been mentioned, but what constitutes overcrowding is a difficult debate to hold, and I should probably not follow that route, other than to acknowledge that it is one way in which to deal with the problem.

I honestly believe that there is scope for changes that should attract a consensus in the House. I hope that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs and his colleagues will not prejudge the report of the working group, on which I serve. I hope that they will give it serious attention and accept that, although I sit on it, the group set about its work on a non-partisan, non-party political basis. I did not make my contributions on a party political basis. We have given the matter serious thought and I hope that those who read the report will recognise that, whatever its conclusions, it has been produced in a non-partisan spirit, in the hope of attracting some consensus.

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Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking 9:17 pm, 17th June 2008

As always, I begin by declaring an interest as a Crown court recorder and a part-time district judge. Sentencing is an important issue and it is a pity that the debate is not longer, that it has not been better attended and that Opposition Back Benchers have 23 minutes between us to make our points.

I speak from experience in the House and in the courts across London and the south-east. In the time available, I want to focus on sentencing, especially in relation to two crimes and our approach to them. First, I want to consider knife crime. We are in the age of the blade, and all hon. Members will have been horrified in the past few months by so many nasty knife crimes around London and other cities. Some have been mentioned tonight.

I have been in court and listened to witnesses describe what it is like when somebody brings out a knife—the flash of steel, the terror, the legs turning to jelly; the evil of a knife when it is shown to one. I heard a troubling statistic when the Violent Crime Reduction Bill was considered in Parliament three years ago and I asked about knives in schools. I was told that, according to Government figures, some 20,000 children aged 11 to 16 carried a knife into school for offensive purposes and some 40,000 children aged 11 to 16 carried a knife into school for defensive purposes—60,000 children with knives in our schools.

It was and is an horrific figure, and it should trouble us all tonight much more than anything else that we have heard. How can it be, in this age of the blade, that 60,000 children are taking blades into school? What about the children outside school, across the cities? How many tens of thousands are carrying knives? How many hundreds of thousands? If Government figures say that 60,000 children are taking knives into school, we are facing a true tragedy, but we have not got to grips with it.

There have been far too few prosecutions. In 2005, only 73 youngsters were prosecuted for having a bladed article or offensive weapon on school premises. Only a modest amount received any form of custodial sentence. It is no wonder the public are in despair. Can someone not get to grips with knives in school? What are we going to do? The police and head teachers have plenty of powers already. Somebody, somewhere, has got to send out the message that it will not do for 11 to 16-year-olds and 16 to 18-year-olds to carry knives, and that it will be punished with custody.

In debates on what became the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, I suggested a mandatory three-month sentence for such offences, unless there were exceptional circumstances. What happened? The Government rubbished my proposal, saying that there were probably not enough prison places. What summed up the Government's position at that time? I shall tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I said in Committee, they had answered a written question, saying—can you credit this?—that

"It is essential to educate young people about the dangers and consequences of becoming involved in criminality associated with weapon-carrying and the Home Office funds and operates a number of community-based initiatives aimed at encouraging good citizenship and turning vulnerable young people away from crime."—[ Hansard, 3 November 2004; Vol. 426, c. 300-301W.]

Encouraging initiatives? Tell that to people on some of the estates that I have seen in London. We in this House must send the message that knife carrying among young people must be stamped out, and stamped out hard.

I turn to my next point. Come with me to a court in south London, Madam Deputy Speaker, and look over at the dock. You see a man who looks 50 years old. He is scratching his arms. He is grey haired. He is stuttering. He is wobbling. He can barely lift his head. He is charged with stealing £60 worth of razor blades yesterday from a local supermarket. Why? To sell them, to get the money to buy his heroin. He looks a beaten man. He looks quite elderly. I ask him how old he is. He says 26. This is his 35th conviction in that court for a drug offence. He steals to fund his habit.

When are we going to get to grips with the issue of drugs? Every heroin addict I have seen—and my God they come from some bad backgrounds; I shall say a word about that later—started with cannabis and solvents at the age of 11 or 12, and moved on to cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin. They are ruined at 26 years old. They have no self-esteem. They come from the most rotten estates.

