Short Prison Sentences — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:53 pm on 7th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Labour, Lewisham West and Penge 3:00 pm, 7th March 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the cost and effectiveness of sentences under 12 months and consequences for the prison population.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this debate, which follows several others with a similar theme in the past few weeks, including a debate on the effectiveness of short sentences led by my hon. Friend Chris Evans, and one on the recall of women prisoners led by my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris. That shows the appetite across the House for discussing these important issues.

As a member of the Select Committee on Justice, I am proud of our “Transforming Rehabilitation” report, which was published last summer and included a recommendation that the Government should introduce a presumption against short sentences. I welcome the recent news that the Secretary of State wishes the emphasis to move away from the short sentencing model, but although the policy direction of the Ministry of Justice seems centred on sentences of six months or less, I believe we should consider the costs and consequences of sentences of up to 12 months, and enshrine a presumption against them in law.

In 2017, more than 37,000 people entered prison to serve a sentence of less than 12 months. The short time available often means there is little opportunity adequately to address the needs of that population, with limited access to offending behaviour programmes, education and work. Research by the Revolving Doors Agency showed that nearly half of all people sent to prison are sent there for less than six months, and that the overwhelming majority are imprisoned for non-violent offences.

I do not dispute that offenders who have committed serious or violent crimes, or those who pose a risk to society, should often be given a custodial sentence, but four out of every five people sent to prison last year had committed a non-violent crime. Most reasonable people expect jail terms to deliver rehabilitation for offenders and a clear means to reduce reoffending, as well as punishment.

Photo of Janet Daby Janet Daby Labour, Lewisham East

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this significant debate and making such a powerful speech. I have information that replacing custodial sentences of less than six months for theft and non-violent drug offences with effective community sentences could save the public millions of pounds.

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Labour, Lewisham West and Penge

I thank my hon. Friend for that important intervention. She is absolutely right that handing out short sentences is a false economy. I will say more about that later, but as she rightly identifies, it is clear that the current system of short sentences is failing with respect to rehabilitation and reoffending.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Privileges

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. One thing that troubles me is the use of short custodial sentences after a pattern of repeat offending, where people go from fines straight to custody, with little evidence that community penalties, and particularly supervision orders, have been tried along the way. Does she agree that it would be useful if the Government had a particularly careful look at why that is happening and whether there is a lack of confidence in community penalties among sentencers?

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Labour, Lewisham West and Penge

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about escalation to prison sentences instead of increased use of community sentences. Community sentences have halved in the past decade. Again, I will talk a little more about that, because it is really important that we have robust and effective community sentences, and that sentencers have the confidence to hand those sentences out.

The Secretary of State has admitted that shorter sentences do not work. The Ministry’s data shows that adults released from custodial sentences of less than 12 months had a proven reoffending rate of 64%, compared with the overall rate of 29%, yet it has been shown that offenders serving a community sentence typically have a reoffending rate seven percentage points lower than similar people serving prison sentences of less than a year. Those with suspended sentence orders have a reoffending rate nine percentage points lower. The emphasis needs to be on better rehabilitation in the community.

It is clear from the issuing of four urgent notifications on squalid prisons and countless news reports about falling standards that the prison system is failing offenders and the public. It is uncomfortably apparent that committing offenders to custody can cause further issues, which may arise only during an offender’s stay in prison. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons recently published a report on standards at HMP Durham. Nearly a third of prisoners surveyed said they had developed a drug problem while in prison, 66% of prisoners said they had mental health problems, and many more said they felt depressed or suicidal on arrival in custody. Some 70% of prisoners at HMP Durham were in custody on remand or following recall, and three quarters of the population had been at the prison for less than six months. Those are precisely the kinds of prisoner so disproportionately and negatively impacted by the current model of short sentencing.

Like a lot of the prison estate, HMP Durham is a Victorian building in need of repair, where prisoners are kept in rooms that are falling apart, and often unclean, and are provided with little stimulating activity or purposeful rehabilitation. Sadly, HMP Durham is not alone. A year ago, I visited HMP Rochester with the Justice Committee. That Victorian prison is not fit for purpose, so it was issued with a closure notice, which was later rescinded due to MOJ cuts. When we visited, we were told that lessons had to be cancelled when it rained because there was a leak in the classroom roof, and the drug rehab programme had stopped because the prison thought it was closing down.

More recently, we visited HMP Birmingham—a prison so bad that the private contractor, G4S, had to hand back control to Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. The recent inspections at HMPs Nottingham, Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth and Bedford all showed that problems with safety and overcrowding are particularly acute at local prisons, where large numbers of people are often held for short periods. A reduction in the use of short prison sentences could significantly reduce overcrowding, particularly in local prisons, which in turn might help restore the standards of decency that the Minister has called for.

In monetary terms, it costs nearly £40,000 a year to keep someone in prison. The point at which prisoners enter the prison system is often the most costly and labour intensive and, given recent falls in prison officer numbers, it can often divert resources from where they might be needed elsewhere on the prison estate.

