[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair] — Reoffending

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 31 January 2008.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned—[Liz Blackman.]

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 2:30, 31 January 2008

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley, for what I hope will be a productive debate on how we can prevent reoffending by those who go through the criminal justice system—both those in custody and those undertaking a community-based sentence.

The Government are keen to have this debate, because we are in the process of consulting on a number of documents laying out our strategy for the prevention of reoffending. In November of last year, I launched a number of documents looking at how we can prevent reoffending. Today's debate is apposite because, this very day, we produced the Ministry of Justice prison policy update briefing paper, which was announced in a written ministerial statement this morning by the Lord Chancellor, my right hon. Friend Mr. Straw.

I am grateful for the opportunity to outline current developments in reducing reoffending, which is an area about which many Members have very strong views. Reoffending is a critical concern of constituents and the communities that we serve—it is a crucial concern to the whole of society and, in particular, to those whose lives are broken by crime, either as victims or offenders. I am very concerned to ensure that we build on this Government's successful record on crime reduction—crime has reduced by 37 per cent. over the past 10 years—by looking at who to deal with and how to deal with them. In my view, tackling reoffending is key to building safer communities and protecting the public from harm. We cannot react to crime by increasing police numbers only, although we have done that, nor can we look at crime in isolation. In the words of my former right hon. Friend, Tony Blair, we must tackle crime and its causes. We must support individuals who have committed crimes so that they do not commit further crimes after release from prison or a community sentence.

By providing a snapshot of the range of social problems afflicting offenders, it can be seen that we face many grave challenges. Opposition Members will share our concerns. For example, 48 per cent. of the prison population have a reading age below or at the level expected of an 11-year-old. Standards in literacy and numeracy are very low among the vast majority of prisoners—82 per cent. for writing. Furthermore, about two thirds of those with a job lose it while in custody. Raising literacy and numeracy levels among those with offending behaviour is key. Faced with such problems, building a new life is a big challenge and, unsurprisingly, many fail. We need to look at how we can tackle such social exclusion and raise literacy and numeracy levels. I hope that this debate will elicit some discussion on that point.

Equally, many prisoners enter prison with drug or alcohol problems that have driven them to crime in the first place. Our duty, as concerned individuals, in caring for those prisoners, is to work with the Prison Service to ensure that on release those drug and alcohol problems have either been invested in and solved or that care is continued.


The Government should surely work with the Educations system, not only in improving the literacy of students, but also their health requirements, both physical and mental.
Where pupils show signs of behavioural difficulties the parents should be inolved, and if the behaviour is in any way connected to health problems, these should be addressed at an early age.

Submitted by Alix Cull

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

If I can catch your eye, Mr. Illsley, I hope to make a short contribution later detailing literacy and drug problems. Does the Minister agree that getting prisoners off drugs is one thing, but ensuring that they cannot access them while in prison is another? Will he say something about what the Government are doing to ensure drug-free prisons in this country?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I cannot guarantee that no drugs will ever enter prison, because there are a number of mechanisms by which they do. However, it is quite clear that we need to continue to take action, as we are doing, to tackle problems with, for example, mobile phone usage—mobile phones can be a link to individuals in the outside world—and to look at prison security measures for visitors, staff and others to ensure that drugs are not smuggled in. Furthermore, we must be very hard on those caught smuggling drugs into prison. There have been some recent very high profile cases involving visitors, prisoners and—sadly—staff in which that has happened. It is important that we take action to deal with it.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to today's announcement, in which we take a very clear view that we need to tackle drug use in prisons and communities at large. We have had some great successes with the number of prisoners testing positive for drugs. Over the past 10 years, that number has reduced from 24 per cent. in 1996-97 to 8.8 per cent. in 2006-07. However, we need to go further. Today's statement has taken forward the drive against drugs with the announcement of a new review reporting to me and the Secretary of State, which will be led by two senior figures to be announced shortly, looking at measures that can be taken to stop the supply of drugs into prisons and at what to do with prisoners needing drug treatment.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Further to the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Evans, I tabled a question the other day about mobile telephones and drugs in my local prison, Her Majesty's prison Whitemoor. In December of last year, 30 mobile telephones were confiscated and there were nine incidents involving the confiscation of drugs, and that is a high-security prison. That reveals the scale of the problem. What more can the Government do to prevent drugs from getting in? They are not coming in with the prisoners, so they must be coming in with either the prison officers or visitors, or over the wire.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am very concerned about that and Ministers have had meetings with officials during the last couple of weeks to look at how we can improve and make a step change in performance. The hon. Gentleman points to some of the areas that need serious consideration. Mobile phone usage is a damaging problem in prisons. We need to look at how to prevent access to mobile phones, which means preventing phones and chips from being smuggled in to prison. Just before Christmas, I visited a prison in Milton Keynes which has instituted the new body orifice security scanner chair—the BOSS chair—which carries out a thorough body search of individuals arriving in prison to see whether mobile phones or mobile phone chips are hidden on them. They are very small items and I do not need to go into detail about the places that they can be stored. However, they can be stored very easily in various parts of the body. The scanners that we are introducing in high-security prisons are effective.

We need to look at other measures, however, and we are examining whether we can block mobile phone signals in prison areas, which is a very difficult thing to do, because, as hon. Members will know, prisons are sometimes located in city centres and other populated areas. We need to ensure that such changes do not impact on the law-abiding public. However, I can assure hon. Members that we are committed to doing all that we can to prevent mobile phone usage, to apply extra pressure to prevent drugs from going into prison and to work with the police, my colleagues in the Prison Service, prison officers committed to this task and others to ensure that we stop the flow of drugs into prison.

In the general scheme of things, Government investment over the past 10 years has been significant in reducing reoffending and social exclusion. Without going through the list of achievements, it is important to point to some key issues. We have invested in offender skills and offender behaviour programmes and provided supported accommodation to help the rehabilitation of offenders. Last year, 40,000 offenders entered education, training or employment following their release from prison, and I say that with some pride, because it is important that we extend that further. It is important also because employment on release from prison is the key to preventing reoffending.

Today's announcement refers to our examination of how we can build better links with employers, and better training and vocational support in prisons, to increase the employability of people who leave prison. There were more than 32,000 people in offender behaviour programmes last year, and more than 71,000 prisoners went into accommodation on release in 2006-07. That has meant putting significant resources into the prison system, and spending on offender learning has trebled since 2001, standing now at £164 million. Even the report by the chief inspector of prisons this week, which did not—dare I say it—universally welcome Government policy, highlighted the heartening success of prison learning and skills.

Drug treatment is the key to tackling offending and crime, and investment in drug treatment in prisons has gone up by more than 1,000 per cent. since 1996-97, with record numbers of people engaged in it. In March 2008, full, integrated drug treatment systems will be available in 29 prisons, with enhanced clinical services available in a further 24. We expect about 24,500 drug users to benefit this year from advanced clinical services.

Employment is important in preventing reoffending, and we are considering work with the Corporate Alliance for Reducing Re-offending, a group of interested and supportive business people and companies, to show that we can get employers to take on offenders and put people back into work. More than 700 employers work with the Prison Service in the open and resettlement estate, and more than 70 major employers have signed up to the Corporate Alliance for Reducing Re-offending.

