Prison Reform — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:19 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 12:19 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Fowler on initiating this debate. I agree with every word that he said.

When John Major asked me to go to the Home Office to look after prisons in 1994, I was absolutely furious with him, and told him so. I did not want to go to an English department. I was hanging on by my fingernails in a Scottish constituency after three general elections. Why on earth would I want to go to a department with responsibility for England? He said, “I think it might benefit you”. Of all the jobs I have ever done, it was the one that did me most good. I started with a view that prison was somewhere where you sent people and the longer, the better, as they could not commit crime while in prison. However, I discovered a completely different view of the world.

My predecessor, Peter Lloyd, had been ill and I had a backlog of six months of life tariffs. In those days we had the absurd situation that unqualified people like me set the life tariff for prisoners. Because a decision that involves one person is harder to take than one that involves half a million, I sat until three in the morning for a whole month going through this backlog of files on individuals who wanted to know what their life tariff would be. I was struck by the fact that in the main all these individuals shared the same characteristics: they came from broken families; had not done well at school; could not read or write; had become involved in petty crime; had drink and drug problems; and then got into a knife fight one night which led to their whole life being destroyed. When you went to the young offender institutions, you found that the inmates— these monsters, according to the tabloid journalists—turned out to be frightened boys who had never really had an opportunity in life.

I was in that post for only a year because the Prime Minister took me at my word and moved me to the Scottish Office as Secretary of State. The only thing I achieved in that year was to strengthen the work of the boards of visitors. I thought those boards were fantastic and that their work was very important because they related to individuals. But even that has been pushed back. Those with responsibility for the bureaucracy did not like them because they did not like people coming in and interfering with the system. I regret that step.

I was also struck by the fact that our attempts to introduce rehabilitation programmes in the prisons were frustrated by the large number of people on short-term sentences, which made the programmes impossible to administer. Governors did not have very much local say or control in that very centralised system. Many of the prisoners should not have been there at all as they suffered from drug or mental illness problems, some of which were caused by the drugs they were taking. As Minister of State, I tried to introduce drug testing regimes among other things, but the fundamental problem was that many of the prisoners should not have been there at all.

If we are serious about reducing recidivism—my noble friend mentioned the appalling figures in that regard—we have to look at not just what happens in prison, which is very important, but also what happens when people leave prison, and whether they then go to a home and a job. There were many initiatives involving employers guaranteeing these people jobs but none of them has really taken off.

This morning I met people involved in the Duke of Edinburgh’s award who are working in prisons. A young lady, Keeley, who is in Her Majesty’s Prison Bronzefield, in Surrey, said:

“I proved to myself that I could do something, even though I am in here. I wanted to show my kids that I’d done something positive”.

So work is being done in prisons. I declare an interest in that a friend has started a thing called the Clink restaurants in prisons, having successfully established a chain of restaurants. Those restaurants are run by prisoners, and attended by members of the public. They are doing extremely well and those prisoners are learning skills that they can use outside prison.

A lot of things to do with the prison system are gloomy and not good. The Secretary of State very kindly invited me to speak to him before Christmas and asked me to tell him about my former experience as Prisons Minister. I talked for half an hour—as I can, as noble Lords know—explaining all the problems. Then I said, “But, Michael, I am completely out of date. This all happened nearly 30 years ago”. He replied, “It is exactly the same now”. I believe that we have in our Secretary of State someone who has the drive and the ability to change things. Whatever the detail of our disagreements, we should back him 100%. What he has done for education in schools has been absolutely transformational—I have lost the Front Bench opposite now. The key thing there was to allow headmasters to have more power and control and I believe the same thing can be done with governors, subject to proper performance indices and standards of achievement. Let us seize this opportunity and work with the Secretary of State because for far too long we have been cheating the people in prisons and the public, who depend on us to get value for money and protect their safety.