Prison Reform — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:05 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Farmer Lord Farmer Conservative 1:05 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, I, too, join noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Fowler on securing this timely debate and on his excellent opening speech. Momentous developments are taking place right now in the area of prison reform, which have the potential to make major inroads into social problems that have dogged our nation for decades. As part of the Secretary of State’s commitment to tackle reoffending by working with the whole person to find the “treasure in the heart of the man”, as he puts it, recent announcements have been made that the Ministry of Justice intends to put family at the heart of prison reforms.

Award-winning journalist Nell Bernstein observed:

“The dissolution of families, the harm to children—and the resultant perpetuation of the cycle of crime and incarceration from one generation to the next—may be the most profound and damaging effect of our current penal structure”.

Families can feel as if they, too, have been the victims of crime. For partners and children who have not themselves offended, it can seem as if they are also serving the sentence. An article last month in the Times told Sandra’s story—how her son’s life sentence for manslaughter at the age of 16 made her want to die too. She hated going into prison to see him—it was so heartbreaking. That is why all new prisons should have family-friendly visitor centres. They should be cheerful facilities where it is made clear to family members that they are welcome and valued. Staff should be trained to do all they can to prevent visitors feeling humiliated. One study found that reoffending rates are 39% lower if prisoners receive family visits, but they can be major undertakings that require travelling a long way with children. When I recently visited someone in Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight, it took a whole day to get there and back, and I was coming only from Chichester.

One of the longest-running longitudinal studies in the history of social science found that getting married can be a key turning point away from crime, even for the most prolific offenders. Research has also found that partnering relationships which bring structure, informal monitoring and emotional support decrease the likelihood of reoffending. It can make an enormous difference to a prisoner if they know their wife or husband is willing to stick with them. The perceived strength, stability and quality of ex-prisoners’ relationships are particularly important in rehabilitation, so the opportunities presented by their being inside must be taken to help prisoners develop better relationship skills, and prisoners should, wherever appropriate, be helped by staff to maintain family ties. Yet this happens for only one-third of offenders. Will the Minister include the need to improve the stability and quality of family relationships in the outcomes governors are required to deliver as they are given more autonomy? Programmes with a solid evidence base, such as Family Man, can pay for themselves in the money they save by preventing reoffending. This course uses drama, group discussions and written work to improve family relationships as a way of developing skills essential to education, training and employment.

These synergies are important. If prisoners’ family-based needs go unmet, it can greatly undermine wider efforts to improve their employability and educational attainment. However, the National Offender Management Service’s review of parenting and relationship support found that currently there is significant variation in the quality and scale of family provision. There is also too little structured assessment of family need in sentence planning, yet, as my earlier quote suggested, it makes no sense to ignore the needs of the next generation. Two-thirds of young males separated from imprisoned fathers in childhood go on to commit crime themselves.

Will the Minister discuss with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government how family support could also be joined up with work that goes on outside in the community, such as the troubled families programme? Similarly, schools should be able to use pupil premium money for children of prisoners on programmes such as Family Literacy in Prisons if this is the most effective means of improving their educational outcomes. Involving the imprisoned parents in their children’s education gives them a reason to go straight, and gives the children a better chance of avoiding criminality themselves. Given the Prime Minister’s inspiring mission to improve life chances for everyone in this country, can we assume that improving prisoners’ family stability will be at the heart of this Government’s rehabilitation strategy?