My Lords, the facts have all been stated, and the reports are labyrinthine. We understand the heart of the difficult arguments, and now it is time to move towards answers and solutions, to cut the cost to the public purse and to stop the unnecessary incarceration of men and women who do not need to be in prison.
I start with a reflection on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, about empathy. In order to help me think a bit better about this debate and issue, I visited a lifer just three weeks ago in one of Her Majesty’s prisons in Kent. I had an hour and a half with a man who is serving nearly a 20-year sentence and has done nearly 10 years already, and found him sensitive, erudite, thoughtful, persuasive, interesting, challenging, and with deep intellectual pursuits. However, he had been written off at one point by the courts as simply a man to be thrown behind bars with no early point of release. That made me realise that not just that man alone but multitudes of others, both men and women, need to be let out of prison considerably earlier.
When we apply the empathy test to understand that a man or woman has changed and their character has been reformed, instead of pouring £50,000 on average of my tax money into sustaining that man in prison, I would rather invest the money instead in enterprise and employment. I would rather secure him into a way beyond the prison. I would rather let out multitudes of men who have shown the ability to seek character reform and therefore see them productive taxpayers contributing to society—maybe held under some form of a licence and check, in order to secure society’s desire to see punishment done. But I would not wish us to continue to have a system that simply pays into a pot that contains but does nothing to reform and to rebuild.
This Government, along with the previous Government, have spent millions—I think the estimate is in the region of £54 million a year—on character education in schools. That is vital expenditure, and we all agree with it. Why not spend tens of millions on character education and development and supportive networks for offenders and those within prison, and once they have passed the test of responsible citizenship, give them the opportunity for work and responsibility? Why not invest our tax resources instead in their futures, and not in containing people in the despair and hopelessness of prison?