Prison Reform — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:13 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Bradley Lord Bradley Labour 12:13 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust.

It is clearly welcome that the new Secretary of State is considering prison reform again, and the proposals to invest in the prison estate are equally welcome. I commend the five-point plan introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, in his excellent opening speech. However, it is crucial to understand that prison reform starts with what happens long before someone is sent to prison. As we have heard, nearly twice as many people are in prison now than 20 years ago, costing the country an extra £1 billion annually. It means overcrowded prisons that are inadequately equipped to deliver the type of constructive service that successive Governments have always claimed to want. The Sentencing Council’s review of guidelines affecting the decision to imprison is a necessary and welcome step in the right direction, but a wider review of sentencing is also needed to address significant inflation in sentence lengths—up by around a third over the last two decades.

In this brief contribution I will touch on two issues regarding the prison population and need for reform: first, people with mental health and learning disabilities in the criminal justice system; and secondly, release on temporary licence, or ROTL.

It is well known that a huge number of people in prisons suffer from mental health problems and learning disabilities. On Tuesday 19 January, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman published a thematic report on prisoners with mental health needs. Its findings underline the need to improve the assessment and treatment of people in prison with mental health needs. It found that 70% of prisoners who killed themselves had one or more identified mental health needs. The review makes clear the importance of identifying mental health issues, as without accurate diagnosis it is very difficult to provide appropriate treatment and support. Once a need is identified, effective intervention is required. Therefore, further investment in prison healthcare is necessary, building on the success of the transfer of commissioning of such healthcare to the NHS.

The report’s findings also underline the importance of expediting the rollout of liaison and diversion services, a subject I have some interest in. The current programme now covers 53% of the country and is already having a significant impact on the identification and assessment of people with complex health needs. Excellent partnership working, particularly between psychiatric nurses, learning disability nurses, the police, ambulance staff and other key agencies, often located in police stations and closely linked to street triage, is delivering extremely positive outcomes and over time should favourably impact on the prison population. Subject to Treasury approval, 100% coverage of the country for these services can be achieved over the next few years. I hope that the Minister will again support this ambition.

Secondly, release on temporary licence is a vital tool in resettlement and rehabilitation, which enables people to gain training and education, sort out jobs and housing, and establish contact with their families in preparation for their release. Less than 1% of releases on temporary licence fail. Of these, only 6.1% involve an arrestable offence. This is equivalent to five arrests per 100,000 releases. A stricter ROTL policy was introduced in March 2015 following the review commissioned by the then Secretary of State, Chris Grayling. Ministry of Justice statistics now show that the number of people released from prison on temporary licence has fallen by 41% since the policy change.

Last week, the Prison Reform Trust and Clinks published a joint briefing on the impact of changes to ROTL on charities and businesses. The key finding was that almost two-thirds of respondents to the survey had seen a decrease in ROTL, with some organisations reporting that placements had completely stopped or become almost impossible. The National Offender Management Service’s promised review of the policy presents a real opportunity to restore a more balanced approach, with less bureaucracy, more discretion for governors and more prisoners putting something back into society. Will the Minister confirm the timing and scope of the review, and whether charities and businesses will work with people on ROTL and be consulted?

These issues and many more being debated today should form the centrepiece of prison reform. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the issues.