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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for securing this important debate. I particularly thank him for his opening speech and the way in which he framed the debate today. Never, I think, has an opening speech been so universally supported throughout the whole debate.
I have been listening with great interest to the mood music on crime and justice coming out of the Conservative Party conference this week. It appears that the Government’s playlist is repeating the same old tune. The Justice Secretary announced that criminals will serve two-thirds of their sentence before early release can be considered; the Government reiterated their repackaged promise of 10,000 more prison places; and the Home Secretary proclaimed,
“we stand against the criminals … We are coming after you”.
More time, more prison places and being more hard-line—the most outdated approach to criminal justice that I can think of. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing about how the failed privatisation of probation and prisons has undermined the management and treatment of offenders; how meaningful reform has been stifled by cuts and uncertainty at the Ministry of Justice; how departmental spending has been slashed by over 40% since 2010 under five Justice Secretaries in four years; how thousands of prison officers have been axed; and how the shortfall in mental health support for offenders is fuelling a rise in suicide and self-harm in custody. While the Home Secretary might be coming after criminals, government policy has been coming after the criminal justice system over the last nine years.
The guiding principle of offender management and treatment should be holistic rather than cost and profit. Nothing demonstrates that better than the Government’s failed privatisation of the probation service. In May 2019 the Government announced an embarrassing U-turn to reverse their disastrous probation reforms—reforms that the Public Accounts Committee said had left the probation service in a worse position and which the National Audit Office found had wasted at least £476 million of taxpayers’ money and failed to reduce reoffending.
The new model would return the supervision of all offenders in the community to the public sector. That is no small number, with over 250,000 offenders currently on probation, according to recent government figures. This is a necessary first step in cleaning up the probation mess but there are already concerns that it does not go far enough and could give too great a role to the private sector. Some £280 million-worth of contracts for rehabilitation services will be tendered each year to private companies and voluntary organisations. Can the Minister confirm that companies currently failing to deliver private probation services will not be allowed to bid for new contracts under the new probation model?
The management of offenders looks very different depending on whether prisons are run for profit. Private prisons are up to 47% more violent than public prisons and far more likely to be overcrowded. Violence got so out of hand at HMP Birmingham that the Government had to step in and permanently take it back into public ownership from G4S. As soon as they did, extra prison officers were brought in and hundreds of prisoners moved out.
Will the Government release staffing figures for the remaining 13 private prisons managed by G4S, Serco and Sodexo? How can we improve offender management when private prisons have no minimum staffing levels? Can the Minister rule out today prison contracts from being any part of a post-Brexit trade deal? We must ensure that prisons are not exploited by US companies.
The Government continue to defend their decision to build more private prisons by arguing that all opposition is simply ideological, but the truth is that running prisons and probation services for profit simply undermines offender management and treatment. That is why Labour is committed to preventing the creation of any new prisons run for private profit and will campaign for probation to be fully returned to the public sector.
Rehabilitation depends on the relationship between offenders and staff, especially prison and probation officers. However, cuts to officer numbers since 2010 have caused a crisis in our prisons and probation service, with staff morale and retention at rock bottom. This could be addressed in many ways, such as boosting pay, conditions and professional standards, but the Government are not interested in these options due to the costs involved.
Despite recent recruitment, there are still 2,000 fewer prison officers than in 2010. Over 80,000 years of experience have been lost, with 40% of prison officers now having less than three years’ experience. Does the Minister accept that offender management and treatment are undermined by the declining number of prison officers?
The latest figures from the Prison Service’s workforce showed a new record high for levels of prison violence against staff. The number of recorded assaults on prison staff in England and Wales increased last year by 21% to 10,213—a 260% rise since 2010. What are the Government doing to protect these dedicated public servants?
I cannot mention the treatment of offenders without touching on rising self-harm and suicide in the criminal justice system. In the year leading up to June 2019, there were 309 deaths in prison custody. Of these, 86 deaths were self-inflicted—a 6% increase on the previous year. When the state takes away offenders’ liberty, it has a special duty of care to keep them safe. These 86 deaths are testament to the state’s failure to discharge adequately its duty of care. These 86 people should not have died. The prison system, the Ministry of Justice and the Government are responsible. It is shameful that in 2019, self-harm incidents in prisons are up 24% to a record high of 57,960, and women are 135% more likely than men to self-harm in prison.
A shortfall in mental health support for offenders serving community orders is fuelling this rise in suicide and self-harm. The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody found that of the 75,750 community orders made in 2018, fewer than 1% included a mental health treatment requirement. Prison should always be a last resort—the state’s most severe sanction for serious offences. It should never be a substitute for failing mental health services, or for the withdrawal of funding from drug treatment centres.
The Government must realise that they simply cannot do justice on the cheap without recklessly exposing the public and staff to serious risk. Rehabilitation must be at the heart of the management and treatment of offenders, through public probation, better staffing in prisons and mental health support. After the Conservative conference, I fear the Government remain a long way off from this approach.
I have not commented on the various speeches because, frankly, all 20 were substantially the same. They touched on different aspects, but the theme that seems to me to run through them is that the service is not fit for purpose. The number of people in prison is not a success. Locking people up is not a success—it is a symptom of the failure of the Ministry of Justice to secure properly the right resources and enable the probation service to help with rehabilitation and to make non-custodial sentences more credible. I also believe it is a failure of society to look after the poor, the fragile and the mentally ill. The way to save money is to have fewer people in prison. In the first place, get them not to offend, through proper youth services, education and mental health facilities. We need a national consensus that, in every area, we should support the young, the poor, the fragile and the unwell.