Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:59 am on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 11:59 am, 7th September 2017

My Lords, being called so early gives me the opportunity to be the first to remind the House that it was the Liberal Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, over 100 years ago, who said that the measurement of a society’s civilisation was how it treated its prisoners. There is no doubt, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, demonstrated in his forensic presentation, that the case for prison reform is overwhelming. As preparation for this debate I read the reflections of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on his five and a half years as prisons Minister—I mean inspector—and over 14 years ago the subtitle of his book, Prisongate, was,

“The shocking state of Britain’s prisons and the need for visionary change”.

Fewer than seven weeks ago, the Chief Inspector of Prisons warned us that the situation was getting worse.

The case is therefore there, so why does nothing happen? One point where I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, is the idea that we would get a more enlightened debate at the other end. I fear that part of the problem of prison reform is that in a way, the whole of our Prison Service is like a paddle steamer driven by two paddles, but they go in different directions. One paddle is egged on by the media, influenced by public opinion and by politicians who, when given the hard choice between backing the difficult decision or playing for the politics of fear, have too often chosen the latter, and by political parties of all kinds, which, when it comes to elections, put out their leaflets telling their would-be voters how crime is rising and how they are going to deal with it. That paddle, pounding away, always makes it difficult to get the case for reform.

We therefore have to understand that the debate today, which will be overwhelmingly in favour of sensible reform, still has to pass that test of how we get a Secretary of State, a Prisons Minister and a Prime Minister who are willing to drive the reforms through. The building blocks are there: the Corston report on women, the Bradley report on mental health, the Harris report on deaths in custody, the Laming report on looked-after children, Dame Sally Coates’s report on education in prisons, and Charlie Taylor’s report on an education-led reform of youth custody. What is required is the political will. I would like to see the Prisons Minister at the Bar. I hope he reads this full debate and takes some courage from what he reads.