My Lords, we on this side of the House support this Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on piloting it through this House. Noble Lords will be aware that the proposal to avoid Friday releases has been around for a number of years, and a number of political parties and advocacy groups have tried to introduce it in previous criminal justice Bills. However, for various reasons, it was resisted by the Government. Nevertheless, I welcome the Government’s support for this Bill.
The rehabilitation of offenders starts within prisons with better conditions, better education and training, support for mental health, help to repair broken family relationships and more drug treatment programmes. If the Government are serious about cutting reoffending, they could look at reducing the use of shorter sentences for non-violent offences. One answer to that lies in effective community sentencing for those who commit non-violent offences. That would help ease overcrowding and allow prisons to get their education programmes back up and running.
My hope is that this Bill will have a positive effect on reoffending rates, along with reducing the number of recently released prisoners who become homeless. Only 45% of people released from prison in 2021-22 had settled accommodation on their release. That means over half were released from prison with nowhere to go and had to use their first hours of freedom searching for a safe and suitable place to sleep. Sadly, 11% of those people ended up homeless or sleeping rough.
Studies have shown that safe and secure housing is key to stopping the cycle of reoffending. His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation found that
“the proportion of service users recalled or resentenced to custody within 12 months of release was almost double for those without settled accommodation”.
I have always found it ironic—but understandable—that when sex offenders are released from custody, they have a guaranteed address because the police need to know what that address is, whereas other prisoners do not get that guarantee.
To state the obvious, when a prisoner leaves custody there is a huge contrast in their life—the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, about his interaction with the prison leaver in Birmingham. Until their day of release, prisoners have all their housing, meals and medication needs under one roof. Then, on a Friday, they are out—maybe with only the number of a probation officer in their pocket, a little bit of money and the address of a pharmacist. It is then a race against time to find a roof over their head, to apply for benefits, to buy food and to visit their GP or pharmacist if they are part of a drug treatment programme. If all these elements are not in place, there is a much higher chance of relapse and reoffending and a return to custody. When a prisoner is released, it should be seen as a new start, where opportunities are presented and support is readily available—but all too often the opposite is true. We hope this Bill can go some way to rectifying that, but we are realistic in understanding that it is only part of the picture.
I took the trouble to revisit the arguments used by the Government against this proposal in the PCSC Bill. First, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, spoke of the Scottish experience, where there has been direct early release for some time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, referred to. At that time, only 20 prisoners had been released under this scheme, so the argument was that there was insufficient data to draw any conclusions from the Scottish experience. Is the Minister able to update us on the Scottish experience of early release?
Secondly, in a separate debate, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson—the then Minister—argued against the proposal and said that it was deficient in three ways. His first point was that efforts to avoid Friday bunching should be focused on where the chances of rehabilitation of the offender were greatest. The second was that a five-day release period was too long. I understand that in this Bill it is two days; nevertheless, the point is made. His third point was about the impact on short custodial sentences if there was a two-day early release. How has the Minister’s department’s system evolved from these previous oppositions to the Bill? Of course, I welcome it, but I would be interested to hear the department’s thinking.
Turning to some of the speeches we have heard this afternoon, first, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, got back from his cruise relatively unscathed—I say “relatively”, given that he is coughing right at this moment. I also thought that the examples he gave of Berwyn prison were very good ones, and they should inspire other prisons to work in a similar way. Of course, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, about the importance of alternatives to prison.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds for talking about particular cases. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, talked about young prisoners, many of whom have been in care. It must be said that many young prisoners have committed much more serious offences than their adult counterparts—nevertheless, there is an extremely high reoffending rate for young prisoners. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds made a good point when talking about the particular problems of women when they leave prison, not least because they are far further away from their home—or very likely to be—because of the nature of the prison estate.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, who has a lot of experience in this area, as the House will be aware, spoke about the key ingredients for release. Of course, they are the same key ingredients: accommodation, stable relationships and something to do with your time—namely, education, a job or something like that. That is a truism in trying to promote rehabilitation and reduce reoffending. I support the Bill, because I think it goes one step along the road to achieving that. However, there is a lot more to do to try to rectify the current situation.