In the document that we produced today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice asks me to produce further work on the issue over the next three to four months. I intend to commence shortly a forum with the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr. Lammy, to bring together more leading figures from the private and third sectors to consider how we can make a step change in the provision of prison training workshops. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice this morning visited Wandsworth prison with the companies Cisco, Bovis Lend Lease and Panduit to look at an innovative scheme installing voice and data cabling for enhanced vocational training. My right hon. Friend was highlighting the step change that we hope to achieve. That step change is done for a purpose, because, as I have said, employment opportunities are the key to preventing reoffending.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Has the Minister had dealings with the Federation of Small Businesses? I have talked to representatives of prisons in south Wales near my constituency, and they say that small rather than large businesses are most likely to be open-minded about employing former offenders. It is an area of great potential, particularly in Wales, where there are many small businesses.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

It is important that we engage all sectors of the community, because small businesses can and do provide employment for former offenders. The key point is that it is good business practice for the businesses, too, because in many areas, there are skills shortages. I was at a conference in Nottingham yesterday with a range of employers to consider how we can increase the involvement of employers in hospitality, construction, retail and areas where vacancies are hard to fill, with individuals who might fill them. In the Corporate Alliance for Reducing Re-offending, we have, for example, the Camden Garden Centre, a single business in north London, which does sterling work linking up with prisons in London to provide employment for ex-offenders. That is important, because, simplistically, employment, accommodation and help for people to come off drugs and alcohol, together with support from families, are the key factors in preventing reoffending.

I mention families because they are a key part of the solution to reoffending—and not just through maintaining contact with, and support of, people when they are in prison. We must consider how we can improve and develop further programmes on that issue.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I agree with the Minister that it is vital for prisoners to stay in touch with their families, particularly when trying to secure housing post-release, but does he agree that one problem that prisoners face when trying to keep in touch with their families is when they are moved around the country? I have constituents who would obviously like to be in a prison in East Anglia, or in Norfolk preferably, but they are at the other end of the country—perhaps in Scotland or in the south-west. How can we get around that problem? It is surely the biggest barrier to proper family contact.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

In the spirit of co-operation, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who makes a valid point. He is fully aware of the prison overcrowding pressures that lead to prisoners, on occasions, being placed further from home than is desirable for short-term sentences. We must examine the issue, and the prison building programme is designed to try to increase capacity in areas where there is pressure for local places. It is not satisfactory to have prisoners moved far from home, because the important point about employment opportunities is that we are trying to build links with employers in local communities, to work with local prisons, and to provide training in prison for opportunities when people leave prison. Evidently, if someone were in Manchester—formerly Strangeways —prison and resided in Cardiff in south Wales, they would have less opportunity to reintegrate with society than if they were based in a local training prison. That is one key issue that we must consider.

In south Wales, for example, I am advised that Wiltan, a very small employer, is involved in the Corporate Alliance for Reducing Re-offending. I ask all hon. Members to consider how we can encourage other companies to do such work. The conference that I attended yesterday in Nottingham was designed to do just that: sign up employers in the east midlands to help with employment opportunities by offering training, and, for ourselves, to gear vocational training in prison to the employment needs of individuals outside prison.

Families are important, as the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed, and this year we have spent £5 million supporting children and family pathways to maintain family ties. Most prisoners have a visitors' centre outside the gate, providing information and support to families, and we are working with the social exclusion unit on family initiatives to ensure that we can link up with local services.

The investment in tackling social exclusion has been underpinned by the introduction of offender management. We are considering how to introduce a single sentence plan that covers the entire sentence, and an offender manager, who is based in the community and draws in services to help to meet the needs of the offender. We are considering also how to ensure that risks are managed for the protection of the public. Offender management, which was introduced in April 2006, now covers more than 176,000 offenders, and a further 16,000 offenders in prison. There have been real outcomes. We have exceeded our target, which was set in 2000, to reduce adult reoffending by 5 per cent. A reduction in reoffending of more than 5.8 per cent. was achieved between 2000 and 2004, but we can do more, and the purpose of today's debate is to discuss what else we can do.

We have published the strategic plan for reducing reoffending, which will help us to build a strategy to meet the challenges for the next three years, to deliver public service agreements, to reduce reoffending and to make communities safer. The plan examines how we can work with other Departments to deliver a common agenda. I chair, with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, an inter-ministerial group on the prevention of reoffending. Ministers from around the table are considering what needs there are regarding employment, drugs, alcohol, health and other issues, and by examining the causes of crime and by trying to tackle them to prevent reoffending, that work is helping us to commit ourselves to reduce reoffending further by 2011.

Allied to the reducing reoffending consultation, we have produced a consultation document called "Improving Health, Supporting Justice". The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend Mr. Lewis, has supported it, and the consultation is in the process of considering how we can improve health and social care services for people in the criminal justice system. The document sets out the significant contribution that we are making through the national health service, alongside the contributions of social care and third sector organisations. The House will recognise that that is the key element in preventing reoffending.

Allied to that, my noble Friend Lord Bradley, whom many hon. Members will remember as Keith Bradley, the Member of Parliament for Manchester, Withington, was tasked just before Christmas by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to undertake a review of mental health problems in prison. Many people in prison have such problems and could be provided with better services outside prison. We and Lord Bradley need to consider how to improve those services, and recommendations will be made in the summer.

We have launched a further consultation on how we can involve the voluntary and faith sectors in helping us to prevent reoffending. The third sector action plan is available for consultation and considers how we can work with prisoners in the community to help them with third sector and voluntary involvement, which will help the prevention of reoffending strategy. Third sector organisations are innovative and can offer flexible and holistic services such as volunteering opportunities for offenders who have left prison, help with motivation and skills, mentoring, peer groups and maximising opportunities to help people to keep away from crime.

I recently announced new investment of more than £2.2 million in the next three years to support the third sector action plan, including a national infrastructure grant programme to enable organisations better to support and advise voluntary organisations. We are examining demonstration projects to consider what we can do. As the Minister with responsibility for youth justice, I am particularly concerned to consider how we can tackle youth reoffending. We have just made a key development—the Department for Children, Schools and Families being jointly responsible with the Ministry of Justice, for the first time, for managing and engaging with young people and operating secure training centres and other facilities.

We have youth offending teams in place and operating effectively throughout the country, co-operating locally with the police and councils to tackle offending. Those teams are becoming particularly effective through the additional training and support that we are giving them. A reducing reoffending delivery plan is in place, setting out the milestones to reducing youth reoffending by 2010. I am confident that, with my colleagues from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, such as my colleagues the Under-Secretary, and with my hon. Friends the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, and the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, we can deal with the causes of crime on the ground and put in place effective solutions.

We are working closely with the National Assembly for Wales, which is of particular interest to me, being an MP from the north of the great Principality of Wales. I am keen to work with all colleagues to co-ordinate Government resources. It is not just about money, it is about how we use services in a much more focused way. Accommodation providers, primary care trusts, local authorities and crime and disorder partnerships are all involved in considering how to prevent reoffending. We have every opportunity to make a real difference.

I refer colleagues to the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made today, which is apposite to the debate. The Ministry of Justice has produced today the prison policy update briefing paper, which sets out a further direction of travel on preventing reoffending, including considering how to rehabilitate offenders, tackling drug misuse and learning new skills that help to lead to a life away from crime outside prison.

The key idea in the document, on which I will welcome comments and developments in the next few months, is offender contracts. It is important that we take steps to prevent reoffending; we must help with employment, health, drugs and accommodation. It is also important that the offender, in prison and outside, signs up to a contract to state that they will also contribute to changing their behaviour. It is particularly important for the people whom I represent—the decent people who work hard and pay taxes—that when we invest in prison services, training and support, the offender shows commitment by signing up to a contract to show that they will work with us to change their offending behaviour. That idea is part of the context of today's report, and we will need to consider what sanctions to use and how to develop the system. It will be essential to bring the offender together with Government support.

We need to consider how to develop still further and make greater use of community-based sentences, particularly for people who have committed under-12-month offences. The natural reaction of us all is that people should go to prison and serve sentences for minor crimes, but on some occasions that leads to a revolving door, with individuals going back to prison regularly and not having time to undergo interventions in the community. The reoffending rate for the under-12-month group is much better—about 50 per cent.—after community-based sentences than after prison sentences, for which the percentage is in the high 70s. For that reason, we indicated in today's statement that we want to develop the opportunity for intensive community-based sentences as alternatives to custody.

