Like the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Faulks, and my noble friends Lord Dholakia, Lord Beith and Lord McNally, I am also trying to understand why the Government have failed to bring back the prisons element of the Prisons and Courts Bill, which fell at the general election. Noble Lords will know there was broad support for the prisons element in that Bill, and although it had its flaws, in its rationale, it had the potential to be a milestone for the rehabilitation of offenders.
That milestone was a recognition of the importance of rehabilitation as a principle. In bringing forward the legislation, the Government said:
“The Prisons and Courts Bill paves the way for the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation”,
“sets out a new framework and clear system of accountability for prisons”.
These are the important words:
“It will enshrine into law that a key purpose of prison is to reform and rehabilitate offenders, as well as punish them for the crimes they have committed”.
That important objective has now been dropped from the Government’s legislative programme. The failure to include prison reform in that programme damages the social and financial fabric of our society and our country as we seek to reduce reoffending.
The Government have just received the second of two highly critical inspection reports of their handling of the reduction of reoffending issue, the most recent of which was earlier this month. So a cynic might be drawn to the conclusion that this matter has been dropped because the approach taken thus far is failing. Previous debates in your Lordships’ House indicated that the previous Bill had two main areas where there was broad support: first, the proposal to recognise in law that the main purpose of prisons is rehabilitating offenders; and secondly, that devolution of decision-making within an overarching strategy of reform was both essential and appropriate.
However, the practice and delivery which sit behind the principle are woeful. Like many others in your Lordships’ House, I am used to reading critical reports, but I have never read one as strongly critical as the joint inspection report on rehabilitation released earlier this month by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Probation. This single sentence from both HM Chief Inspectors gives you the flavour:
“If Through the Gate services were removed tomorrow, in our view the impact on the resettlement of prisoners would be negligible”.
In other words, the millions of pounds being spent by the Government on their rehabilitation of offenders programme is having no effect. The inspectors further state:
“The gap between aspiration and reality is so great, that we wonder whether there is any prospect that these services will deliver the desired impact on rates of reoffending”.
Is this why the relevant section on the Government’s website relating to the Prison and Courts Bill was declared obsolete just 24 hours before the Queen’s Speech?
There is a second question I must ask the Government. Since they have already put in place a structure for delivery which has a big stamp on it now saying “failing”, is it the Government’s intention to pursue some of their additional delivery mechanisms through secondary legislation? Secondary legislation would be seen as an escape route for the Government from proper scrutiny by Parliament. Like other noble Lords, I will continue to test the Government against their delivery, but the big loss will be that of enshrining in legislation that one of the prime purposes of our prisons is the rehabilitation of offenders. This was a fundamental move which would have altered the way in which we view our justice system—a change in the foundation of our justice system which would have underpinned all our actions.
The second inspection report bears out what I have observed when visiting rehabilitation companies: poor integration into mainstream prison activity; poor contract design; a lack of joined-up government thinking, particularly between the MoJ and the DWP; and a concentration on writing rehabilitation plans rather than simply helping people with their difficulties. That is a triumph of bureaucracy over action. Your Lordships’ House is entitled to ask why the Government have not put their legislative underpinning in place. I very much hope for a satisfactory answer when the Minister sums up later tonight.