May I welcome this debate, as well as the introductory remarks from Robert Neill—in this case, he is my hon. Friend—who spoke on behalf of the Justice Committee? Like him, I pay tribute to staff who work throughout the justice system. Today’s estimates pay their wages, provide their conditions of work and give them the tools to do the job that I know they are committed to. Therefore, while exploring these estimates, I hope we can focus on some of the real challenges faced by those staff.
I welcome the Minister to his new job. It is 10 years since I was Minister of State in the Ministry of Justice—a long time ago. When I was Minister—this is one of the challenges we face—there was 40% more expenditure on justice matters than is proposed today. Although changes were made by the Government in August this year—we will touch on that—there has been a 40% reduction in the amount of resource going into the Ministry of Justice over that time. Those provisions were volunteered up by Ministers, some of whom are not even members of the Conservative party these days in terms of their political affiliation.
The Ministry of Justice budget fell from £10.6 billion in 2010 to £7.9 billion in 2020. Let no one be mistaken: those reductions have had a consequence on the services delivered by the Ministry of Justice, on the performance of staff under pressure and on the safety of staff in prisons across the estate for which the MOJ is responsible. They have also had a consequence on the MOJ’s ability to improve reoffending rates and reduce crime and to provide a service to consumers and constituents of mine and every Member of the House regarding work on legal aid, access to justice, fighting for employment rights through the tribunal system and a range of other matters. That 40% reduction has made a real difference, and I wish to explore with the Minister the proposals for the revised sums he has brought forward.
Let us take this year’s figures. In many prisons, the safety of staff and those sentenced to prison is at higher risk than it was 12 months ago. We must address that issue to ensure a solid performance across the prison estate and achieve the reoffending rates that I know the Minister would want. Over the past 12 months, there has been a 24% rise in incidents of self-harm, to a record high of 57,968. The number of assaults has also risen to a record high of 34,425 in the past 12 months—an 11% increase on the previous year. In the 12 months to March this year, there were 10,300 assaults—11% of which were serious assaults—on staff and those doing their job to try to turn around those offenders in our prisons. That figure is up by 15% on the previous year.
The funding settlement needs to address ways to recruit more staff and to retain existing staff and support them in the workplace. We must try to professionalise and support staff on the front line. We know about the situation in prisons and about issues such as drugs entering prison, new psychoactive substances, increasingly violent prisoners being placed in prison and a range of people with mental health problems that cause aggressive behaviour. Those are real challenges, and the reduction in funding to date has meant they have been exacerbated by having a smaller number of staff, by the loss of experienced staff and by not allowing people out of cells to achieve some of the rehabilitation work, drug training courses or educational work that they need to turn their lives around. This settlement—the expansion in resource that the Government propose—needs to focus first and foremost on safety in prisons. Without safe prisons, we cannot have rehabilitation on the scale of our ambitions.
In August, the Government made a series of additional spending announcements. They announced additional police officers—I have also been the Police Minister—with 20,000 more officers to replace the 20,000 that have been cut. The Government announced the recruitment of police officers and prison officers: some would say that it is about recruitment of votes, rather than staff. The key point for the Minister to explain today is how he will address the issues. The policy announcements that have been made to date include 10,000 additional prison places, including investment in prison security—undoubtedly welcome—and an additional prison building programme. But we have no detail yet on how, when, where and at what stage those prison officers are to be recruited. We have no detail about the period over which those new prison places are to be built and whether they will replace new prisons or are genuinely new and additional prison places.
At the same time, a review has been announced by the Prime Minister of sentencing in England and Wales. It will not look at increasing community sentences or tackling short-term sentences, which the former Justice Secretary, Mr Gauke wanted to look at. Instead, it will look at how we can put longer prison sentences in place. How will that all fit together? There were no policy details in the budget announcement in August about the condition of the prison estate, despite the fact that the prison estate is key to improving the rehabilitation of prisoners. The MOJ estimates a current backlog of some £900 million of repairs that need to be done in our prisons. There was nothing in the announcement in August that I could see about how much money will be put towards the maintenance work needed to ensure that we have safe cells. Fixing draughty cells, dangerously fitted cells, old cells and cells that people cannot leave to undertake education and training is material to improving reoffending rates.
Reoffending costs us £18 billion a year, which is far more than the Ministry of Justice’s budget for investment in prisons and probation. Reoffending, especially by prisoners with short-term sentences, is extremely high. We had a lot of rhetoric six to nine months ago about tackling short-term prison sentences. I have seen nothing in the estimates about a change to super-charge community-based sentences as an alternative to short-term prison sentences of under six months, particularly for women offenders, many of whom are in prison on a short-term basis that will not secure their long-term rehabilitation back into society.
I will discount the 40% cut for now, even though it has been significant over the past nine and a half years. Instead, I ask what steps will be taken, under the current budget settlement, to make the prison estate a place of safety for staff and prisoners. What steps are being taken to ensure that we recruit and retain professional staff? What steps are being undertaken to super-charge the effort to reduce reoffending? What steps are being taken to ensure that people on short-term sentences see a real and effective shift in the time they are in prison? What steps are being taken to reduce the female prison population as a matter of urgency?
There are real arguments for reviewing short-term sentences, supporting alternative sentencing for women and looking again at the rehabilitation and employment links that require money. The emphasis on a capital building programme is wrong. We should look at investing in and improving the existing estate, retaining and improving the quality of staff and making prisons safe. I welcome the debate, because there are some serious discussions to be had. I wish the Minister well in what is a tough old job for him and his team, but real dividends can be achieved and real changes can be made. It will require political drive, but that drive seems to have shifted back towards longer term prison sentences and away from community-based rehabilitation in the statements made since the Prime Minister took office.