Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:20 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Stern Baroness Stern Crossbench 1:20 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, it is indeed a great honour to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and to have had an opportunity to hear his wise words. In preparing for this important debate I lifted down from my shelf my much annotated, very tatty and extremely heavy copy of the Woolf Report 1991. I looked through it again and reflected briefly: if the Government of the day had implemented the noble and learned Lord’s recommendations, how different our situation now would be. It is a huge pity that that did not happen. On the same shelf I have the Corston report, the Bradley report, the report on justice reinvestment produced by the Justice Select Committee when the noble Lord, Lord Beith, was its chair, and many others. The proposals are all there on how to reduce our high and wasteful imprisonment rate, while ensuring that crime is dealt with effectively.

I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for initiating this timely debate, and I thank him also for his dogged determination to get justice for the over 3,000 prisoners still serving indeterminate sentences for public protection, which is indeed a blemish on our system.

During my working life I have visited places of imprisonment in 50 or so countries, covering all the regions of the world—countries in wealthy western Europe and countries in desperately poor parts of Africa. I have concluded from these experiences that it is unwise to expect too much from imprisonment. It is best not to dream too much about what prisons can achieve on their own. Many speakers have analysed and highlighted in this debate the damage that imprisonment causes to individuals, social stability, family ties, self-esteem and ability to function in the outside world.

Reducing the use of imprisonment is not, however, impossible. In 2008 there were 3,000-plus young people in custody; in June this year, the figure was 924. This was done without changes to the law on sentencing; it was done by parts of the system working together. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, will know how this was done as he chaired the Youth Justice Board through much of those years. The lessons from Scotland—brought to our attention by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen of Whitekirk—are also well worth studying.

I would make two proposals to the Minister. First, a radical review could be a very practical and sensible way to proceed. Secondly, would she consider inviting the Secretary of State for Justice—who has a very good reputation—to find the time to listen to the views of some of those in your Lordships’ House in whom so much wisdom on this subject resides?