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Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon PPS (Jim Knight, Minister of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that this Government have done more than any other to help support people who have problems not only with drugs but with alcohol? I appreciate that there are not enough services in my constituency, but they are there and we are starting to tackle the problems faced by people with drug and alcohol problems who go on to commit crimes.

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"Starting to tackle the problems" is way too late! There must be some recognition that drugs and alcohol are often used to self-medicate other areas of life where accessing help can be very difficult. Whether through mental...

Submitted by Dee Speers Continue reading (and 1 more annotation)

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

Oh, if I had time tonight, I would tell the hon. Lady just where the Government have failed. She was not here earlier when we discussed drug treatment and testing orders—the great panacea—which were introduced a few years ago. Does she know anything about them? They collapsed—abandoned; failed—with an 80 per cent. reoffending rate and a 90 per cent. breach rate. Does she know that? She comes out with these platitudes about what the Government are doing here and there, but they need to do a lot more.

What about the young man from the rotten estate, who has a Prozac-addicted mother and a violent father—alcohol, no self-esteem, no education, no job, nothing—and who has to be sentenced? He has drifted into heroin and we have got to get him out of it. It is no good sending him day after day through the revolving door of prison. That is no good at all. What we have to do is think constructively, which brings me to my last point on sentencing.

We should think more about residential rehab for drug offenders. I have seen it; I know it can work; I have passed the sentence. There are no statistics showing how successful it is, but my goodness it can often be better than prison because sometimes these heroin addicts are victims just as much as criminals. Something has to be done. Prison costs £800 a week; residential rehab, on average, costs £675 a week. All around the country, these residential centres cannot get enough money; there is no money around. Yet the judges want to pass that form of sentence more and more.

There are two further issues. First, on knives, we have got to do something rather than just talk about it and snatch a headline, which we can all do from time to time. Secondly, drugs are, in my judgment, the biggest evil that the criminal justice system has faced during the past 15 years. It is the thing that destroys most lives and ruins otherwise good young people. I repeat that we have got to take a more positive attitude.

What is my last word? Cannabis. Sentencing on cannabis has been a joke for 25 years. "Smith, you are charged with possession of cannabis, how do you plead?" "Guilty." "Stand up. You are fined £50 and the drug will be forfeited and destroyed. Next case, please." Spare a thought for the next case, which is crossing a red traffic light—the penalty: £100. We do not take it seriously enough, early enough. That is my last comment.

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Thank you wider issues again and yes "what about the young man from the rotten estate, who has a Prozac-addicted mother and a violent father—alcohol, no self-esteem, no education, no job, nothing—and who has to be sentenced? He has drifted into heroin and we have got to get him out of it. It is no good sending him day after day through the revolving door of prison. That is no good at all. What we have to do is think constructively and SMARTER = Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time Bound, Evaluate and Review.
Each only work effecively with the other and what will Mr Cameron and his team do when they get the chance to look at the young man from the rotten estate, who has a Prozac-addicted mother (why is she on Prozac?) and a violent father—alcohol(what is his story?) no self-esteem(result of parenting?) no education (who regulates the education system and overviews the rate of non-attendance?), no job (how will this be addressed?), nothing(kids learn what they live)—and who has to be sentenced?"(because life says that you need money to survive and how do you get this money?)How will the Tory Party address this and what is going to be offered to try and rebuild these shattered lives?
"He has drifted into heroin and we have got to get him out of it.(HOW?) It is no good sending him day after day through the revolving door of prison. That is no good at all. What we have to do is think constructively (HOW?)

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Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin 9:27 pm, 17th June 2008

I am conscious of the time, so I shall be brief in order to allow my hon. Friend David T.C. Davies to share his important thoughts with us. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Malins on making a speech that was brief, but also wise and thoughtful; he is a man of great experience and integrity.

The Secretary of State was slightly embarrassed earlier when my hon. Friend Nick Herbert reminded him of the record prison population—and rightly so, because overcrowding is unhealthy, it increases risk and is perhaps itself unlawful. My concern is for prison staff, as I believe overcrowding is increasing the number of assaults on them. It clearly causes great stress within these facilities. Indeed, prison officers are often going off work with stress, which in some cases leads to long periods of sick leave because of the extra pressures in overcrowded prisons. The Government have a duty to look after not only the prisoners but, perhaps even more so, the prison staff within their employ. They are failing to do that.

