Offenders (Day of Release from Detention) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:33 pm on 21 April 2023.

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Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 12:33, 21 April 2023

My Lords, first, I warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for a characteristically compelling and very moving speech on this issue. I also thank him for the work he is doing—in particular, in encouraging his contacts in Brixton to work with prisoners to obtain jobs on their release, particularly from Brixton prison. This is a very positive development, and it has been a great pleasure to work with him on this issue. I am grateful for the very broad support the Bill has received, both in the other place and in this House, and to all those who have worked on it, particularly Simon Fell MP. I am also grateful for the input of Nacro and other interested parties. It is a great pleasure, for once, to be able to say that we are all more or less on the same page, working in the same direction.

As far as the Government are concerned, the direction of travel is indeed towards rejuvenation, to use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and rehabilitation generally. I was particularly pleased about and grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, for recounting the positive developments at Berwyn prison in particular, which seems to be setting a good example of the work that can be done and what can be achieved with targeted resettlement and rehabilitation efforts, particularly concentrating on employment—local possibilities with local employers—and accommodation and related matters. I take the opportunity to say that that was very much driven by my right honourable friend the late Secretary of State for Justice, who resigned today but who has very much led the direction of travel for rehabilitation and resettlement of prisoners.

The importance of the Bill is shown by the widespread and consistent support it has received. It is a simple measure, as has been said, but it is likely to have a strong and positive impact on the rehabilitation of offenders leaving custody and it is clear that it commands widespread public support. I am sure that it will particularly help the repeat offenders referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, and I hope that it will reduce that “very lonely place” to which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, rightly referred. It will be particularly important, as has been mentioned, for youth offenders, who were underlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. Because we now have relatively fewer youth offenders in custody, youth offending establishments can be quite far away from home, so youth offenders who are released face enormous difficulties if they do not have a support system. This will enable much better support for that particular category of prisoners, including those who have been in the recently created secure 16 to 19 year-old schools, and will mean that they will experience no delay in contacting their youth justice worker and can be properly protected. I compliment and thank the Youth Justice Board for all its work in this general area.

I fully accept the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that there is a great deal more to be done, but I venture to suggest that we are beginning to make progress in these areas with the various initiatives that have rightly been mentioned. In that connection, the noble Lord asked what has changed since the Government’s previous position. As I understand it, there was a consultation on the Prisons Strategy White Paper which produced a lot of responses. It enabled further discussion to be had, particularly with policy officials, prison staff and third parties in the community as to how we should manage all this. The Secretary of State will now delegate the decision to prison governors and the equivalent but will give some guidance as to how it is going to work, so that you give priority to certain people and make sure that, as it were, it is staged down through Wednesday and Thursday as well as Friday. There will still be some residual prisoners who are released on Friday; there is no particular reason why those who have homes to go to, such as the white collar offender, should have particular priority, but that enables you to give priority to the people who need it most.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, asked why we need an Act of Parliament. We need one because—I think I am right about this; I will write to the noble Lord if I am wrong—if Parliament says you should serve a sentence of so much, you have to serve that sentence. Only Parliament can authorise people to be released just short—in this case, a couple of days short—of serving that sentence. Although it is only a couple of days, one needs legislative authority to do it. I think that is the answer, but I will check in case I have it wrong.

I hope I have covered the various points that were made. This is perhaps not the occasion to discuss sentencing policy. I entirely accept the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that these matters, including whether we should use prison in a slightly different way and whether we should avoid shorter sentences, need to be reviewed continually. These are important issues but I venture to suggest that they are not for today.

I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds for his contribution, in particular in relation to the female estate. I know that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester is particularly concerned about that. As has been pointed out, we have the same problem with the female estate because it has relatively few offenders so there are not that many female establishments, meaning that offenders are often far from home; they can also be very vulnerable when they are released. This problem needs particular planning; I hope this Bill will give us an opportunity to ameliorate it.

Following what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, was kind enough to tell us, I can say that the Government have taken significant steps in improving prison leavers’ accommodation; in building stronger links with employers through dedicated prison employment leads, so that there are now people in the prisons who are responsible for finding employment and prison employment advisory boards through which, as the noble Lord illustrated, local business leaders can come into local prisons; in offering more work within prison; in delivering and improving a prisoner education service; in increasing access to drugs rehabilitation; and in other actions.

The reoffending rate is slowly coming down, from 31% in 2009-10 to 25.6% in 2019-20, and the Government are further investing in driving it down. These are important interventions. The Bill will be an important support for all the things that are going on and will ensure that the offenders most in need of help will be given a full opportunity to access support before a service is in effect closed for the weekend. We will develop policy guidelines to help heads of establishment or the appropriate officials in youth establishments to target exactly the offenders most in need and support them to make decisions that allow offenders who need it time to resettle and reintegrate into their community.

This is a simple and proportionate Bill. I think I have covered most of the points that were raised. I can only reiterate my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and everyone who has helped to support the Bill. I commend it to the House.