I was pleased today to announce with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the first six projects as alternatives to custody, in which new investment of more than £13.9 million will be made in the next three years. The first project will begin in Derbyshire in March and include a combination of unpaid work, electronic monitoring, behaviour programme mentoring and help with resettlement under intensive supervision. That will add to the 6 million hours of unpaid work and 55,000-plus completions of unpaid work each year and build confidence in community sentences.

I have been on my feet for nearly 30 minutes and outlined the Government's commitment to tackle reoffending. There is a place for people being in prison. We have more than 80,000 people in prison, and there will be a vast building programme in the next five years, because the protection of the public is paramount for the Government. We need to ensure that dangerous, sexual and violent offenders serve long sentences and that the public are protected. Allied to that, we need to tackle crime by reducing reoffending. To do so, we need to consider the needs of people who will leave prison in the next six to nine months and how to build up their training capacity, help them to get off drugs, help them to get back into accommodation and ensure that they play a productive role in society. Our strategy is sound and will lead to a further reduction in reoffending. I commend it to the House and will welcome colleagues' comments this afternoon.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley 2:59, 31 January 2008

I am a little surprised that there is such a thin attendance in the Chamber today. I would have thought that the subject was both ideal and topical, and might have attracted a few more Members. I am grateful to the Minister for his comments.

My first comment relates directly to what the Minister said about the 80,000 prisoners that we have. I know that the Government are bringing forward extra places; I assume that they have not made up their mind about the titan prisons idea that seemed to be in the wind at one stage.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Before the hon. Gentleman gets carried down an unfruitful route, I refer him to today's statement, in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that we will be consulting in April and for the following few months on proposals for titan prisons.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I am surprised that we are having yet more consultation. We know that we need extra places; we should just get on with it. We have 80,000 places, and some people say that 80,000 people in prison is too many. I do not know what the Government's thinking is, but the population of the UK is 60 million, with 5 million more within the past several years. One would expect that increase to prompt the need for extra prison places for a percentage of the extra 5 million. We do not want people to be released from prison early, or people who should go to prison not to be in prison, simply because there are not enough places. There is nothing worse than offenders not being caught or for them not to be sent to prison and then carrying on with a career in crime. We certainly want to get away from that.

The Minister is right about community-based sentences: we should use them where they are appropriate, but there seems to be an impression that either they are not being carried out with the necessary diligence or that some people who should go to prison are getting community-based sentences instead. Those sentences are seen as a soft touch and not as a proper punishment for the crime that has been committed. Sentences have to be credible to the public and should have the backing of the victims of the crime. That does not mean that there should be no community sentences—that would be nonsense—but I hope that the Government will look carefully at community sentences to ensure that they are appropriate and that they have the intended effect.

I have before me the figures on reoffending from the Home Office statistical bulletin. The overall reoffending rate in 2004 was 55.5 per cent. Within that, 64 per cent. of offenders aged between 18 and 20 and 43 per cent. of offenders aged over 35 reoffended.

The Minister mentioned some issues that I want to pursue, including jobs, illiteracy and drugs. The problems with illiteracy and drugs have to be tackled within the family and in schools as early as possible. We have to give our youngsters the best chances possible so that when they leave school they can read and write properly. The statistics that the Minister gave earlier are quite chilling. Why are the figures so high?

In July, I asked

"what proportion of prisoners were recorded as illiterate over the last 10 years."—[Hansard, 11 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1535W.]

The reply gave figures starting in 1997 and, for some strange reason, ending in 2003. The figures show that the percentage of prisoners whose reading skills are below level 1 is going up. We know that the number of prisoners has gone up, but it is worrying that the percentage with low reading skills has also increased. We must pick up that problem; if there are prisoners who cannot read or write, we must give them all the support we can while they are still in prison. However, the problem prompts the question, why did they leave school unable to read and write? Much more attention must be given to that problem.

The "Handbook for Professionals in the Criminal Justice System working with Offenders with Learning Disabilities", produced by the Care Services Improvement Partnership, states that in some areas of prison there is

"a lack of adapted treatments designed for learning disabled offenders."

It also states:

"Various studies have found relatively high rates of reoffending in the learning disabled population".

If we want our communities to be safer, we need to reduce reoffending. It stands to reason that reoffending can be reduced if there are genuine opportunities for people when they leave prison. It comes down to ensuring that they can read and write. Let us also make sure that alongside reading and writing there is training that is appropriate for whatever job we want them to do when they leave prison.

Perhaps the Minister can say more about the vocational education that will be available to prisoners while they are in prison so that they will at least have more skills and be more employable when they leave. I was delighted when he listed the firms in the UK that are working with the Government and the Home Office to give ex-convicts opportunities when they leave prison. That is good, but we must ensure that prisoners are employable and have the right skills when they are released.

The second issue I want to discuss is drugs. A lot of people who end up in prison have drug problems, and many of them committed crimes to feed their drug habit. The issue affects all our constituents. The 2006 Home Office statistics show that cannabis is the drug used by the largest proportion of prisoners—54 per cent. I know that the Prime Minister is reconsidering the decision that was taken by a previous Home Secretary to reclassify cannabis from class B to class C. I am a former chairman of the all-party group on drugs misuse, and I always thought that reclassification was wrong and would send the wrong message. From what I can read between the lines of the Prime Minister's thinking, he seems to think the same. I hope that he will make an early statement, and that the matter will not drag on for another couple of years while yet more reports appear in the newspapers about young people's psychiatric problems when they get hooked on cannabis and take it over a long period.

We need to ensure that youngsters have the education they need to make wiser decisions about their living habits. Some of that will include information about cannabis not being a soft drug. It is a gateway drug, but even if it does not lead people on to taking other drugs, it could give them psychiatric problems that will be with them for the rest of their lives. Let us ensure that people have a proper education at school, but let us also ensure that they definitely have that education in prison.

Other drugs are popular in prison. Heroin is used by 27 per cent. of prisoners and tranquillisers are used illicitly by 15 per cent. Crack is used by 7 per cent., cocaine by 5 per cent., ecstasy by 4 per cent. and amphetamines by 2 per cent.

I read on the BBC News website that the Government are thinking of banning visitors and relatives who take drugs into prison from visiting, so some prisoners would lose visiting rights. The Government need to consider that idea, but I hope that, in addition, the likelihood of such people being caught will increase. For example, what are the Government's plans about the use of sniffer dogs? People need to know that if they take drugs to their relatives or friends in prison, they will be prosecuted themselves and could end up in the prison they were visiting. They need to know that their action is not cost-free—not that they can try it on and if they get caught taking drugs into prison the worst that can happen is that they will be asked not to come again. They should be prosecuted and face penalties, which, in the worst cases, should include custodial sentencing.

The way to give prisoners with a drug problem the best hope and opportunity is to ensure that they have the medical help they need to get them off drugs in the first place and that they have no access to drugs while they are in prison serving their sentence. That is important. Very few prison officers take drugs into prisons, thank goodness, but those who do will be prosecuted if they are caught. They will then lose their jobs, and some will end up with custodial sentences. That is really harsh, but it is right that we should have such sentences and such treatment for prison warders who take drugs into prison.

I hope that the Minister will say something about the help that prisoners can obtain from medical and psychiatric teams. He mentioned the fact that some prisoners have psychiatric and mental health problems, and it is right that they should have the help they need. However, some of those who are in prison today should not be there, because of their mental health problems. Such people need mental health care and should be in psychiatric units getting the treatment they need. The problem is that too many people in our communities need help with mental health problems or, indeed, drugs, but they simply cannot get it. I hope that the Government will look more closely at the issue.

