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My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on securing this debate.
What a mess we have made of the rehabilitation of prisoners in this country. With the highest incarceration rate in western Europe, we are pursuing the failed strategy of building 10,000 more prison spaces, despite the fact that a reoffending rate of nearly 50% shows that prison is not working. Inside our prisons, self-harm increased by 24% this March over the previous year, with one self-inflicted death every four days. The charity Inquest says:
“Despair and distress are at unprecedented levels in failing institutions within a failing system”.
I would challenge any noble Lord in this House to dispute that.
But instead of fostering a rehabilitative culture, our prisons are increasingly punitive in their approach to managing conflict. Figures shown to the Howard League reveal that more than 1,000 years of additional punishment were added to sentences in 2018 for breaking rules. I cannot believe it.
The Howard League says that,
“rather than building 10,000 more prison places, a strategy to reduce the number of people held in expensive, ineffectual and chaotic prisons is urgently needed”.
It would like to see the money for building more prison places diverted into community-based initiatives and services such as housing, healthcare, education and employment, which address the underlying causes of crime. We know that reoffending rates are much lower for community-based sentences, but the number of community orders has more than halved in recent years. Something has gone horribly wrong, and I hope that the Minister will enlighten us as to why this is and what steps the Government are taking to redress it.
That brings me to our poor, beleaguered probation service. At the end of 2018, more than 250,000 people were on probation in England and Wales. Even as I say this, knowing it is an official statistic, I cannot believe it. How have things come to this? How can any sort of effective service be delivered to so many people without vast resources? Why have the Government imposed an arbitrary supervision period of 12 months, even for people who have been imprisoned for just a day? I am sure that considering all offenders for supervision has to be of benefit, as my noble friend Lord McNally said. However, this arbitrary imposition has hit women prisoners particularly hard, because, as we know, they are subject to a disproportionate number of shorter sentences, despite the damage that this does to their children and the disruption it causes to their often already chaotic lives. Surely, if a little thought were given to the needs of each individual prisoner, and the period and the type of intervention tailored to their individual needs, this would be a far more effective use of public money. Perhaps the Minister can give us some good news that this will be under review.
The new proposals for probation are welcome, but I have a couple of questions for the Minister. CRCs have been an unmitigated disaster, not least because the private for-profit model does not work in the area of rehabilitation—perhaps because the interests of offenders are not the primary motivation for what CRCs do. We know that some subcontracting to outside organisations will be involved in delivering specialist services, but will the Minister confirm that these will be mainly not-for-profit organisations rather than large for-profit companies such as G4S and Sodexo? There is also concern about the very short lead-in period to the changes. Have we not learned yet that these sorts of unnecessary additional challenges mean that we are setting ourselves up to fail again?
Finally, I have a couple of questions for the Minister from the Prison Reform Trust, about women victims of domestic violence and coercion who land up in jail. I am delighted that the Domestic Abuse Bill had its Second Reading in the Commons yesterday and I wish it speedy passage. But, in the context of this debate, we need to acknowledge that many of the women who land up in prison are victims of violence and intimidation.
It is a year since the Female Offender Strategy was published. So I ask the Minister, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that women offenders’ histories of victimisation are being considered, both in prison and in the community? What support is being given to women whose offending has been driven by a coercive and abusive relationship?
That is a lot of questions, and I do not expect even this excellent Minister to be able to answer them all today—but a follow-up in writing would be greatly appreciated.