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My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. I echo his remarks about those who work in the Prison Service, probation officers and all others concerned in the field. I also offer my congratulations to his department on getting copies of the Statement to the Opposition in reasonable time and on letting us see the Carter report itself in a timely manner. Obviously we will have to have a proper debate on the Carter report in due course, given the mess that the Government have got themselves into in this field. I hope that the Minister will lend his voice to mine and others' when his noble friend the Chief Whip and the usual channels are approached about ensuring that we get a proper debate on the report, because merely debating a Statement on it will not be enough.
I should also offer my congratulations to the Minister on his sheer bravado in repeating claims about the fall in crime, and violent crime at that, since his party came to office. Can he really say with his hand on his heart that knife crime and gun crime are down, or has his department, the new Ministry of Justice, having taken over from the Home Office, dreamt up new definitions of these crimes that allow them to be conveniently massaged downwards? I would very much welcome a response from the Minister in due course. More important, can he again say honestly with his hand on his heart that fear of crime, which is as important as crime itself, is down since May 1997? Again, I doubt it very much.
I will accept one statistic that the Minister gave in the Statement that he had the honour of repeating—the statistic on prison numbers, which he said that were up from some 60,000 to 81,500. We all know that prisons are bursting at the seams and that the numbers are greater than the actual capacity of the prisons. As he knows—this is far more important than the numbers in prison—that means that the prisons cannot do the job that they are supposed to do. We discussed only recently the whole question of meaningful work and training in prisons. The Minister knows full well that it is very difficult for prisons to offer any meaningful work, training or education when they are as full as they are now. If they cannot manage that, I very much doubt that they can hope to play their part—I appreciate that others have a part to play here, too—in preventing reoffending and encouraging those who are inside to go straight when they come out.
I have several questions to put to the Minister and no doubt a great many others will come from the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, who will speak from the Liberal Benches, and from others in this House who know far more about prison matters. I will put just a number of these questions to the Minister. My first question is a repeat of my earlier request that there should be a debate, in government time, as soon as possible on this report and on the whole question of prison numbers and sentencing.
Secondly, the Minister tells us that there will be more places. He mentioned some 10,500 more places. I think that the Government already offered 9,500 places in earlier announcements; no doubt these places will be announced time and again in due course in the manner in which this Government manage to announce their figures again and again. That makes some 20,000 new places on offer from the Government. Is that figure gross or net? How many places are likely to disappear? I think that the Minister talked about there being some 96,000 places in the end, so he seemed to be implying that there would be some 16,000 new places.
That leads us to my third question, which is about overcrowding. I am told that some 17,000 prisoners double up. Will they still do so after these 16,000 net places or 20,000 gross places come in? If the Minister is talking about a total of 96,000 places and prisoners will still double up, that seems to imply that we will not really go forward at all. Perhaps he can assist me. Perhaps I have misunderstood his explanation.
Fourthly, overcrowding is important. What does the Minister think of the recommendation made by the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, on the scope for increasing overcrowding? Overcrowding is already at a fairly horrendous rate. I mentioned the figure of 17,000. In fact, the prisons are beyond capacity, but the noble Lord, Lord Carter, seems to think that there is scope to increase overcrowding. I hope to hear more on that from the Minister in due course.
Fifthly, what does the Minister propose to do about prisoners with severe mental illness? The Statement says that the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, will conduct a review. What will be the terms of reference and the scope of that review? How long will it be? When will we be likely to get the report of that review? The Statement refers to diverting more prisoners from prisons. I am tempted to ask whether that is another means of massaging the prison figures down and adjusting the number of people who are allegedly in prison.
Sixthly, on Titan prisons, the report refers to three new prisons taking in the order of 2,500 prisoners each. We all know that this Government believe that biggest is best, but I ask the noble Lord to look at the case for going the other way and having more smaller prisons. What is the positive gain of larger and larger prisons? Prisoners will be increasingly more remote from their families and, therefore, have less chance of maintaining family ties during their time in prison. Presumably, while they are on remand, going to court and so on, they will be more remote from the courts that are serving them; there would be the danger of yet more time being taken up processing them in and out of prison for going to court, as well as more travelling time. Perhaps the Minister and the Government could look at the possibility of more smaller, local prisons, whose long-term advantages might include saving money rather than incurring greater expense.
Seventhly, we are told that around 11,000 prisoners have been released early during the past four months. What are the Government's plans for further early release of prisoners as their desperate attempts to manage prison numbers and reduce them by fair means or foul continue?
I have put a number of questions to the Minister and I could go on, but I should like to ask him more generally about sentencing. We had something of an assurance that there would be no plans to tell judges or magistrates that prison capacity should be taken into account in making individual sentences. We would all like to hear that again, and possibly again. We would be grateful if the Minister could develop that a little more when he responds to me and the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner.
There is much in this Statement on the report. As I said, I could go on, but I do not think that today would be the appropriate moment. I shall restrain myself until further occasions. I look forward to those further occasions, when I shall certainly go on.