The one way in which we can prevent reoffending is to prevent offending in the first place. That is the No. 1 priority and we must do all we can, as the Minister intimated, to ensure that people are properly educated, that they have good jobs to go to and that they are drug free. However, when people offend we must try to bring the reoffending rate down, and we can do that by ensuring that offenders have appropriate training and the proper education they deserve, that prisons are drug free and that people with drug problems have the medical and psychiatric help that they need.

What we are all talking about is opening doors for prisoners—I know that sounds a bit odd, but that is what this is all about. Doors have been slammed shut on these people for far too long, and many of them feel that they do not have the support they need. We need to give them that support and to open doors for them—preferably at the end of their sentences. When they go out into the community, they should have the support they desperately need. They will then be able to find a job because they will have had the necessary education and training. The chances of their reoffending in the community will thus be greatly reduced, which will lead to safer communities for all our constituents.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons) 3:13, 31 January 2008

As we all know, and as has been acknowledged today, we have a major problem with prison overcrowding. The Government figures that came out today show that there have been 16,000 early releases in just over six months. As has been said, the report released earlier this week by Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, which covered a large number of Prison Service issues, was not, shall we say, very flattering.

When I was preparing for the debate, I was struck by one statistic: the number of convictions has remained fairly constant over the past 10 years, but the number of prison sentences handed down by magistrates courts has more than doubled, and the figure has also significantly increased in the Crown courts. The problem, therefore, is not that more people are being convicted, but that more are being sent to prison for offences for which they would not have been sent to prison 10 years ago.

We have no evidence that prison works. Some 65 per cent. of adult ex-offenders are reconvicted within two years, and the figure rises to 75 per cent. for young adults and juveniles. Nine out of 10 young men who have been sentenced for less than three months end up reoffending within two years. It is clear, therefore, that the idea of a short, sharp shock, which is often promoted in the prison system, simply does not work—in fact, it can have the reverse effect.

To borrow an expression from Anne Owers, we are now at a crossroads; we need to look at what we want the criminal justice system to do and how we will achieve it, and then refocus our resources. That means that we will need to look at the complex roots of crime, rather than just tackling the surface issues. As has been said, we need to look at mental health, drug and alcohol treatment and the obstacles that people face when they try to rehabilitate and resettle in the community. The issue breaks down into three different areas: what we can do while people are in prison, what we can do when they leave prison to ensure that they resettle, and what the alternatives to prison are. It is the last of those that is the most important.

As has been said, some people in prison simply should not be there, and that includes those with serious mental health problems. As I am sure the Minister is aware, a high proportion of people in prison have mental health problems. According to one estimate, four out of 10 people who are being held in prison health care centres should be in secure NHS accommodation instead, but there are simply not enough mental health beds in the system. Between them, the secure hospitals have about 1,200 beds, and a lot of the court diversion schemes are being held back by a lack of beds for people to take up.

The same issues arise in relation to drug and alcohol treatment. The proportion of prisoners who have been convicted of drug offences has risen considerably over the past 10 years, and Home Office research a couple of years ago showed that half of all the offences for which people were in prison were drug related. Again, however, there are only 2,500 residential drug treatment places. Such places cost £6,000 a year less than sending someone to prison. If the underlying causes are tackled, people are much less likely to reoffend and impose a cost on the state. It is therefore a wasted opportunity and a waste of money to put people in prison, rather than tackling the underlying problems. We should therefore invest in drug treatment facilities, rather than new prison places.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Will the hon. Lady congratulate Life Education on the work that it does throughout schools? It deals with problems such as drugs and the other harmful things that we put into our bodies. Getting that message across to youngsters at a very young age is what we should be about, and we should have more Life Education centres throughout the UK.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I thank the hon. Gentleman. There are some interesting pilots and programmes across the UK, and I shall pick up later on some of the good ideas coming up in different parts of the country. We should replicate such things and learn from the best practice that has been introduced in different parts of the country.

If we sent one in 10 offenders for residential drug treatment rather than to prison, that would save about £40 million a year. That is a significant sum, which could be much better spent. The Minister mentioned the announcements about improving treatment for drug and alcohol problems, which I obviously welcome, but if they had been made a little earlier we might not have the overcrowding crisis. Some of the results of that overcrowding—particularly the problems with mental health and drug treatment—were worryingly highlighted in this week's report by the chief inspector, which showed that there had been a 40 per cent. increase in suicides in prison. Clearly, these issues have a high cost, and we need to deal seriously with that.

It is clear, however, that some people do need to be in prison, and we all agree that those who are violent and dangerous need to be taken off the streets. As the Minister and Mr. Evans have said, education and training are critical to tackling reoffending rates. Once people are part of a captive audience in prison, it should be compulsory for them to undertake education and training. We have the opportunity to help them to sort out their lives, so that they do not reoffend when they leave. Clearly, that is crucial to tackling reoffending.

The Minister said that a lot has been invested in education and training, and there are some extremely good programmes around the country, but the recent announcement regarding lockdowns across the estate from Friday lunchtimes because of funding problems is worrying. That takes away 10 per cent. of the time available to people to participate in education and training. Given the massive waiting lists and high demand in a lot of prisons for the training programmes that are available, such a move would seem counter-productive. I hope that the Government will look again at ensuring that funding is available.

I want to mention a couple of good programmes that I have seen recently. I visited Parc prison near Bridgend a couple of weeks ago. It has a couple of interesting programmes in partnership with non-governmental organisations in the local area. One involves working with the YMCA to help the prisoners to get qualifications in physical education and gym management, which enables them to improve their own health but also gives them opportunities to work afterwards. Such schemes are very welcome.

The prison is also running an interesting programme with the Army that trains offenders, so that they have the qualifications and fitness levels they need if they want to apply to the Army on being released. That has been popular among offenders. I would like good programmes and good partnership working such as that to be rolled out, if they are successful, to other prisons so that we can give more people the opportunity to participate in them.

I want to flag up quickly the importance of resettlement programmes, which the Minister touched on. Somebody may have received training, education and a great deal of support in prison, but being released and trying to resettle in the community can be extremely difficult. They often have severe financial problems. Resettlement grants do not cover anywhere near the amount that they need before they have to access benefits. Some interesting work is being done on that crucial part of the process. I would be interested to hear the Minister's thoughts on the development of that work.

Parc prison has been congratulated on its resettlement programme. Its transitional support scheme uses ex-offenders to mentor prisoners who come out of prison. They provide a huge amount of support in helping people to access drug and alcohol treatment, they talk through any relationship problems, and they give advice and share their own experience of coming out of prison. It is quite a new scheme, but it has had an extremely high take-up since its introduction; it has had positive results in more than two thirds of cases. I hope that the Minister can take on board good examples such as that, and see what can be done to ensure that they are replicated in other prisons around the country, so that others have the opportunity to access those advantages when they leave.

Alternatives to prison, particularly community sentences, have been mentioned. They are often portrayed as the soft option, but people who have done community sentences do not agree with that at all. A recent ICM survey was quite surprising, showing that 80 per cent. of the public backed compulsory community work, particularly if drug treatment is available, for young offenders as a better alternative to prison. There is obviously a lot more support for community sentences than we are led to believe by tabloid headlines.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Does the hon. Lady agree that we must consider the victims of the crime, as well, and that we should listen to what they have to say? In some cases, the victim might say that a community sentence is appropriate, but I am sure that in many others, particularly those involving violent crime, the victim would want a custodial sentence meted out.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Absolutely—I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Before getting elected to this place, I ran Victim Support in south Wales, so I am well acquainted with this subject. However, it is interesting that many victims of crime agree with the findings to which I referred. Surveys of those people tend not to have very different results, particularly if communities can participate in deciding on community sentences.

