Prison Reform — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:53 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 12:53 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, I very rarely disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, and I shall certainly not begin to do so today, because he made a powerful and convincing speech and I agree with every word. I also endorse most strongly all the comments that have been made about the admirable opening speech of my noble friend Lord Fowler and, again, endorse what he says. As I am in the business of endorsements at the moment, let me say how much I agreed with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. How privileged I was to be with him, as well as the noble and learned Lords, Lord Phillips and Lord Judge, when we went to see my noble friend the Minister last week to talk about indeterminate sentences. He made a powerful plea, which I hope will be heeded and will lead to a speeding up of dealing with these appalling stains on our justice system, because that is what they are.

In his opening speech, my noble friend talked about the Prison Service and how, if the squalor of the prison system was replicated in any way in any other aspect of the public service, there would be a massive public protest. One of the problems is—and I am afraid that I am rather old-fashioned on this matter—that the Prison Service is not entirely a public service. One decision that I have deplored over the years is the privatisation of prisons. It should be the duty of the state. Again, I refer to Winston Churchill, who in effect said that one of the hallmarks of a civilised society is how it treats its prisoners. There is a public responsibility, exercised by the Government of the day, and I believe that it has been detrimental to farm it out on economic grounds to private providers. That is not to say that there have not been some admirable people involved and that some of the prisons are not well run, but I do not like the principle.

I had considerable experience of prisons, with two in my constituency—Featherstone, and Brinsford young offender institution. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is only too familiar with both of them. He made reports on them, and his report on Brinsford is one of the best that I have ever read on any penal institution. Going to those two institutions, I discovered two things. First, many of the young offenders had such an appalling private background of deprivation that they needed rehabilitation in a way that was not always provided. I agree so much with the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, in his remarks about the falconry course, and so on. In Featherstone itself I ran for a considerable period a surgery for lifers, which brought me face to face with men who had committed the ultimate crime, many of whom could not be categorised as criminal people. They had done something—sometimes provoked and sometimes not—of an appalling nature. Of course they deserved a prison sentence, and they all recognised that, but they were human beings and there is very much good in the worst of us, just as there is very much bad in the best of us. I became very conscious of that in those visits.

As chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in another place, I conducted an inquiry into prisons. One thing that convinced me more than anything else of the need for change was the experience that we had of the restorative justice system. It has been referred to during this debate, but I would like to underline its importance. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, and others have talked about keeping young people out of prison. A well-run restorative justice system on which proper money is expended, would save a lot of money—it would not be £36,000 per person per year—and do a great deal to help to implement the five Fowler proposals. I endorse all of them.

In Lincoln, where I have the privilege to live, we have just completely restored Lincoln Castle, which contained within it two prisons—a Georgian debtors’ prison and a Victorian prison. The latter was based on Pentonville, and they operated there the separate system whereby every prisoner was kept separate from another, even in the chapel, where each prisoner occupied a cubicle. This is a pretty scary thing when you go to see it, but of course the motivation was entirely decent, because they wanted to try to ensure that people would not reoffend. It was a crude, simplistic and unsuccessful system that deserved to be castigated as it has been, but the motives were right. The motives here in this debate are all right, but we need to convince the admirable new Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor that he has our support in his reforming zeal. May he keep it up—and I am sure that he will have the good wishes of every Member of this House if he does so.