I would like to focus on Shrewsbury prison, which is a major prison in Shropshire and the nearest to my own constituency. The prison provides accommodation for 181 prisoners, but the actual population, on the basis of figures released just a few months ago, is 329. That means an overpopulation of 182 per cent. Shrewsbury prison is the most overpopulated prison in England and Wales. That is a disgrace, not only for those seeking education and rehabilitation within the prison so that they do not carry on reoffending, but for the hard-working, committed and dedicated public servants who staff the prison.

We heard earlier from John Battle, but he neglected to tell the House that Leeds prison is currently 151 per cent. overpopulated. It is wrong that West Mercia police are being called upon time and again to act as full-time custodial officers, taking prisoners not only from Wales but from parts of the west midlands such as Wolverhampton. Once again, that is down to the neglect and failure of the Government. Mr. Howarth said earlier that he did not want to be partisan or party political—absolutely not, but it is interesting that those comments are made only when the Government are desperate for friends; when they do not need friends, they are very happy to be adversarial and partisan. On an issue of such importance, it is right that we bring the Government to account, as we are attempting to do this evening.

I would like more thought given to the number of foreign nationals in our prisons. Of the 83,000 people now in prison, 11,000 are foreign nationals. We need a review to find out how we can get some of them to serve their sentences in their own countries, perhaps by having some financial arrangement with the home countries. I suspect that it would be less than the £30,000 a year that it costs the British taxpayer to fund prison places for each individual.

We have heard about rehabilitation. It is absolutely right that we should try to get people off drugs and rehabilitated. I am glad that my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron is committed to having 20,000 extra drug rehabilitation places. I commend him for that. Education, libraries and access to learning are also crucial. Of course, as we have heard, all those are stagnating because of the current overpopulation of many prisons.

The third sector—the voluntary or charitable sector—provides many answers to many of the problems discussed tonight. Yet the Government are not freeing up the organisations within it, and not giving them enough access to come into prisons to provide those valuable solutions that we all seek.

I commend prison chaplains on their excellent work. I hope that political correctness, or pandering to certain minorities, does not mean that the Government put up barriers to their excellent work. I hope that the Minister of State, who is looking slightly confused, will go on the record as saying that he supports the work of prison chaplains, and that he would speak to any prison governor who tried to throw them out because of political correctness.

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

I support prison chaplains, and I support prison imams and people from all faiths who help in prisons.

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Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I hope that those words will be noted by any prison governors who believe that prison chaplains are not suitable for the modern prison.

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

If the hon. Gentleman can give me any evidence of that, I would welcome it and look into the matter.

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Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I am grateful that my fishing skills are still working. I am pleased that the Minister took the bait, and I will be happy to do that.

We heard about bail hostels. My hon. Friend Nick Herbert was right that ClearSprings needs to come clean about where it operates and the types of people within its hostels. I believe that there is one ClearSprings bail hostel in my constituency, and possibly three, but there has been no public consultation. There certainly has been no consultation with the local council. Why is it that yet again the Government seem to be putting the rights of criminals before the rights of law-abiding citizens such as my constituents? It is absolutely wrong.

In conclusion, it is a great paradox that we have a Government who want to let out prisoners who we know have committed offences, but want to lock up British people who we know have not committed offences. They are failing in their first duty to protect British citizens and my constituents, and they have to get their act together.

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Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth 9:33 pm, 17th June 2008

It is clear from what we have heard tonight that the current system of sentencing is nothing but a sham, a disgrace and a public confidence trick that has been perpetrated against the public for, in my opinion, far too long—for years, in fact, and in many ways it predates even this Government. At the moment, someone sentenced to one year in prison will spend about three months inside, someone sentenced to two years will spend about seven months inside, and someone sentenced to four years will spend just one year and seven months inside. Let us not forget that a four-year sentence is seen as a very serious sentence, and handed out only for crimes such as armed robbery.

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Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

Will the hon. Gentleman agree and accept, on the Floor of the House tonight, that the number of convictions fell by a third under a previous Conservative Administration, and that more people are in prison under this Government than was ever the case then?

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Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

The hon. Lady is trying to do what the Home Office does—blind us with statistics. One of the reasons there are so many people in prison is the number of foreign nationals who were not here under the Conservative Government. If we look at the number of indigenous British people in prison, we see that the overall number is not much greater.