My party is keen on promoting the idea that if communities can identify the work that needs to be done, and if offenders who have harmed the community undertake unpaid work to right the wrongs in a particular area—it might be removing graffiti, litter-picking or another activity that is visible in the community—that helps victims to feel that something good has come out of their experience. Moreover, if such an initiative is high profile, it can put other people off offending in the first place. Clearly, such an idea can be developed.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

It can also make communities safer and more attractive places in which to live. Like me, I am sure that the hon. Lady can think of many examples of councils saying that they do not have money for certain projects that are desperately needed. Perhaps community sentences could not just improve communities but act as a small way for offenders to repay the communities that they have damaged.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Absolutely. Some interesting projects have been undertaken in my constituency. Graffiti removal, litter-picking, clearance of overgrown bushes and so on have been carried out by young offenders. As the hon. Gentleman said, it has an impact on the feel of the local community. Such activities can have a positive impact.

It is also clear that community sentences result in a lower reoffending rate than prison sentences. Yesterday's National Audit Office report showed that the reconviction rates are even lower than expected, which is positive. However, it did raise some concerns: not all the conditions of community orders are being met, and there is a lack of proper record-keeping—it is not clear when people have completed their orders. I would be grateful if the Minister gave us some feedback and told us what might be done to improve record-keeping and reporting, so that community sentences are genuinely and properly monitored and enforced. People need to feel that community orders are not an easy option, and that offenders have to go through the whole of an order before they are released, as it were.

I also want to flag up restorative justice, which, again, is relatively new. There are some interesting pilots, including one in Cardiff prison. Obviously, it is early days, but I hope that the Minister will commit to taking on board the lessons learned from those pilots. Some of the early ones have been very successful in changing offenders' behaviour and making them appreciate the impact of their actions on other people. That might be an important way to reduce reoffending in future.

The Government's policy on prisons and reoffending has had a battering this week from Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons and the NAO. Some good things have come out of this morning's statement, and I hope that we can all work together and share some of the good ideas. However, I have concerns about "titan" prisons. All the evidence shows that small is beautiful, and that larger prisons are less secure and less likely to reduce reoffending. There are some fantastic pilots and some good partnership work in prisons around the UK. I hope that the Government will take that on board and ensure that tackling reoffending, rather than just locking people up, is the key priority of their prisons strategy.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice) 3:28, 31 January 2008

This certainly has been an interesting debate. My party welcomes it, but we regret to some extent that the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor has not made several oral statements this week. We had today's written statement on prisons, and the briefing paper. We had publication of the report of Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, and we had a written statement on the reorganisation of the Ministry of Justice following the Brennan review. It is a great pity that the Secretary of State did not make a statement to the House at some stage this week so that many more colleagues could have been given the chance to comment on those important issues.

I take on board entirely the point that the Minister may make that the Government proposed this debate this afternoon, and that many more colleagues could have turned up, but I think he will agree that prime time in the Chamber is obviously worth more than an afternoon debate in Westminster Hall, with great respect to you, Mr. Illsley. I do not want to hurt your feelings—these debates are important.

I certainly welcome the Government's emphasis on trying to prevent reoffending, because the cost is huge. In 2002, the social exclusion unit brought out a report called, "Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners". It put the cost of recidivism at £11 billion. Today's figure is likely to be more than that, probably north of £12 billion. If we could save even half of that, there would be a huge dividend to reap and to spread around the Department wisely. That is certainly badly needed, because we have a crisis in prisons. I do not think that the Minister would deny that we have a serious problem.

Prisons have been designed not just to punish, but to rehabilitate, to re-educate, and to enable prisoners to have a fresh start in life on their release, but for that to happen, we must remove the overcrowding problem, we must stamp out the drugs problem, and we must reduce churn in the system. The point that I made when I intervened on the Minister was that prisoners may be sent initially to a prison near their home, but because of overcrowding they are often moved elsewhere, and there is no continuity. That presents challenges if they hope to stay in touch with their family, and if they have a serious drugs problem or mental health problem, there is no continuity in their treatment programme. There are also important implications for housing. If the family have broken up, and lost their council house, being moved around the country means that the chances of them being able to secure a firm connection with an area will be greatly diminished.


It is disgraceful that there are so many mentally ill people in prison in the first place. This is largely due to the underfunding, understaffing of the psychiatric services, and lack of understanding of the general public. It is also the headline reporting by the media when a person with mental illness is either undiagnosed, or loses contact with the Mental health Services.
Care in the community may be satisfactory for some, but not for all. The psychiatric beds have been closed before the Care int he Community was adequately staffed and prepared.
I am not now speaking of drug or alcohol addiction, but of the severe illnesses due to brain dysfuntion -bi-polar and schizophrena in particular.
These illnesses do not appear to be regarded as disabilities by the Government. But none of the patients choose to be so afflicted. the illnesses are in fact very disabling, and work on a regular basis is a totallly impractical concept.

Submitted by Alix Cull

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is worrying in areas such as Wales, where there is no women's prison? Women in Wales who are sent to prison are often sent quite a distance from home, which puts additional strains on their families and makes it difficult to maintain family relationships. That highlights one of the reasons why Baroness Corston's review recommended smaller units closer to home, which would be a positive way forward and would tackle many of the problems that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I was not aware that there are no women's prisons in Wales, so I have learned something from her today. If we can ensure that prisoners have much closer contact with their families, the chances of them being properly resettled and going back into work after release will be greatly increased. I take on board the hon. Lady's point about smaller prisons, but the Minister will say that the cost would be huge.

I have looked at the report of Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons for 2006-07. The Minister made an understatement when he said that it was not entirely complimentary, and it is not. It is tough, it is hard-hitting, and it makes awkward reading for the Minister, so no wonder the Government did not want to publish it alongside an oral statement. Anne Owers says in her introduction that

"the prison population went from one all-time high to another, staving off disaster only by a series of short-term, often expensive, emergency measures, together with the crisis management skills of those working within the prison system."

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I shall try to regain my thread after that short break. We were looking at the 2006-07 annual report of the HM chief inspector of prisons. On page 7, the report states:

"That crisis was predicted and predictable: fuelled by legislation and policies which ignored consequences, cost or effectiveness, together with an absence of coherent strategic direction."

On suicides, which have gone up 40 per cent. from 66 to 88, the report states:

"This is not merely a reflection of an expanding population."

There has been a significant increase.

Under Operation Safeguard, the report states:

"Vulnerable prisoners—such as juveniles, foreign nationals, those at risk of self-harm, or those with healthcare needs—are supposed to be excluded. However, inspections have found that this is not always the case."

We have been talking today about the issue of work in prison and training. When it comes to training and outside activity, the report states:

"This year's inspection reports show that, overall, there was insufficient purposeful activity in adult male closed prisons. Nearly two-thirds of those prisons were assessed as performing poorly or not sufficiently well".

A number of important observations have been made today about drugs. The chief inspector of prisons states:

"Prison has become the default setting for those with a wide range of mental and emotional disorders and unless gaps in community provision are filled, prisoners will continue to fall through them and into our overcrowded, increasingly pressurised prisons."

In respect of resettlement pathways, the chief inspector states:

"Few prisons had a resettlement strategy and policy that was coordinating work, was based upon prisoner needs and was fully delivered."

To say that this was unhelpful is the understatement of the year. It must rank as one of the hugest understatements ever made, because it is a very damning report.

There are some positive observations in the report, particularly what the chief inspector said about training and skills, but no one can doubt that we probably have the worst prison crisis in our history and certainly the worst of any developed nation. That has a huge impact on reoffending, because all the evidence points to the fact that if people can sort out and improve their prison regime, stamp out the drugs and improve education and training, they can reduce recidivism substantially.

