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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:03 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Liberal Democrat 3:03 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, this debate gives us an opportunity to look back at the criminal justice system when the Conservatives were last in power. Ken Clarke was the Home Secretary, and one fact remains: at that time, the prison population was about 44,000-the figure cited earlier by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. The legacy that the Labour Party has left us is that the number in prison exceeds 85,000. Therefore, we must ask ourselves where within the criminal justice system we have produced that discrepancy. More women, more children, more people from ethnic minorities have become a regular feature of our present system.

I welcome the opening statement of the gracious Speech. The coalition programme is to be based on the principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility. I certainly welcome the Bill to restore freedoms and civil liberties. I am glad that identity cards are to be scrapped and unnecessary laws repealed. So far, so good. But the big picture-the safer society-cannot be complete until we look at the crisis facing our present system of justice, which reflects the prison population that I mentioned. There are difficult measures that the coalition must tackle. Equally, the legislative programme cannot be cast in a tablet of stone; we must be able to tweak it to take into account concerns that we have failed to deal with in the past.

Some suggestions may look very attractive at first glance, but we must also ensure that in the legislative momentum, we do not create more problems than we solve. For example, on police authorities, we need to ascertain further details about proposals for directly elected individuals including the content of the proposed model. For example, what are the checks and balances to ensure that the commissioner's power cannot be abused? What is the timing and process of implementation? Ultimately, what is the expected outcome of change?

In essence, we have to get this right. We must never forget that police authorities provide a strong, transparent and robust local accountability structure which reflects the diversity of local communities. We need to be absolutely sure that we do not tamper with their independence and accountability. I am sure that we will need further consultation with appropriate bodies, including the Association of Police Authorities, on such matters.

The establishment of a new coalition Government gives us a unique opportunity to rethink the country's approach to crime and criminal justice. The Government's strategy should also include listening to the voice of people who have been on the receiving end of the criminal justice system-offenders and ex-offenders. Yesterday evening in Portcullis House, I attended the launch of User Voice-a new charity led by rehabilitated ex-offenders. User Voice is working with the Prison Service, the probation service and the Youth Justice Board to help them learn from the insights of offenders and former offenders into the best ways to reduce reoffending. Any private sector organisation knows that that approach makes sense. Commercial organisations regard it as obvious that they should consult their consumers on whether the service that they provide meets their needs. The criminal justice system should take the same approach. It should work with organisations such as User Voice to consult with offenders and ex-offenders, learn from their experiences and listen to their views about the most effective ways to help them to avoid reoffending.

The past 13 years of the Labour Government rank as a wasted opportunity to improve the state of our criminal justice system. The previous Government introduced some individual welcome changes, such as the establishment of the Youth Justice Board and youth offending teams, increasing resources for drug treatment programmes and the establishment of a new Sentencing Council. Overall, however, if we look at the state of our criminal justice system today and compare it with 1997, we can see that little has changed for the better. The Labour Government failed to end the serious overcrowding of the prison system. Today, 82 out of 140 prisons hold more prisoners than they were built for, and 19,000 prisoners are held two to a cell that was designed for one person. This country has 151 prisoners for every 100,000 people in the general population, compared with 96,000 in France and 88,000 in Germany.

Prison overcrowding increases crime. Overcrowding makes it harder for prisons to provide rehabilitation programmes for all their inmates, and this increases reoffending on release. Although the previous Government built an extra 20,000 prison places, the system remained as overcrowded as ever because the prison population increased faster than the number of prison places. The Government responded to this increase by committing themselves to a further large programme of prison expansion that required a large input of resources that would be better spent on prisoners' resettlement, alternatives to custody, crime prevention and victim support.

Labour also oversaw an increase in custody for young offenders. In the final days of the Labour Government, there was a belated fall in the number of juveniles in custody. Despite this, the number of young people in custody is now much higher than it was in 1997. This is partly because the previous Government passed a whole series of legislative measures that made it easier for the courts to detain children at increasingly younger ages and for less serious offences. They did this despite the evidence that showed that around 80 per cent of these young people are reconvicted within two years of leaving custody. As a result, most of the Youth Justice Board's budget is now absorbed by the cost of custody. These resources would be far more effective in reducing youth crime if they were spent on strengthening and expanding community supervision programmes.

The previous Government also did far too little to tackle the lack of help or supervision for short-term prisoners. Most imprisoned offenders receive sentences of less than 12 months. On release, these prisoners do not receive supervision by the probation service, and their reconviction rates are much higher than those for other prisoners. They are responsible for much of the high-volume offending that causes such distress to people living in high-crime areas. The Labour Government recognised the need for action, and in their Criminal Justice Act 2003 they included provision for a new custody plus sentence that would have involved post-release supervision for short-term prisoners. The reality was that this was never implemented. Nor was anything else done to fill the gap.

The Labour Government recognised the need to reform the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act but failed to take action to bring about reform. In 2002, a Home Office review group recommended that the Act should be reformed by shortening the very long rehabilitation periods. They even adopted an obstructive approach by arguing against my own Private Member's Bill, which would have enacted the changes which they had earlier said that they favoured. Of course, I shall introduce my Bill at the next available opportunity.

In the early days of the Labour Government, I was encouraged by their willingness to set up the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, yet after 13 years of Labour Government the position of minority ethnic people in the criminal justice system is worse than it was when the Stephen Lawrence inquiry reported. The disproportionate use of stop and search is even more extreme now, and the proportion of the prison population is higher than it was in the late 1990s.

There are some very practical examples of measures that have been adopted in various countries, and we need to examine them. Everyone who has worked with offenders knows that many of them have a background of problems such as inadequate parental supervision, family conflict, parental neglect and abuse, school exclusion, unemployment, substance abuse, mental health problems-you name it. The serious economic challenges which this country faces are rightly receiving priority attention from the new Government, but the challenge of improving our criminal justice system is just as vital a part of ensuring the fabric of a healthy society as the challenge posed by our economic situation. I hope that the new coalition Government will not shirk that challenge.