This is yet another example of the way in which statistics are twisted and turned in an attempt to hide the fact that this Government are soft on crime and very soft on sentencing. Perhaps that is because they have swallowed too much of the anti-prison propaganda that has been emerging for far too many years from the Howard League for Penal Reform and many similar organisations—which, I might add, are not even prepared to debate the issues in public. Every time I receive an invitation to attend one of their conferences I write back, "Give me five minutes, give me three minutes, give me one minute, and I will stand up on the platform and prove that you lot are absolutely wrong." They never even bother to reply.

The reason those organisations are wrong is that they talk about the costs of prison, which is an argument that we heard earlier this evening. Let us examine those costs.

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Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I will give way in a minute, but the right hon. Gentleman should listen to this first.

We spend approximately £2 billion imprisoning 80,000 people. A report produced by the Government back in 2000 suggested that the total cost of crime in our society was about £60 billion a year. In 2003 Lord Carter—another supporter of the Government, I believe—produced a report showing that 50 per cent. of crime in this country was committed by a hard core of 100,000 offenders, of whom only 15,000 were in prison at any given time. The other 85,000 were on the loose, presumably serving community sentences.

The simple fact that we can deduce from that, using the Government's own figures, is that if we doubled the prison population from approximately 82,000 to approximately 160,000, removing the 85,000 people who are committing half the crime in the country, it would of course double the cost of imprisonment from £2 billion to £4 billion, but we could make a net saving of £30 billion for the taxpayer. That is the saving that could be made if we halved the amount of crime in the country. That means that prison is a bargain for the taxpayer, and the more prisons we can build the better.

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

I greatly regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman has been denied a platform for his views. Has he given any consideration to resigning and fighting a by-election on the issue?

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Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I do not intend to do that: I intend to go on fighting for what I believe in here. I can also assure him, however, that if I ever were to do it, a large majority in this country would support me. Anyone who has been a victim of crime believes that prison works, and prisoners do not want to go to prison. That is why all defence solicitors try to obtain community sentences for their clients.

Community sentences are not tougher. I have seen them in action. I could tell stories of people serving so-called tough community sentences effing and blinding at staff, demanding that chips be brought to them because they cannot be bothered to queue. I have stood and watched that happen. I have friends in the police force who have seen people serving community sentences who have been unwilling to get off the bus because there is a light drizzle: they do not want to get wet because that would infringe their human rights. That is the reality of community sentences: they are not in the least bit tough, which is why all defence solicitors try to get their clients community sentences rather than prison sentences.

The arguments about deterrence and reconviction rates do not add up. We know that the rate is about 60 per cent. in generic terms, whether people are serving a community sentence or a prison sentence, but if we break prison sentencing down, as I did earlier, we see that the longer prisoners serve, the less likely they are to reoffend. That is not simply because many are serving life sentences because they have committed murder. Those who are sentenced to between four and 10 years in prison are only 33 per cent. likely to reoffend within two years. The reason is simple: as any prison officer will confirm, those dealing with these people need a bit of time to work with them.

This is where I suddenly become a bit more fluffy and Guardian-reading. [Laughter.] Yes, it is a bit of a shock, isn't it? There are things that I heard earlier with which I actually agreed. Many people who end up in the penal system come from very difficult backgrounds. Typically they have no education and no social skills, and they have drug and alcohol problems. We can all agree on that. But we will not help people like that by sentencing them to a year in prison and then letting them out three months later, returning them to the estates where their problems began.

I do not have enough time to say more about this now, but I do not believe in throwing people into a cage and leaving them there. I believe that much more needs to be done in prisons to help those with drug and alcohol problems, and to give them the vocational skills—perhaps even academic skills in some cases—that will allow them to obtain jobs in the outside world. At the same time, I would be a little tougher and say, "If they're not prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that we must put in front of them, they don't come out of prison."

It is obvious from the Government's own figures that prison works, that it is good for the taxpayer, that it is good for the victims, who get justice, and that it can also be good for the prisoners themselves. I commend my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Garnier, who I am sure will be this country's next Justice Minister, for the work that he will do in building more prisons and putting more people who deserve to be there into prison, but also in helping those with serious drug problems to get help elsewhere, so they do not get wrapped up in the penal system.