I am very concerned about drugs and I have been going on at the Minister about the issue for quite a long time. Drugs and mental health problems are often linked, but why are there so many drugs in prisons? As I mentioned, they are coming in not on the prisoners, but on prison officers, on visitors or over the wire. I tabled a written question about a prison just outside my constituency, HM prison Whitemoor. I asked for a breakdown of the number of mobile phone confiscations and drug confiscations over the past year. I found it staggering that the total from January to December 2007 was 60 mobile phone confiscations and 58 drug confiscations. I find that very depressing. Whitemoor is a high-security, state-of-the-art, newish prison. The security is very tough. Presumably there is screening of visitors and there is a highly professional prison officer staff, yet more drugs are still getting in. That was an increase on the previous year. There was a worrying increase towards the end of last year: there were 10 incidents in October, six in November and nine in December, up from lower levels earlier in the year.

The Minister talks today about some action. He talks about bringing in sniffer dogs. We welcome that. The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor talks in today's prison policy update, the briefing paper, about the integrated drug treatment system. He says that, by April, 29 prisons will have that, but why cannot more prisons have it? Surely we need a complete roll-out of that system. Continuity of care is also needed. As I mentioned, if prisoners are for ever being churned round the system, how can there be continuity of care?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman gave a costing for that commitment to roll out the system to all 141 prisons that we have.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am delighted to hear that. It proves—

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

No, I am asking whether the hon. Gentleman has a cost for rolling out the programme to 141 prisons as he requested.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

We are not in government; we are the Opposition and it is our job to question the Minister and hold the Government to account. The Government said a while back that they would roll the programme out to more prisons, yet we see that the target is only 29 prisons by April. The Government are keen on the programme and we say that it has a number of very good aspects, so let us see it rolled out further and let us see the commitments that the Government have made being honoured. I support much of what the Government are trying to do on the drugs front, but more must be done.

Another consequence of the prisons crisis is the impact on bail. Opposition Members believe that public safety must be the key consideration in all bail cases, but the jails are full and judges and magistrates are being repeatedly pressed by Her Majesty's Government to keep suspects out of jail. There have been tragic consequences. We heard the other day about the case of Gary Weddell, the policeman who was given bail by the judge, largely because the judge felt that, first, Weddell was someone who would not commit an offence while on bail, and secondly he had little alternative because of the crisis in prison places. The attitude of judges and magistrates now is that, where possible, they will not keep someone in custody even though they could well commit an offence.

In 2006, 5,500 suspects—one in 10 of all those bailed on charges of violence—failed to appear in court. We believe that there are serious constraints in the Bail Act 1976. There is a need for judicial discretion. We believe above all that the presumption of innocence needs to be balanced against public safety. We have to consider public safety. That is why the Opposition have launched a consultation on bail. We want to examine carefully whether public safety should be made an explicit component of bail decisions. We want to consider removing the right to or reversing the presumption of bail in respect of certain serious offences. We will consider exempting those previously convicted of certain crimes from a right to bail and perhaps removing the presumption of bail for some categories of convicted but unsentenced offenders. We also want to consider making greater use of conditional bail. We will consult on those issues widely and when we have completed our consultation, we will make an announcement, but I can tell the Minister that the Opposition are taking that very seriously.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Again, has the hon. Gentleman made any assessment in his initial thoughts on this matter of the impact on prison places of any changes that he is proposing? If so, can he tell hon. Members how many extra places we will need in response to that policy?

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

We have launched a consultation and obviously consideration of the impact on prison places will be a key ingredient in that. I repeat that it is our job as an Opposition to hold the Government to account. We believe that the Government are making a large number of mistakes. We understand the problems and the constraints that they are under and of course we will enter into a dialogue with them. With regard to bail, we want to have constructive engagement with the Government and we want to come up with some ideas. When we have, obviously we will ensure that they are properly costed and we will put them to HMG.

How have the Government reacted to the crisis in our prisons? One of the things that I regret—I am quite angry about this—is that part of today's statement on prisons was leaked to The Sun newspaper. I find it reprehensible that a very important ministerial announcement, particularly the part of it that relates to titan prisons, has been leaked. The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor said something on Tuesday about titan prisons; he said that he did not think that there would be an announcement in the immediate future. The Prime Minister said yesterday that he thought that there would be an announcement in the near future. We had conflicting reports of what the two were thinking and saying. In today's statement, it is announced that we will see three titan prisons.

Those of us who came in early and looked at the newspapers saw that that was in The Sun. Why was that leaked to a national newspaper? Perhaps it was leaked in that way because, as Jenny Willott pointed out, the figures on the early release scheme are not very good. Of the 16,000 people who have now been released on the early release scheme, 300 have committed violent offences, and among those crimes has been one murder. That is appalling. Perhaps it was to take away from that announcement that the Government decided to leak this announcement in advance. I do not know.

I have had a good look at today's briefing paper and there are some positive ideas in it. There is talk about prison ships, allowing prisoners to carry out more work and more community sentences, but much of it is simply recycling old ideas. Is there anything really new in what the Government are saying?

Then we come to the issue of reducing reoffending. I am concerned that the on page 8 of the prison policy update briefing paper, in the chapter on reoffending, the Government say:

"Since 1997 the number of re-offenders has fallen by 6.9 per cent. against the predicted level."

Actually, reoffending is going up year on year by the same small amount. It is pretty consistent, yet it has fallen against the predicted level. It is rather as though the Government have moved the goalposts. They make a prediction and set a predicted level that they obviously have a good chance of undercutting, and then they can say that the number of reoffenders has fallen. The headline is "Reoffending has fallen by 6.9 per cent.", but it says in brackets that that is against the predicted level. We must be clear on that. Will the Minister tell the House how the Government arrive at the predicted figure, what type of analysis goes into it, and how detailed the research behind it is? Is it simply a question of the Government moving the goalposts as it suits them?

The other important paper from the Ministry of Justice is, "Working in partnership to reduce re-offending and make communities safer". We agree with a lot of what the paper says, but I should say to the Minister that the Government have had 10 and a half years in government to address vital problems such as reoffending and to sort them out, but all we get is a consultation. We want more action. The paper gives the impression that because there is a new Ministry that has a year-zero strategy, the problems started only six months ago, so it does not have to take responsibility for what happened before. I am sorry, but the paper shows no sense of urgency.

On page 15 of Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons report, he states:

"In our surveys, only 48 per cent. of young adults felt that they had done anything that might prevent them reoffending".

That is worrying. I agree with everything that the Minister says about reoffending, but it is vital that we sort it out, and that the progress that is being made continues.

The third sector—the voluntary sector—does an absolutely superb job. There is no doubt about that. However, the hon. Lady spoke about the third sector, and pointed out that we have a Friday lock-down policy, which involves locking prisoners down for the weekend from Friday onwards. That policy will mean that a large number of voluntary and charitable organisations that do excellent work in prisons will not be allowed to go in. On one hand, the Government make great play of the role of the voluntary sector—we welcome what they say about that in today's report, and what it says in the consultation paper to which I referred—and they use warm, encouraging and positive words, but, on the other hand, the practicalities are different. The third sector will take a heavy body blow because of the lockdown policy. I shall give way to the hon. Lady because she first raised that point.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the long period of lockdown—it will last from lunch time on Friday until Monday morning—will be particularly worrying for those with mental health problems and the most vulnerable prisoners, and about the impact that it might have on their mental health? Given the sharp increase in suicides, is he as concerned as me about the state of vulnerable people in prisons?

