It is a pleasure to follow the powerful speech by Stephanie Peacock and friends from across the House who broadly take the same view on the progress we need to make with the probation system. I am not going to focus on that. My views are carefully set out in the report of the Justice Committee and have been well rehearsed by my colleagues from the Committee on both sides of the House. However, I noted carefully what the Secretary of State had to say, and I am extremely hopeful that we will have an announcement or statement from him in the very near future. I hope the result will be one that we all applaud.
As ever, I would like to talk about prisons. It always shocks me how empty the Chamber is when we discuss prisons. If we are serious about helping the lowest strata of society, we surely have a fairly obvious place to look to find them. I for one was very grateful that the Opposition chose this subject for today’s debate.
I am fortunate to represent one of the biggest constituencies in the country. The number of my electors is broadly the same as the number of adult men in prison. The point I am making is that there are a lot of people in prison, a lot of families affected and, perhaps more importantly, a lot of future victims who are affected by our failure to treat people and by the breeding of future criminals in prisons as they are run at the moment. We must accept that about a fifth of prisoners are sex offenders and that nearly all of them will be released into our communities. Members know that I spend a lot of my time here arguing in favour of prison reform, but the most compelling reason for me to do that is that we must save future victims from crimes that will ruin their lives.
The Justice Committee has written not only a marvellous report about transforming rehabilitation, but a big report on the prison population—for me, it is our magnum opus—which I hope the new Minister, Robert Buckland, has read and digested and will return to many times during his tenure. I will whizz through the main recommendations of that report and then give him some jobs for the rest of the week.
Our report’s first recommendation is that
“The prison population has become increasingly challenging in nature, with prisoners often having complex health and social needs. Many have learning disabilities or mental health conditions”,
and that the Ministry of Justice needs to
“acknowledge the challenge it faces and demonstrate that it has a long-term strategy”.
Secondly, the prison population is projected to grow, and the existing approach “limits the scope” for the Ministry thinking more laterally about planning for that growth. It states that the “more challenging mix” of those sentenced to custody is likely to be partly attributable to the impact of wider social factors over which the Ministry has no control, but the Ministry and prison officers have to pick up the pieces.
The third recommendation is that
“Trends in ethnicity and the social drivers of complex and challenging behaviour should be more explicitly identified”.
“To close the large gap between the money allocated to prisons by the Treasury and the current costs of running and maintaining them, the Ministry of Justice has estimated that it would have to reduce the prison population by 20,000 places. By the Ministry’s own admission this is not achievable under existing strategies and funding arrangements.”
How will the Minister possibly close that gap?
We have got to take prison reform seriously. This is my fourth Prisons Minister. There have been six Secretaries of State for Justice since 2010. All of them—certainly the Prisons Ministers—have been one nation, compassionate Conservatives. I stalk their every movement, as this Minister will find out, and I count them among my closest friends in this place; I hope it is mutual. It is really important that the current Minister can stay in place for long enough to make substantive change.