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Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice) 9:40 pm, 17th June 2008

This has been a short and overcrowded debate, and I am sorry that there has not been long enough for other Members to contribute—or for Members of my party to speak for longer, as in the limited time they have had there have been some stellar speeches. That demonstrates that my party, at least, has thought about the questions we face today.

Before I deal with the motion and the Government amendment, I want to highlight a couple of points that have been made in the debate. It pains me—not very much, but somewhat—to have to say that the Secretary of State can never be accused of rising to the occasion. I am sorry that he is not present. I think he must be the only Cabinet Minister who is able to make an after-dinner speech well before dinner. It concerns me that he is able to treat a subject of such importance with such levity. I fear that the longer he remains in office, either as Home Secretary or as Secretary of State for Justice, the less chance we have of seeing a coherent strategic approach to the criminal justice issues that our motion describes. Let us hope that the Minister of State, who has thought about these issues with greater concentration, is able to sum up on behalf of the Government in more attractive fashion.

The Secretary of State rightly said that the number of escapes from category A prisons is now down to more or less zero, but the real issues nowadays for security in prisons is not who escapes unlawfully from the custodial estate—the open estate is a different matter, of course—but what contraband gets in either over the walls or through visitors or prison officers smuggling stuff in. That statement gives me the opportunity to agree with Members who have paid tribute to those who work in prisons: prison and probation officers, those who work in the education service in prisons, and all those who work to keep the people whom the courts have sent to prison safe, in an attempt to rehabilitate and reform them so that they come back on to our streets, as many of them do, in a better condition and fitter to spend their time back in society, looking after themselves and their dependants and paying their way.

That is not an easy task. I have visited more than 45 custodial institutions since I was appointed to this job, and I can assure anybody who doubts it that prisons are not pleasant places to work or live in. We have a Government who were prepared, through neglect, to allow Norwich prison, for example, to continue to be run in a state of filth, with sewage leaking out of the pipes and into the areas where prison officers had to work and prisoners had to live. When we have a Government who were prepared to allow that to go on—and to do so because they had so managed the system that it was overcrowded and they could not decant the wing in order to repair it—we have a Government of which I, and I think most civilised and rational people, despair.

My hon. Friend Nick Herbert set out the case that my party makes against this Government, and one looks to their amendment to see how they respond to that charge—one does not look to the Secretary of State's speech for that, because it did not provide the answer. The Prime Minister's amendment claims that we should welcome

"the Government's record in cutting crime by a third, its provision of 23,000 more prison places since 1997, and its commitment to create a total of 96,000 prison places by 2014, demonstrating that public protection is at the heart of its strategy".

One has only to examine the facts to see that violent crime, particularly crime involving knives and guns, has increased. The overall level of crime may have been reduced, but the public are rightly worried.

People realise that our prisons are more overcrowded than they ever have been, and that the rise in the number of prisoners from 60,000 to 83,000 should not be a point of pride. It should be a point of shame, especially when one considers what is done for prisoners inside prison—nothing. That is not because the prison officers are not doing enough work or because the educationists are not doing enough to help, but because the Government have so overcrowded the prison estate that nothing meaningful can be done to assist in their rehabilitation.

Until we can get reformed and rehabilitated prisoners who come out into society as useful citizens, the reoffending rate will remain as high as it is. Until we can do that, and until the point made so eloquently just now by my hon. Friend Mr. Malins—he has made it before, but it appears not to have touched the consciousness of the Government—is drilled into the Government's brain, nothing will be done and this hopeless carousel of people appearing before him and before me when we sit as recorders and as sentencers will continue. Nothing will be done in terms either of the moral rightness of the case about which we complain or of public expenditure, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woking on what he said.

I also listened with great care to what David Howarth had to say. I did not go to Cambridge—I went to an older university—but I think that many who did, including perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs, will have felt that the hon. Gentleman's speech was like a law lecture given in the faculty.

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Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

No, it was not that good, but it was a thoughtful and constructive speech, I enjoyed listening to it and I hope that the Government will pay attention to it.