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am concerned about that. In HMP Whitemoor near my constituency, there has been an alarming increase in the number of suicides in the past year. I am concerned that the role of, and the excellent work carried out by, the third sector will be inhibited by the lockdown policy.

The Minister mentioned training, skills, and improving reading and writing, which is mentioned in today's paper. I agree with the Minister—the official Opposition support everything that the Government are doing to encourage reskilling and retraining. We support what the Minister said about the corporate alliance and the many employers that have signed up to it. The Government are doing some good work, and I hope that the Minister will smile and accept that when things are going well, we will pat the Government on the back and hopefully work with them. However, will the Minister say whether he feels that more could still be done? There are a lot of small businesses out there—the hon. Lady made this point—that would like to play a part in helping the wider community by taking on more ex-prisoners. However, they find it difficult because there is a stigma attached to ex-prisoners. Often, they come out of prison after three or four years without training or skills rebuilding. There is a stigma attached to taking on ex-prisoners. How do we change those attitudes to address that problem? How do we get organisations such as the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the Engineering Employers Federation, and the Federation of Small Businesses to become more engaged with the problem? How do we persuade them to address the problem in a more dynamic and active fashion?

Does the Minister feel that there is any scope for, or possibility of, incentivising employers? In some states in America, employers are given a grant to take prisoners on when they are still in prison. Employers will identify someone who has IT, marketing or plumbing skills, for example, and they will take them on while they are still in prison, perhaps not as an apprentice, but as a potential employee. They will help with a training programme, for instance, and take them on afterwards, and the grant continues into employment. Alternatively, we could look at some form of tax incentive. Has the Minister considered that? A small tax incentive afforded to a business might well be tax neutral, because the prisoner would not claim benefits such as housing benefit. Will the Minister say something about that issue?

A paper on the structure of the Ministry of Justice came out this week. There is now a split: the director general will be in charge of policy and sentencing, and National Offender Management Service and the Prison Service will form the other strand. My reading of that is that the Prison Service is taking over NOMS. After four and a half years and £2.5 billion spent on the NOMS structure, the Government are tearing it up and starting again. They launched NOMS, but did not think it through carefully enough. It cost a huge amount of money—perhaps they did not take the right advice—and they are now unscrambling a lot of the work that was done on the project in response to the prison crisis.

Will the Minister say something about custody-national offender management information system, the IT programme? The official Opposition have asked various questions on C-NOMIS and I put it to the Minister that it has been a big disappointment. C-NOMIS was supposed to be an all-singing, all-dancing system that would make end-to-end offender management a reality, so that people in one part of the process would know what was happening in the other. The system was meant to enable the probation service and the Prison Service to talk to each other. Will the Minister confirm that C-NOMIS will now apply only to prisons? The whole raison d'être of the system was that it would cover the end-to-end management of offenders, so it would be a big disappointment if it applied only in prisons.

I mentioned that there is a huge dividend to be reaped from cutting back or reducing recidivism. A 10 per cent. reduction would lead to a figure north of £1.2 billion, so there is a huge prize out there. However, I believe that there is very little chance of winning that prize. There are warm words in the documents and consultation papers to which I have referred. In 10 and half years, we have had papers, directions of travel, consultations and taskforces, but we need real leadership, action, determination and imagination. I am impressed by the Minister, having seen him in action; his heart is in the right place, and he and his team are absolutely determined. When they come up with imaginative, well thought out, well costed and sensible measures, the Conservatives will give 100 per cent. support, but until the Government tackle the causes of the prison crisis, they will not make the progress that the Minister promises.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 4:09, 31 January 2008

We have heard some helpful contributions to the debate. There is some common ground between the official Opposition spokesman, Mr. Bellingham, Jenny Willott, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, and the Government on some of the key issues that we face on the reoffending agenda. There is common ground on the need for employment opportunities, on help with drug treatment, on a co-ordinated approach between prison and the outside world, and on accommodation challenges and other issues. However, some valuable issues have been raised and I would like to respond positively to them.

Mr. Evans raised the question of prison building, a point mentioned also by the hon. Members for North-West Norfolk and for Cardiff, Central. Over the past 10 years the number of prison places has risen by some 20,000. Over the next period, until 2014, we will be looking to increase the number by a net 15,000 to 16,000, in a new modernised estate.

More than £1 billion of capital expenditure will be put in by the Government over the next three years, and we give a commitment to consider continuing that in the next comprehensive spending review. It is the biggest building programme for prisons that we have ever seen. However, I accept that there are discussions to be had and issues to be raised.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central touched on the question of titan prisons, a subject raised by Conservative Members, too. We have today indicated that in April and the following few months we will be consulting on the design of those prisons and on their modality—what they do, their usage and the efficiency savings that we believe can be made. It is an important building programme, and I hope that there will be a commitment to it from both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley touched on the important issues of literacy and employability—again, a common theme. We share some common ground. We need to make a step change in the work undertaken in prison, to attract employers into the service and to make links with employers outside to ensure employability. When I visit prisons—I have visited more than 20 over the last six months—I look at the skills needed outside in the job market, and the skills shortages. A tremendous amount of work is going on in prisons in terms of construction, decorating, retail and hospitality, but as "Prison policy update" indicates, we need to do more. We need to raise the game on vocational training and we need to encourage more employers, small businesses and large, to take on board our wish to create further employment.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of drugs. I share his aspiration. It is not acceptable for individuals to try to smuggle drugs into prison. We already have 440 passive and active search dogs. We have CCTV in social visiting areas, and low-level fixed furniture in category C prisons and above. There are comprehensive measures to deal with visitors who smuggle drugs, including closed visits, visit bans and police arrest. We will not rest in tackling staff corruption, although in fact there is very little because staff view corruption as unacceptable and below their professional standards.

As I said earlier, we have looked at measures on intelligence systems with regard to mobile phones, including blocking systems and access to BOSS chairs. Indeed, in Wales I recently visited Parc prison, where there was close co-operation with the police in undertaking regular random searches of visitors. Each prison now has access to a police liaison officer. We are to have a step change in targeting those involved in supply; there is a clearly defined strategy for that, and we want to build on it.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned cannabis and penalties. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be making an announcement in the spring, following the review of the classification of cannabis. The hon. Gentleman will know that the current classification is category C. That means in effect that anyone caught in possession of the drug can be sentenced to up to two years in prison; and anyone supplying it can be sentenced to as much as 14 years. In the event of its reclassification to category B, the 14 years for supplying would be retained but the tariff for possession would be increased to as much as five years. We take the matter seriously. My right hon. Friend is examining the matter and will be carrying out further work shortly.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley mentioned the need for psychiatric support and care. He was right to do so. Indeed, the point was also made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central. We have allocated funding to enable full and integrated drug treatment systems and to allow the introduction of clinical and psychological elements. The Department of Health will soon announce additional funding for the clinical elements of drug treatment, which will restore funding to past levels. It is important that we consider that issue.

The matter of mental health was also raised by the hon. Lady. She will be aware that Lord Bradley is undertaking a review. I am very open about it. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley said, too many people in prison have severe mental health problems and could be better treated outside. I do not want to prejudge Lord Bradley's report, but we have given him clear guidelines to report by the summer on whether the right people are in prison, what level of treatment is right for those in prison and whether we need to make a step change in policy in those areas.

The hon. Members for Cardiff, Central and for North-West Norfolk both mentioned the pressures caused by prison overcrowding that can result in suicide. I am not content about any suicide in prison, because it represents the failure of an individual's life. It is not something that I want to happen, and we are taking all possible steps to try to reduce the level and number of suicides in prison.

