Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:16 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Woolf Lord Woolf Crossbench 1:16 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, we have heard a series of excellent speeches dealing with the problems in prisons. I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, on achieving this debate. I also congratulate those who have already taken part in it on what they said. They have shown a picture which is beyond dispute—our prisons are in a state of crisis. This has happened notwithstanding the fact that excellent work has been done within prisons and excellent reports have been produced from time to time which have shown what is needed in our prison system. We have to decide on an alternative method for preventing the present position continuing. This has given me cause for thought over a long period.

The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, was good enough to refer to my report, which I think was produced nearly 30 years ago. In it I tried to identify a means of putting a brake on overcrowding. That I was right to do so was made apparent by what we have heard today. However, it is equally clear that the brake I then suggested was, first, not implemented and, secondly, would almost certainly have failed. We have to realise that forces are at work which we need to tackle. I thought at the time it was created that the Sentencing Guidelines Council was an excellent idea. However, instead of helping the situation, and through no fault of its members, its remit had the opposite effect. I say that having been the first chairman of the first incarnation of that body. In our system very powerful forces, coming largely from Parliament, continually drive up sentences and there is no equally powerful force which has the opposite effect of reducing them. That is what we have to focus upon. This is a very relevant time to act, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, pointed out, given the changes which are going to take place in relation to the sentencing code. Therefore, I suggest that we have to give the Sentencing Council a new remit whereby, if sentences are increased, it has to make recommendations under which they can be reduced. Unless we get a balancing factor of that sort, I am afraid that the present problems will continue.