My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Fowler, who made such an excellent opening speech to this debate, I was much encouraged recently by the statements of my right honourable friend Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary. As it happens I have been involved with prisons in two ways in my life. As a Member of another place I had three prisons in my constituency which I visited and kept in touch with. I was also Minister of State in Northern Ireland with responsibility for security, including the Maze and the four other prisons which were there at that time. Of course, they had additional problems.
The three prisons in my constituency were Leyhill open prison, Ashfield in Pucklechurch, a remand centre for both males and females, which became a young offender centre and is now an adult male prison. Eastwood Park was a young offender centre, and for some time now has been a female prison and remand centre. We also had a police officers’ training school next to Leyhill which has now closed The way in which these prisons have changed reflects the huge number of changes in prison policy and organisation by successive Governments over the years. These include, of course, the creation of the National Offender Management Service at one end and successive changes of uniform, rank designation and that sort of thing at the other end.
The most interesting prison in my constituency was the open prison. Some prisoners go to an open prison as a result of being convicted for white-collar crime; some are well qualified, even in the law and medicine—and even in accountancy, my own profession, some have fallen to the sin of greed, leading to the crime of fraud. A lot of the prisoners were serving long sentences for very serious crimes of one sort or another and being prepared for release. My noble friend Lord Fowler referred to the necessity of preparing long-serving prisoners for release. He cited one example, but of course there are numerous others. Such prisoners occasionally abscond—I think five did from Leyhill last year, a high number historically—which can give rise to concern in the local population, although generally speaking the prisoners get well away before they are a risk to anybody.
My noble friend also referred to the way in which the statistics of the prison population have gone. Between the two world wars, the prison population fluctuated not far above 10,000. It has since risen by roughly 10,000 every decade, though not entirely in a straight line. I agree with all five of the points that he made. Some of my right honourable friend the Justice Secretary’s statements have been on those lines, especially on the third point. My right honourable friend was concerned with problem-solving courts, a good initiative and one that he should pursue.
Of course prisons are there to punish by the deprivation of liberty, as my noble friend said, and to prevent further crimes while the offenders are locked up. A book was published last year, The Last English Poachers, about two individuals in my part of the country. The mistake was made of sending one of them to Leyhill, an odd choice as he was by definition a specialist in moving unseen across exactly that part of the countryside by day and night. The first duty of prisons is to try to avoid their prisoners reoffending—that is ultimately the measure of success—and at present, for whatever reasons, the Prison Service is failing to achieve that. I support very much the idea that the avoidance of reoffending can be achieved only individually for each prisoner. Each is a human being with different problems and a different background, which is why I support what the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said about looking after the individual prisoner.
My noble friend said that new ideas were wanted. In a sense they are old ideas, but they can never be overemphasised. The renewed emphasis on them by my right honourable friend the Justice Secretary is right, and I commend him for his thoughtful determination to make a difference.