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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:08 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Woolf Lord Woolf Crossbench 12:08 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I first make a disclosure of interest in view of the nature of what I have to say. I have the privilege of being a patron or trustee of a number of bodies involved in penal affairs-in particular, I am life president of the Butler Trust.

It is a pleasure to address the House, having heard the noble Lord, Lord McNally, speak in his new role. In the period that I have been in this House, I have enjoyed his contributions, which are always so sensible and so relevant to the matters being considered. I can assure him that my former colleagues in the Strand and those now on the other side of Parliament Square will have taken great pleasure from the team that primarily represents the Ministry of Justice. Having said that, perhaps I may, again in relation to judicial affairs, say a word of praise for its predecessors who I am so pleased to see sitting opposite the noble Lord, Lord McNally. They fulfilled their offices responsibly. Members of the judiciary felt that they were properly being listened to and that their interests were properly considered.

Almost exactly 20 years ago the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who was then Home Secretary, asked me to conduct an inquiry into, and then make a report on, the prison riots at Strangeways and elsewhere. The Government accepted the recommendations in that report, with the exception of a recommendation designed to prevent future overcrowding. Yet overcrowding had been accepted as being a cancer which was destroying our criminal justice system. At the time of the report, the average prison population in England and Wales was 44,000. The figure today is over 85,000. In the intervening years, the prison population has grown exponentially year by year, and thereby the problem of overcrowding has persisted. There is now a building programme priced at £3.8 billion.

In addition, the cost of looking after each prisoner averages about £45,000 per annum. The total annual bill is therefore about £3.825 billion. This is an enormous expense. I am told that it represents about 2.5 per cent of GDP-a higher per capita cost than in the US or any EU country. I ask myself: is this cost justified? The answer is clearly no. If proof of that is needed it is necessary to look only at reoffending rates. It is estimated that about 49 per cent of adults reoffend within one year of release, and the National Audit Office states that reoffending by recent ex-prisoners costs the taxpayer about £9.5 billion per year.

Expenditure on that scale cannot begin to make sense, yet successive Governments have refused to heed that message, and instead of improving the situation, by their intervention they have made it immensely worse. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said this morning, the probation service is in a sorry state. The fact is that the agencies responsible for dealing with reoffending are starved of resources because of the cost of housing this massive prison population.

What can we do to extract ourselves from such a disastrous situation? First, we have to accept that it is a myth that the judges, because they send prisoners to prison, are responsible for this situation. That myth has to be exploded. Ministers are responsible for the length of sentences, given that their role is to make provision for keeping in custody those whom the judges send to prison, according to the law-and it is Ministers who make the laws.

The Bromley Briefing, published by the Prison Reform Trust, makes the point that 70 per cent of the increase can be attributed to harsher sentences by judges. However, this ignores the fact that laws control the policy adopted by the judges with regard to sentencing. Unfortunately, decisions have been made repeatedly to change the law when their effect has not been properly considered.

I will give a bad example-perhaps the worst example-of this sort of behaviour, because I know intimately of the effect of that law, which I argued against at the time. I refer to Schedule 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which deals with the period that those convicted of murder and given life sentences must serve in custody before they can be released on licence. Before the law was introduced, and under the guidance of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, a meeting was held at the Middle Temple, where nearly all those who were playing a leading role were present to discuss the proposals. They were unanimous in their opposition. I am pleased to see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, in his seat. He will probably remember that at the end of the meeting, he said that he had listened to what had been said. He made it clear by the way in which he spoke that he had sympathy for what had been said-but he accepted that there was little, if any, chance of the then Home Secretary, Mr Blunkett, changing his views.

Mr Blunkett was losing sight of the fact that, by increasing dramatically the term of imprisonment to be served by those who have committed the most serious crime, he would affect sentencing right down the system. The system strives for consistency not only between people who are convicted of the same offence, but between those convicted of offences in the system as a whole. If you interfere to the extent that he did with the level of sentencing at the top, it is the inevitable consequence that the level of sentencing throughout the system will be increased. That is what happened, as Mr Blunkett was warned-and it continues to happen now.

I could give another example, but I fear that I do not have the time. I hope that I have said enough to indicate that the approach to sentencing now needs dramatic and urgent consideration. In the present financial crisis, we cannot afford to spend the sort of money that is proposed, and that was spent by the previous Government, because it yields no dividends.