Prisons and Probation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:10 pm on 14th May 2019.

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Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment and Climate Change) 3:10 pm, 14th May 2019

I am always pleased when there is a consensus. I listened carefully to the contributions of Government Members, who claim to be promoters of social reform, but the proposals for social reform introduced under the coalition Government far too often were done also to save money. Social reform cannot be done on a shoestring. That is where these things always go wrong. If Government Members are serious about social reform, everyone across the House needs to think about what those reforms are worth. We should not only value social reform but put the money behind it.

I welcome the new Prisons Minister to his role. His predecessor promised to resign in August if he did not achieve a substantial reduction in prison violence by then. I wonder whether the new Minister will stick to that pledge or whether he will be reshuffled before. The Government have collapsed into paralysis. The House should be full on Tuesday afternoons, but it is not. I wonder whether the Government are able to act any more, particularly on the crisis in prisons, the state of probation services being one example of that crisis. I hope that the promises made will result in some improvement soon.

The partial privatisation of our probation services has been another instance of the Government’s determination to implement a rushed and badly researched policy. The new system was introduced without research or piloting. I asked the Secretary of State about piloting but he did not really answer my question. I hope that if changes are introduced they will first be piloted, before we throw a lot of Government money at them. Rehabilitation should be a holistic project in which an offender and his community feel secure and able to rebuild. This type of work cannot be done on a shoestring and focused on the bottom line.

This is a public project asking what type of society we are trying to create. The Liberal Democrats believe in a society that puts rehabilitation and communities first. Today’s reality could not be further from that. Last month’s Justice Committee report confirms what the Liberal Democrats have been saying for months: our prisons are not fit for purpose. The prison population has exploded, leaving the services unable to cope with the demand. Some 60% of prisons are overcapacity and some now hold 50% more inmates then they were intended for.

This pressure on space has a human cost. Recent statistics on deaths, assaults and self-harm in prisons are shockingly high and increasing. Last year 325 people died in prison, including 92 from suicide, and there were more than 50,000 recorded incidents of self-harm. Government policies mean that this crisis will become more extreme, with the prison population projected to rise by 3,000 over the next three years, unless we do something about it.

What are the long-term consequences for everyone else? We are failing to rehabilitate, with record numbers of ex-prisoners going on to reoffend, and this is putting more strain on a system already stretched to breaking point. Short sentences are one of the many factors in this escalating problem, yet we already know that short sentences simply do not work. Evidence released by this Government proves that community sentences are far more likely to stop someone reoffending. Short sentences target the most vulnerable offenders, especially women: 72% of all women offenders are sentenced for less than a year and 61% of women given short sentences go on to reoffend. Often these months in prison are just long enough for a woman to lose her job, house and children. They find themselves released back into society with no safety net and very little support.

Private probation companies are simply not up to the job, given the state of today’s prisons and the severe lack of integration between these services. Today we have heard story after story of these companies being unable to offer the support they are required to give. Some of these failures are worse than others. Reports from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation last September found that private probation companies were failing to protect survivors of abuse once the abuser had been returned to the community. The report stated:

“Too often we were left wondering how safe victims and children were, especially when practitioners failed to act on new information indicating that they could be in danger.”

Further investigations discovered that only 27% of eligible offenders had been referred to an accredited programme designed to prevent further abuse.

Private probation companies, allowed under the new system to manage low to medium-risk cases, are overstretched. Last September’s report stated that private probation companies viewed home visits as a “luxury”. Domestic factors, such as escalating abuse or unstable living situations, are often determining factors in whether someone goes on to reoffend. It is simply not acceptable that probation companies are not able to act because of the costs involved.

The prisons system and by extension probation services are not considered by most people, who hope they will never encounter them personally, but the way we treat the men and women unfortunate enough to end up in prison matters, not just to the individuals but to our wider communities. Rehabilitation, when done properly, spans both the prisons system and probation. This work must be integrated to be successful. Rehabilitation is not just some soft-hearted liberal project; ultimately, it is about the security of our communities. I call on the Government to reinvest in rehabilitation by reforming standards, increasing resources and improving services to build a safer and more cohesive society, and yes social reform must cost the money that it is worth to us.