My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for his excellent contribution and I declare an interest as president of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.
Although the Secretary of State is right to be shocked by the conditions that he has found in many of our prisons, purposeful activity is currently at the lowest ever level recorded. There are fewer staff looking after more prisoners than five years ago—nearly 14,000 fewer staff looking after around 1,200 more prisoners. Assaults in custody are at the highest ever level. The number of deaths in custody is also at the highest ever level. The reality is that, at the end of September 2015, 70 of the 117 prisons in England and Wales were holding more prisoners than they were built for. Furthermore, 45% of adult prisoners and nearly 70% of juvenile prisoners are reconvicted within a year of leaving custody.
I welcome Mr Gove’s plan to close all decaying prisons and replace them with newly built establishments. I also welcome his plan to review prison education, to monitor educational outcomes more rigorously and to make governors more accountable for those outcomes. But we need to tackle the root cause of the problem—namely, this country’s overuse of imprisonment.
Too many offenders are still sent to custody for short sentences, which was a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. They are released after no more than a few months in custody. That serves very little purpose. These sentences are far too short for sustained rehabilitation programmes but long enough for offenders to lose their jobs and homes, which makes them more likely to reoffend. The syndrome of the revolving door process continues. They could be better dealt with through community orders. Research confirms that community orders have a reoffending rate which is seven percentage points lower than that for similar offenders given short prison sentences.
The penal system has had to face significant spending cuts over the past few years. When resources are so stretched, we need to make sure that we are using them in the best possible way. In my view, the Government should legislate to make sentencing guidelines take account of the capacity of the prison system. This proposal is not new. It was first made in the Carter report on the prison system in 2007, and it still makes sense. At a time when all other areas of public services have to work within the reality of limited resources, there is no reason why the courts should be exempt.
Sentencing guidelines should scale down the number and length of prison sentences except for the most serious crimes.
We should also convert the sentences of the many IPP prisoners who remain in our prisons by converting them to determinate sentences once they have served a period equivalent to double their tariff, an issue that has been discussed in previous debates. In essence, we should look to our judiciary to ensure that the courts send to prison only those whose offending makes any other course of action unacceptable, but more importantly to ensure that those who are sent to prison do not stay there for any longer than is strictly necessary.
We also need a clearer strategy to reduce the use of imprisonment for women. Proposals have been made in the past to establish a women’s justice board to set improved standards for women’s community sentences, resettlement and rehabilitation, mental health services, family contact and culturally appropriate support for foreign national women in our prisons. A restorative justice approach can provide an appropriate alternative to custodial sentencing.
The Secretary of State for Justice has made an excellent start by challenging punitive thinking. He must now follow that up by taking determined steps to move this country away from the unenviable position of having the highest prison population in western Europe. We need a prison system that can genuinely protect the public by rehabilitating offenders and reducing reoffending. He can make a start by supporting my Private Member’s Bill, which will have its Second Reading next Friday, which seeks to raise the age of criminal responsibility.