Amendment 292P

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (11th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 24th November 2021.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 6:30 pm, 24th November 2021

My Lords, I move this amendment in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, who regrettably cannot be with us today. In the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2019 election, there was a promise to set up a royal commission on the criminal justice system within the first year of government. Of course, that did not happen; instead, we have this enormous Bill, which covers police, crime, sentencing and courts, with bells and whistles attached. It is a great pity that the Government did not carry out their manifesto promise, which might have produced much better and more targeted reforms.

Although the United Kingdom already locks upmore of its people, and for longer, than any other country in Europe, the direction of the Bill is to criminalise more activity and to lengthen sentences. Meanwhile, the state of our prisons gets worse and worse. There are too many prisoners, too few experienced staff, too many drugs and too much violence.

I illustrate the problem by referring once again in this House to Berwyn prison, some three miles from my home in Wrexham, north Wales. It is the largest prison in this country and the second largest in Europe. It opened in 2017: a modern, big prison to house 2,200 prisoners, although, despite overcrowding throughout the prison estate, the inability to recruit prison officers in north Wales means that no one has ever succeeded in filling it with more than 1,750. Some 80% of the prison staff in Berwyn prison have under two years’ experience in the Prison Service, and the pool of labour in north Wales has been exhausted. Although sold as a prison for Welsh offenders, 70% of the prisoners come from England and the purpose that was so trumpeted—rehabilitation—has been lost.

Dr Robert Jones of Cardiff University carried out a survey in 2020 and found that prisoner attacks in the previous year had jumped by 143% to 561 and assaults on prison staff were up 25% to 257. Over the same period, assaults in all UK jails had actually fallen by 8%. In Berwyn prison, there were 39 incidents per 100 inmates, compared with three in 100 in the open prison at Prescoed in Usk. On average, five weapon discoveries were made every week and there was an 84% increase in incidence of self-harm. All this is set alongside a continuing drug problem which caused the former police commissioner for north Wales, Mr Arfon Jones of Plaid Cymru, to call last February for prisoners to be given cannabis to tackle addiction and curb violence. The judges in the Crown Courts in north Wales have expressed their alarm at the number of prison officers who come before them for smuggling drugs.

A royal commission on sentencing is needed. In March of last year, the Government allocated £3 million for the royal commission on criminal justice in their manifesto, so the money is secured. While such a commission lacks statutory powers to summon witnesses and papers, it has prestige, which leads to change. I well remember the Kilbrandon royal commission, perhaps the last big one that we had. This was the Royal Commission on the Constitution, to which I gave evidence in 1973. Dr Gary Wilson of Liverpool John Moores University wrote of it, in 2017, to show its influence:

“Its report gave the first significant consideration to the case for devolution and advanced proposals which do not diverge radically in the most part from the devolution settlement eventually implemented in 1998.”

He said that it should be remembered

“for its importance in helping to get the ball rolling with the development of the devolution agenda in the 1970s which to some extent paved the way for the eventual successful introduction of Scottish and Welsh devolution”.

That is the effect of a royal commission: it calls for evidence from individuals and organisations, within and outside government, and produces a report. It is not tied to the policy of any political party. It may also undertake its own programme of research. The evidence is heard in public, and transcripts of oral and written evidence that it receives are published. Royal commissions address high-profile social concerns, issues that may be controversial or matters of national importance. They have been used, for example, to advance divorce law, police powers and procedures, the regulation of the press and even capital punishment.

Noble Lords will observe that Amendment 292P covers how to reduce the prison population and how to reduce violence and overcrowding in prisons; addresses the particular needs of young people and women in custody; seeks to find out how to ensure that sentencing for offences is focused on the reform and rehabilitation of offenders and on reducing reoffending—which we all talk about when we talk about penal policy but nothing happens; how to reduce the overrepresentation of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in prison; the imposition and management of non-custodial sentences; and, lastly, the abolition of some mandatory or minimum prison sentences.

On that last point, the sentence inflation in my professional life has been incredible. That inflation springs from Parliament and the way that this place works. When judges see sentences being doubled, they feel they have to respond and put up the sentences accordingly. However, I maintain that a long and objective look at how we deal with offenders, free of rhetoric and populism, is essential for the safety and security of the people of this country. I beg to move.