I also found the speech made by Mr. Howarth thoughtful. The interventions that I made upon him were deliberately designed to find out more about the work of Lord Justice Gage's working party. I had not realised that the right hon. Gentleman was a member of it, but, having heard him speak, I am glad that he is. I take him at his word when he says that he is not interested in making party political points during its deliberations, because I am sure that he is not. I look forward with interest to reading the final recommendations of that working party, as I am sure we all do.

None the less, I retain my concerns about the motives behind the setting up of the working party and about this dangerous collision point between the Executive and the judiciary—I leave aside the concerns that we have as parliamentarians—on the interference with judicial discretion on sentencing. Sentencing is about the most difficult judicial task that sentencers have to carry out, and although the sentencing commission might be set up for one purpose, we need to be extremely careful that it does not achieve another.

My hon. Friends the Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) were crammed in at the very last moments of this debate and, not for the first time, they made some powerful points very powerfully. Time does not permit me to speak sufficiently about what they had to say.

It is not an idle boast when I say that the Conservatives are genuinely thinking hard about the issues that face us. The prison population is too high for the available capacity, and we want prisons to do what they cannot do at the moment: we want them to become places of education, hard work, rehabilitation and restoration. That would mean that prisoners who justly go to prison for committing serious crimes come out repaired, not only so that they do less harm to themselves, but so that they do real good to their families and those who live close to them.

Some £11 billion is wasted in the criminal justice system on reconvicting people, and we want to unlock that money and use it to get people off drugs, to teach people to read and write and to make them employable. It really will not do for the Secretary of State and his Ministers to tell us how much money they have put into the system, if nothing comes of it.

My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State had an exchange with the Secretary of State about the Prison Service instruction on those unlawfully at large. Again, I am afraid that time does not permit me to go into detail, but that is a live issue that the Secretary of State needs to resolve. The public cannot be expected to have any confidence in the criminal justice system if they get the impression that people who escape from prison and are unlawfully at large are rewarded, when they should not be.

My 10 minutes are up, and I must not trespass on the Minister's time. I have much more to say, and I hope that the fact that I am bringing my remarks to a conclusion will not give the Government a chance to say that we have nothing to say. We have—it is in our paper "Prisons with a Purpose". I urge the Minister to read it, learn from it and produce policy on the basis of it.

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Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 9:51 pm, 17th June 2008

We have had an interesting debate, which began with a fiery speech by Nick Herbert, who raised several points that he has made on other occasions. Speeches from Back Benchers ended with a particularly fiery one from David T.C. Davies. We do have several anger management courses in prison in which he could participate if he so wished. We also heard, as Mr. Garnier pointed out, some thoughtful speeches, not least from David Howarth, my right hon. Friend Mr. Howarth and Mr. Malins. This last raised the serious issues of knife crime and drugs. I hope I will have time to address some of those issues in some depth, if not to the complete satisfaction of Members.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the Government have a good record on prisoners and crime. The chance of being a victim of crime is at its lowest level for 25 years and more offenders are being brought to justice. Reoffending rates have also fallen significantly, but we face real challenges that we must address as part of our work on prisons. Members have raised the question of prison numbers and how we can address reoffending. The hon. Member for Cambridge raised the important issue of who we put in prison and whether we need to consider reoffending in a new way. Mark Pritchard also raised the key issues of foreign national prisoners and the need to protect and support our prison staff.

I certainly echo the tributes paid by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough to the important work done by prison staff. He also drew attention to the need to support that work and to protect the safety of staff. That is why I take exception to the points made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs when he accused staff of simply warehousing prisoners. That is not the case, nor is it part of our overall plan to tackle offending and reoffending.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East mentioned the need to consider sentencing balance, and he set out an important set of principles and topics for discussion. He said that he had not yet reached conclusions, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I give a commitment to consider his conclusions positively when they are produced.

The issue of prison places was central to the debate. We provided 1,700 new prison places last year, and 2,422 to June this year. When the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs says that the Labour Government have failed on prison places, I remind him of the fact that since March 1,240 prison places have been delivered. When he goes, as I hope he will, to visit Stoke Heath, Erlestoke, Albany, Send, Ranby, Lewes, Portland, Stocken, High Down, Blundeston, Wandsworth, Brinsford, Acklington, Kirklevington Grange and Wayland, he will see new prison places tackling the new prisoners who are coming in to those places because we are bringing more offences to justice. I hope we will bring forward more prison places before the end of the year.

