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I begin by declaring an interest not only in the subject that we are discussing, and not only in that I am a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust and a patron of Unlock—those two charities are concerned with criminal justice and prisons in particular—but in that I am on the advisory board of Samaritans, and much of what has been discussed this evening touches upon on its work. Literally tens of millions of calls are made to the offices of Samaritans every year. The fact that it is difficult for prisoners to get access to telephones and that the suicide rate in prisons is high—I understand that 119 prisoners took their own lives last year—suggests that we cannot push this subject aside lightly as one of the consequences of someone going to prison. We all need to concentrate on what we say and do about reducing self-harm and suicide in prison. I hope that the Minister for Courts and Justice will be able to respond positively on that point at the end of the debate.
It is uncontroversial to say that prisons are violent, overcrowded and understaffed, but the question of what we do about that is difficult to answer, because the politics relating to the criminal justice system is about sentencing, not prisons. We take a reasonably consensual view—with one or two exceptions—about what we think ought to be done in prisons, for prisoners and to protect the public, but sentencing is acutely politically controversial. Ms Harman asked Ministers why, if we can do it for education, we cannot create a regime to regulate prisons, but the answer is that while most of the British public—not all, but a great proportion—either have children of their own or know children, and therefore take a personal, direct interest in schools, few of us know people who go to prison or know what goes on in prison. It is a secret world. I have often said that the more prisons that are opened up to the public’s gaze—not in a ridiculous way, but sensibly—the better the debate about prisons and that aspect of the criminal justice system would be.