Prison Reform — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:28 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice) 1:28 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, I echo the thanks of many noble Lords to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, both for securing this debate and for the powerful and striking speech with which he opened it. The debate has demonstrated that the first priority in prison reform is reducing the numbers of people in prison and that to achieve that our aims must be rehabilitation to cut reoffending, and fewer offenders sentenced to prison when they do not need to be there. The whole House has welcomed the fact that the new Justice Secretary recognises the crisis in our prisons and is committed to change. However, there is much to be done.

The House also recognises that prison overcrowding is the main obstacle to rehabilitation—the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, made that point. The Howard League for Penal Reform, to which I am grateful for its briefing, points out that in 25 years the prison population has almost doubled, from less than 45,000 in 1990 to more than 85,000 now, in spite of the last few years of falling crime, and that the prison population is projected to increase to 90,000, plus or minus 8,000, by 2020. The institutional factors mentioned by my noble friend Lord Beith clearly have something to do with this.

My noble friend also pointed out the dependence on tariff sentencing, which is so prevalent and so powerful with the press. There is overwhelming evidence that short sentences do not work, yet far too many prisoners are serving them. We have had the depressing figures for reconviction rates. Through-the-gate supervision, introduced by the Offender Rehabilitation Act, may reduce the disparity but it has not done so yet. The fact remains that short prison sentences work far less effectively than community sentences in reducing reoffending. Short sentences may indeed increase the risk of future crime by removing offenders from their family and social supports, as my noble friend Lord Dholakia pointed out.

The unnecessary imprisonment of drug offenders has also contributed to prison overcrowding and to increased drug use and drug-related corruption in prisons. The extent of the problem was highlighted by a 2013 survey which showed that 64% of prisoners reported having used drugs in the four weeks before going into custody. On these Benches, in the face of overwhelming evidence that imprisonment or even punishment does not reduce drug use or cure addiction, we have long argued for drug possession to be treated as a health rather than a criminal justice issue. It is therefore welcome that the Justice Secretary has established a working group to consider establishing courts that would have as their aim solving drug and similar health and social problems through rehabilitation rather than imprisonment—the Texas solution mentioned by my noble friend Lord Beith.

Far too many women are in prison, as the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, pointed out. Eighty-two per cent of women in prison have been convicted of non-violent offences and probably do not need to be there. The evidence shows that among women there is a far greater prevalence than among men of serious social and health problems. Women suffer disproportionately from prison in their family and personal lives, and of course their children and families suffer disproportionately, unnecessarily and unfairly from the separation that imprisonment of their mothers involves. The noble Baroness, Lady Healy, also made the point that there is an unduly extensive use of prison on remand for women who face a trial.

For young people, young offender institutions have for far too long been academies for crime to which we have sent our most deprived youngsters with the most intractable personal, social and health problems—mental and physical—and often with backgrounds of abuse, as my noble friend Lady Benjamin pointed out, only for matters to get worse for them. I applaud the contribution that my noble friend Lord McNally has made not only to this debate but to improving youth justice in the United Kingdom, which he continues to do. However, we also need to improve educational opportunity and vocational training, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, pointed out, we need to ensure that personal responsibility is taken by the service for individual prisoners. The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, pointed out the difficulties of imprisoning too many older offenders.

The continued unjust incarceration of prisoners whose tariffs have expired but who are serving IPPs also contributes to the prison population. We have heard again from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, taking up the cudgels of Lord Lloyd of Berwick. Both have repeatedly exposed the continuing injustice caused by these sentences, which were abolished as long ago as 2012, yet the Government will not use their power under Section 128 of the LASPO Act to change the test for their release, although for IPP prisoners the rate of reconviction within a year of release is only 14%.

Certainly one answer to overcrowding is to ensure that there are prison places to house the prison population in humane conditions, with an end to cramming and insanitary, squalid and filthy cells, lacking in privacy and destructive of self-esteem. The plan to replace old and inadequate city prisons with modern prisons that are fit for purpose is therefore welcome, provided that they are then used for the numbers for which they are designed and that we do not replace overcrowding in Wormwood Scrubs with overcrowding in its modern out-of-town-centre equivalent.

It is also clearly right that if costs to the Ministry can be saved by using modern videoconferencing technology to avoid unnecessary attendance at pre-trial court hearings, this is a sensible innovation. I would, however, add a word of caution about out-of-town prisons. It is important that, where possible, prisoners are placed close to their communities, particularly to enable their families to visit them. The Prison Reform Trust points to the evidence that prison visits help to reduce the risk of reoffending, which is 39% higher among prisoners who receive no visits than among those who do. We should not move prisoners miles across the country to far-away locations in large prisons where their links with their past, and therefore often with their futures, are cut, perhaps fatally. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, made that point.

The effects of overcrowding are exacerbated by chronic and serious understaffing. Staffing levels fell by 29% between March 2010 and December 2014—from about 45,000 to about 32,000. That has meant more violence, more drugs, more drug-related corruption, more in-cell time, less education and less activity. The vicious circle inherent in all that is obvious. The understaffing increases reoffending, which increases the prison population and further strains staffing levels.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons has painted a chilling picture of violence in custody, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, pointed out. The review of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, was a terrible indictment of our prison system. As he pointed out, the Government have a fundamental obligation towards prisoners to keep them safe. His recommendations for safer cells, for understanding the vulnerability and differences of maturity of young adults and for keeping them out of prison where possible must be implemented.

The figures on drug use in prisons are alarming. A rise of 60% in incidents where drugs were found in prisons in 2014 can only partly be explained by better detection. Understaffing and a demoralised staff contribute to that problem as well.

The House considered the position and role of prison education in Tuesday’s debate moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and I will not repeat what was said then. However, the role of education has been mentioned by many and, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and my noble friend Lady Benjamin pointed out, good things are happening, understaffing, limited availability of courses, large disparities and poor continuity have all meant that we are not taking the opportunity to turn people round. We should applaud the idea of resettlement of prisoners close to their families and communities, but the effectiveness of that will be sharply reduced if prisoners cannot complete the courses they are undertaking because they are not available in the new prison.

The ways forward are not obscure. The plan of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has been clear and others have mentioned it. In short, we now need to turn a vicious cycle of prison letting down offenders and society and turn it into a virtuous cycle of improving prisons and of ensuring that we increase rehabilitation and save funds accordingly.