Prison Reform — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:47 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Carlile of Berriew Lord Carlile of Berriew Liberal Democrat 12:47 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, I start by endorsing the powerful speech that the noble Baroness just made on the subject of women in prison. We should pay very close attention to her every word. I also want to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on obtaining the debate and on opening it so powerfully. I applaud every word of his speech and the five measures he has proposed, which I shall address briefly a little later. I used to read the articles that he wrote for the Times all those years ago, and it is wonderful to see his consistency and continuing interest in this important issue.

We come to this issue at a time when we have a Lord Chancellor, with whom I have spoken about this subject, who I believe is completely credible in his determination to reform the penal system. He has applied his considerable critical faculty to whether the penal system is successful or not, and I think the answer he has reached is a resounding “No”, or at least “Not very”. I look forward to him taking his officials with him, and I hope that he will be in post long enough and not be reshuffled before we can see real reform to the penal system.

I am not sure what I can add to this debate, but I suppose I have spent longer in the cells than almost anybody else in this House—barring two or three people. I have on occasion had to sit in the cells, in cases that I do not count among the forensic triumphs which I talk about all too easily at dinner parties, and explain to my clients why they have been sent to prison for short sentences. As an illustration, I have always found it very difficult to explain to a man or woman who has been sent to prison for causing death by driving without due care and attention what the utility of the prison system is in their case, particularly as they tend to be middle-aged or older people who have never been in trouble with the law before. We ought to learn from some of the, in my view, ludicrous guidelines that are set upon us. I have sat as a recorder in the Crown Court on numerous occasions and have felt I had to send somebody to prison because the sentencing guidelines were just too prescriptive and did not allow for the subjectivity that the case needed.

Perhaps the headline of this debate for me, so far, is this: if a probation officer was given a case load for one year of one person and acted as a sort of personal trainer for that person for one year, we would save money for the state. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, compared it to Eton fees, but it may be even more powerful to say that, if we committed probation officers to looking after people who are not sentenced to custody, training them in their everyday lives, letting them understand how to manage their money, giving them real quality time, we would achieve a much better system than sending such people to prison.

I turn to the imperatives of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, which, as I have said, I share. First, of course, punishment by imprisonment should be more than the deprivation of liberty; it should also be an opportunity. As does Michael Gove, I take the view that prison education needs enormous improvement. I absolutely applaud the decision to allow books to go to prison. What an absurd decision it was to say that prisoners should not receive books. Recently, I represented a man who was convicted of manslaughter—a rather intelligent man. He said as he was going to prison, after the case was over, “I’m going to do an MBA”. I asked him why, and he referred to what the current Lord Chancellor had said about the advantages of being educated in prison and about released early if you do that—and that is very good.

Secondly, it is not just overcrowding that is the problem; the sites of prisons are unsuitable. In places with young men, there is only one playing field and one gym, at which they have to queue to have their opportunity, as well as insufficient educational provision.

The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, referred, thirdly, to the dumping ground. We had an eloquent contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, about mental health. If somebody goes to a hospital and they are going to be in a hospital for a long time, they are given a designated nurse to look after their case and to ensure that it follows the right track. Why, when someone is sent to prison for a long time, are they not given a designated officer to try to ensure, as if they were a sort of tutor, that every opportunity is made available?

I agree that we should use community sentences more, particularly problem-solving courses.

Finally, I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, that we should give more opportunity to governors. I was once taken by a governor to a falconry course in a young offender institution. One of the young offenders told me that he was leaving the following week, that he had a job on an estate in Scotland and how he was looking forward to it. I came back to this place and thought, “I’m not going to tell anyone about the falconry course because the Daily Mail will get hold of it and call for it to be abolished”. But how useful that was.

My coda is to say: let us now start to apply imagination to sentencing policy so that those who come out of prison come out better and those who might go to prison do not do so, wherever possible.