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Offender Management and Treatment - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:53 pm on 3rd October 2019.

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Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative 2:53 pm, 3rd October 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for introducing this debate, as well as for the helpful guidance that he has given to me on this subject in recent years. Just over two years ago, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, initiated a debate on prison overcrowding, which convinced me to take a very close interest in the UK prison system. I confined myself to issues after sentence to immediate custody. My task was made much easier by the decision of the then Prisons Minister Rory Stewart to set up a pilot Prison Service parliamentary scheme. I am very grateful to all those in the Prison Service who patiently helped me with my inquiries. It became clear to me that the problem in the prison system does not lie with the governors or the prison officers. I am full of admiration for both.

I am still a new boy to this subject. However, it is my opinion that the UK’s prison system is hopelessly flawed. It cannot be fixed by incremental reform; it needs drastic reform. We have had at least seven Prisons Ministers and Justice Secretaries since May 2010, but you need at least four years to determine and start a process of drastic reform. Moreover, 10 years would be needed to navigate the choppy waters of reform and to start seeing the benefits coming through. Ministers will therefore undertake only short-term, incremental reforms that are not too controversial. Most importantly, they will pass the Daily Mail test.

Why does anyone think that taking very seriously damaged youngsters who have had a rotten start in life—“victimised by society”, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, put it—and putting them in a conventional prison regime will somehow, magically, make them better members of society? It cannot possibly work. It is a hopelessly flawed system.

The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has proposed a royal commission or the equivalent. I certainly support that and will submit a comprehensive paper outlining my thoughts. However, I am concerned that the output may merely be a souped-up Woolf report—I see the noble and learned Lord in his place and look forward to hearing his contribution. It might propose desirable reforms, but I very much doubt whether it would propose drastic reform, because the inquiry would have to take into account what is thought to be politically possible. In the coming months, I will be making the case for drastic reform in any fora that I can.

Prison reform is a wicked problem because, as the Home Secretary will soon find, the obvious solutions are the wrong ones. No one can agree what the problems are. If they do, they agree only on the symptoms. I therefore maintain an open mind. I am not fixed on any solution: I will merely suggest what drastic reform might look like. In the time available, I can show a bit of ankle only. Many noble Lords have talked about the problem of short sentences. They do not work because the regime in the current system is awful: there is almost no incentive for short-term prisoners to improve themselves. In short, we are releasing prisoners from custody after a defined period and not when they have improved to a defined extent. For example, they may still have no literacy or numeracy skills.

I propose making a new sentence available to the courts: to be detained for training at Her Majesty’s pleasure, or “DFT”. Release would be on achieving the required standard of performance, training and conduct. This is not an IPP and there would have to be a cap of, say, five years. However, the time on remand would not help other than in respect of the cap. The first stage of “DFT” would be to ensure compliance with the training regime. I call this “tick-tock”. Noble Lords will recall the late Viscount Whitelaw’s “short, sharp shock”. It was a failure because it was an end in itself rather than a means to an end. It was no deterrent and did not address offenders’ weaknesses. The proposed “tick-tock” camps would be in isolated rural areas—there would be no mobile phone signal. This would solve an awful lot of problems and drastically reduce the possibility of drugs getting into the system. By the way, if we have a very boring regime in the current prison system—and we do—why is anyone surprised that the prisoners want to take drugs?

The purpose of “tick-tock” is purely to enable greater risk to be safely taken later on. It is not per se a punishment, although it might not be much fun. The first requirements to be met on “DFT” as opposed to “tick-tock” must be literacy and numeracy if there is to be any chance of halting reoffending. The next requirement is for the prisoner to acquire some genuine and desirable trade skills. Finally, horror of horror, there needs to be some fun.