Although the number of suicides in prison is rising, the rate per 100,000 of the prison population is falling. Over the last four years, the suicide rate has fallen. The number has increased because the prison population has increased. Overall, the rate per 100,000 is falling, but sadly the number is increasing as more prisoners enter the system. We have a suicide prevention group, and we are looking closely at what more can be done to reduce the number of suicides. I am confident that we can do so.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central mentioned mentoring at Parc prison. I have visited the prison and seen the mentoring operation. Again, I am open to suggestions—indeed, I am grateful to all hon. Members for their suggestions—as to what can be done to reduce the reoffending rate by building on good practice. I have indicated that we want to work further with the voluntary and third sectors. Today's report indicates that we want to consider new and imaginative ways to reduce reoffending, and I am happy to do so.

The hon. Lady mentioned community sentences. As she knows, I believe that community sentences can be an effective way to reduce reoffending. The predictive rate of offending is much lower in many cases for which a community sentence is imposed than it is for custodial sentences. As we say in today's document, we are funding at least six intensive alternatives to custody projects with new investment over the next three years. Last year, 55,000 unpaid work sentences were successfully completed. The number of community and unpaid work sentences increased by 26 per cent. between 2002 and 2006.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk raised concerns about the completion of community sentences. The National Audit Office report indicates that more work needs to be done. I am not satisfied that individuals who do not complete their sentences have a valid reason for not doing so. We need to up the compliance rate and I ordered a report on the subject in December 2007. Increasing compliance with community sentences is a serious matter. It is important for public confidence that community sentences are completed.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Will the Minister confirm that when the Government look at community sentences, they will ensure that public and community involvement is a key part of designing the type of unpaid work that offenders will undertake in their local community, so that the local community feels that it has a stake in what is going on?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I certainly will. I refer the hon. Lady to page 20 of the "Prison policy update" briefing paper. In the first paragraph, we indicate that we want to consider

"citizen's panels to decide on which projects offenders should undertake in their local area."

I can hear a sliver of interest being expressed by Opposition Members. In essence, that scheme would allow the local community to determine what projects offenders would undertake in their area as part of paying back the community. There is already some good practice going on locally. There are mechanisms for considering such community involvement, and we want to embed that involvement still further and examine how we can take it forward.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk made some very kind comments about the Government, but as ever, he also raised a number of issues that demand answers. I will start with his remark that prisons are "in crisis" and that the reports by the chief inspector and others show that to be the case. I will not deny that we have had a very challenging year in the prison system, and we have had to take some very difficult decisions on the end of custody licence, prison building and a range of other issues since the Ministry of Justice came into being. The report to which Anne Owers refers is for 2006-07. The Ministry of Justice came into being on 9 May 2007, so the vast majority of that report refers to a previous incarnation or a previous part of the Government—I accept that the Government are the same—with different Ministers in place. Since May last year, and particularly since June last year when the new Prime Minister took office, we have tried to make a step change in some of these issues.

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that the cost of reoffending is £11 billion and that we face serious challenges within the prison system. I am not happy with the fact that we are using police cells to house prisoners because of overcrowding in prisons. There is a cost to the taxpayer, and there are difficulties in the administration and logistics of that use of cells. That is why we have put in more than £1 billion to build new prison places; why I am going to Merseyside tomorrow to open HMP Kennett, a brand new prison that was commissioned last year by my right hon. Friend John Reid, the former Home Secretary; and why, on Monday, I am going to Norfolk—the hon. Gentleman's part of the world—with the hon. Members for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), to look at turning RAF Coltishall from a redundant RAF base into an active prison by the end of this year, in the light of such investment in new prison places. That is also why we have a major programme for such new prisons in future.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk mentioned safeguards against suicide, in respect of which there are a range of issues. However, I am confident that, as Anne Owers said, we are at a crossroads. We are putting forward positive ideas not just on preventing reoffending, but on prison policy. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned drugs and mobile phones. As I said to the hon. Members for Cardiff, Central and for Ribble Valley, a tremendous amount of work is already going on on those issues, but today we have announced that we want to do even more. We want a review of drug policy urgently for the next three months, to examine how we can help to prevent people from staying on drugs; accordingly, we also want to look at security issues.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned in passing the reorganisation of NOMS. There was a hint of criticism from him regarding the Government's not responding to and referring the matter to Parliament, but he will know that we have made a written statement on today's announcement, and on Tuesday we made a written statement on the announcement about reorganisation. We made that statement on Tuesday so that Opposition Members could question the Secretary of State for Justice during questions on Tuesday afternoon. We also made a statement before Christmas on prison population and we are content, as today's debate has proved, to offer time to discuss the issue of reoffending. Indeed, I hope to offer other opportunities to discuss prison policy, including women's prison policy, as discussed in the Corston report. On this very day and again next week, we are having debates on that subject in another place to help Members to reach conclusions about it.

I must say that the reorganisation is not a prison takeover; it is a commitment to NOMS, and it is about removing needless bureaucracy and being able to put the resources that are freed up into the front line. I am confident that the review, which will allow both London and Wales to become one unit from April, and the rest of the regions of England and Wales to be rolled out as units over the next two years, will be a success.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the reoffending rate, the issues relating to reoffending generally and the predicted rate of reoffending. The adult reoffending rate fell by 5.8 per cent between 2000 and 2004, on the latest data; the reoffending rate for ex-prisoners has fallen by 4.6 per cent., and the reoffending rate for those with community sentences has fallen by 6.7 per cent. The figures for youth reoffending are not as good and we must focus on that issue; the figures basically remained stable over that five-year period. The hon. Gentleman also asked whether there is concern about the predicted rate of reoffending rate versus the actual rate. The actual rate has also fallen, from 57.6 per cent. to 55.5 per cent. over the same period. Therefore, both the predicted rate and the actual rate have fallen—the predicted rate by more, but the actual rate has also fallen.

Using the predicted rate is not about moving the goalposts. Assessment of school performance is based on the intake of the school, in the same way as we assess the characteristics of offenders in a cohort. We look at what happens with those offenders, including whether they are likely to reoffend, and we try to make fair comparisons accordingly. As I said, the overall reoffending rate has fallen for adult offenders by 5.8 per cent., and in actual terms from 57.6 per cent. to 55.5 per cent.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned C-NOMIS, the custody-national offender management information system. I would like to reassure him that NOMIS—the national offender management information system—has not ended, that end-to-end offender management is in place and that we are rolling out NOMIS to prisons. However, as part of this reorganisation, we are looking at how we can completely integrate probation and prison services as part of the end-to-end management of offenders.

The computer system had to be reconfigured. I am sure that anyone representing the interests of the taxpayer who is given a figure showing a massive increase in the cost of a scheme would have to consider reconfiguring it. I did that in August, in what I believe was a positive way.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Is it still the Government's intention, if they can find a cost-effective way of using C-NOMIS as the all-embracing system for end-to-end offender management, to use it for that purpose? I take on board the Minister's point about the system running over budget and his trying to control costs, and his saying that the system will be restricted to prisons for the time being. Nevertheless, surely the system's raison d'être was the end-to-end management of offenders.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

We were in a number of phases of rolling out the end-to-end offender management system, and the computer systems are in place to meet our objectives. NOMIS has been rolled out in prisons. There will not be the same level of criteria and the same level of access as there would have been under the old system. However, in making that change I have potentially saved between £300 million and £400 million on the overall costs and it is important that we have made that saving, because the cost of the aspiration was unrealistic. I have had to look at scaling back the system to meet our objectives and the needs of end-to-end offender management, but in a cost-effective way.

We have had a positive debate today. I believe that there is a common agenda on many of the points that we have discussed, and I urge the Members present to continue a dialogue on how we prevent reoffending. I believe that we have a very positive tale to tell. Consultations are still open on a number of issues. The policy paper that we have discussed today, "Prison policy update", sets out the direction of travel, and I commend it to my colleagues here today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.