The difference between the Opposition and the Government is that we have put £1.2 billion of new money from taxpayers' resources into the system in this comprehensive spending review settlement. We will put in a potential further £1 billion plus in the next comprehensive spending review—money that I venture to suggest the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs would rather put into tax cuts than into public spending and public services.

Important issues about preventing reoffending were mentioned by the hon. Member for Cambridge and others. It is important that, as the hon. Member for Woking suggested, we look at what we do about drugs and drug dependency. It is important that we do that in the community through better use of community sentences, and that we invest in services in relation to drugs in prison. The hon. Member for Monmouth mentioned drugs in prison, too, and I remind the House that Mr. Blakey, a former member of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, has produced a report for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on drugs in prison, which we intend to publish shortly. It considers how we can improve the regime in prisons and the community.

The question of employment and raising the levels of literacy and skills was mentioned by the hon. Member for Cambridge and is absolutely vital. It is not just about putting people in prison for punishment, although punishment is extremely important but was lacking in the hon. Gentleman's speech. It is equally important what we do with people when they are in our system.

We certainly have to do more work on education, raising literacy and numeracy and securing support for employment and training. That was why I was particularly keen only last week to join my hon. Friend Mr. Khan, the Government Whip on the Bench today, in a visit to Wandsworth prison where we saw key examples of training in computers, literacy and cabling. We are working with private sector employers from outside Wandsworth prison and with the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr. Lammy, who is also on the Front Bench today, to look at how we can link employers outside prison with offenders in prison to raise their skill levels, get them into employment and ensure that they have the opportunity to change their lives on their exit from the prison system.

As was mentioned, we also need to look at whom we put in prison. Members will know that we have commissioned my noble Friend Lord Bradley to look at the issue of mental health. He will be reporting shortly to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, the Secretary of State and me on the question of mental health interventions and whether or not we can find alternatives to prison for certain prisoners who have mental health issues. We are also putting in place a range of provisions to consider cognitive behaviour programmes and the need for offenders to complete additional work on those issues.

The hon. Member for Woking also mentioned the important issue of knife crime. I take his points extremely seriously. He will know that we have doubled the maximum prison sentence for possessing a knife in a public place to four years and that we have given school staff extra powers to search pupils for weapons. We have banned samurai swords and supported increased stop-and-search powers for police. Indeed, with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary we have recently introduced 100 portable knife arches and 400 search wands. Knife crime is a serious issue. It does not affect every community in the UK, but those that are affected are affected very seriously. I take very seriously the hon. Gentleman's points about what we need to do.

The Labour Government are providing the resources for extra prison places, tackling reoffending and making sure that we reduce crime, as we have done over the past 11 years. I challenge Conservative Front Benchers to ensure that if their party formed a Government, it would provide the necessary resources. It would not do so; it would not tackle reoffending, as we are doing. I commend the Government amendment to the House and oppose the Opposition motion.

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

The House divided: Ayes 147, Noes 320.

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Division number 224 Opposition Day — [14th Allotted Day] — Sentencing Policy

Aye: 147 MPs

No: 320 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

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 280, Noes 184.

Division number 225 Opposition Day — [14th Allotted Day] — Sentencing Policy

Aye: 280 MPs

No: 184 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

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

Resolved,

That this House welcomes the Government's record in cutting crime by a third, its provision of 23,000 more prison places since 1997, and its commitment to create a total of 96,000 prison places by 2014, demonstrating that public protection is at the heart of its strategy; further welcomes the Government's commitment to remove the End of Custody Licence Scheme when headroom allows; notes that the use of police cells is much lower than under the previous administration; further welcomes the tough and effective community sentences that have been introduced and the work done to increase public awareness of their role and effectiveness, and the further investment in intensive alternatives to custody to continue to build the confidence of sentencers in their effectiveness, as demonstrated by significantly reduced re-offending rates; notes in respect of the Bail Accommodation and Support Service that ClearSprings is required to consult the police, local authorities and probation to avoid inappropriate property locations; considers that there should be greater consistency in sentencing and the opportunity for a focused and informed debate on sentencing provided by the work of the Sentencing Commission Working Group on the potential for a structured sentencing framework; and further welcomes the reforms which have been made to the youth justice system including the strengthening of alternatives to custody.