On the day before International Women’s Day, it is important to recognise that restricting the use of short custodial sentences is particularly important to achieve a reduction in the female prison population. In 2017, some 7,185 women in England and Wales were sentenced to immediate custody. Of those women, 68% were sentenced to less than six months and 26% to less than one month. Women’s offending is often linked to underlying mental health needs, drug and alcohol addiction, and domestic abuse. Many have caring responsibilities, and at least 17,000 children are affected by maternal imprisonment each year. Despite those children having committed no crime, their lives are often uprooted. They end up in care, having to lose their home, their school and their family. The human and emotional cost is immeasurable.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Privileges

Will my hon. Friend therefore join me in welcoming the inquiry being undertaken by the Joint Committee on Human Rights? The Committee is looking specifically at the impact on children of their mother’s imprisonment, whether the law should be changed or strengthened to protect children, and whether sentencers should have a different presumption in those circumstances.

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Labour, Lewisham West and Penge

I absolutely agree. We know that parental imprisonment is considered an adverse childhood experience, which we hear so much about at the moment. That inquiry is really timely. It is important that we look at this issue very carefully and question whether prison is the right place for women to be much of the time. Women released from prison are likely to reoffend, and reoffend more quickly, than those serving community sentences. Some 48% of women are reconvicted within one year of leaving prison, which rises to 61% for sentences of less than 12 months.

Reducing reoffending has a clear cost benefit not only to Ministry of Justice budgets, but to police budgets, local services and beyond. The failures in our prison system, not least due to the 40% real-terms cut forced on the Ministry’s budgets and the profound problems with the privatisation of the probation service, have left that system in disarray.

Last Friday, the National Audit Office published yet another critical report on the Government’s transforming rehabilitation programme. It stated that not only has the Ministry of Justice failed to achieve the wider objectives of its original reforms, but that those failures were leading to significant numbers of prisoner recalls and that through-the-gate was wholly ineffective. The NAO report suggests that the Ministry of Justice will pay at least £467 million more than was required under the original community rehabilitation company contracts in completely avoidable bailouts. Worryingly, the full costs will not be known until at least December 2020. It is clear that the current model does not work for taxpayers or offenders.

We need meaningful community sentences, far more robust than the CRC-monitored rehabilitation that we have at the moment where offenders too often just have supervision on the telephone rather than face to face, and missed appointments go unchecked. The Government make the right noises, but clear action is required. As the Prison Reform Trust’s latest Bromley briefing succinctly states:

“Short prison sentences are less effective than community sentences at reducing reoffending Yet, the use of community sentences has more than halved in only a decade”,

falling from 193,000 to 91,000 over a decade.

The Ministry of Justice’s own research has shown that community sentences are particularly effective for people who have committed a large number of previous offences and for those with mental health problems. For those with more than 50 previous offences, the odds of reoffending are more than a third higher when a short prison sentence is used rather than a community sentence. Another piece of research by the Ministry of Justice, published in 2017, found that providing treatment for drug and alcohol addictions in the community has also been shown to reduce reoffending. More than two fifths did not reoffend and there was a 33% reduction in the number of offences committed in the two years following treatment. As much as the instinct is to think that repeat offending must mean harsher sentences, that is not what the evidence suggests we should do. Policy must be evidence-led if we are to expect results, and the current approach is too costly and too ineffective to continue following the short sentencing model.

There is the question of the cost of the failures around short custodial sentences not only to prisons and wider Ministry of Justice budgets, but to other Departments and society as a whole. Short sentences can see prisoners lose their homes, their jobs and their family ties. Combined with the failure of the through-the-gate initiative, the impact and effect of prison last much longer than any original custodial sentence.

To be given a custodial sentence is one thing, but to have all the means to reduce the propensity to reoffend and to get back on with life removed in the short time that someone is in prison is quite another, and it has far longer and wider-ranging consequences than the original sentence. One of the most fundamental issues is that of housing. The link between rough sleeping and prison leavers is deeply concerning, and short sentencing does nothing but exacerbate the issue. The latest figures from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network show that 36% of rough sleepers in London have been in prison—up 3% on last year.

Colleagues have also repeatedly raised concerns and frustrations with Friday releases from prisons as prisoners are unable to contact housing providers until Monday morning or get a prescription to deal with an addiction. If someone does not have a place to stay, it is far harder to register with the council or a jobcentre, and offenders are more likely to end up sleeping rough. The most vulnerable might simply immediately return to crime.

The issue is summarised perfectly by a case study from the social justice charity, Nacro:

“C was released on a Friday after serving a 4 week sentence with a history of homelessness. Given the short amount of time spent in custody, it was not enough time for us to source stable housing for him on release. C had to present at the local authority to make a homelessness application and was told to come back the next week for an appointment. C slept rough that weekend.”

Short sentences do not work. They very often increase rather than decrease reoffending rates. They can tear families apart and put pressure on a crumbling prison system with very little benefit. They have failed. The Government have been making the right noises, but I hope they will now follow in the direction of Scotland and seek to enshrine in law a presumption against short sentences of 12 months or less, backed up with robust, effective and properly funded community sentences.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee 3:15 pm, 7th March 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Ellie Reeves on securing the debate, and I extend my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee. She also had the support of the Justice Committee. The debate stems from our “Prison Population 2022” inquiry, which looks at the make-up of the current prison population and how it might develop in future. We also produced a report on transforming rehabilitation. I am glad to see the Minister in his place. I appreciate his evidence in relation to our two inquiries. It is also good to see the shadow Minister, Imran Hussain.

I very much agree with the thrust of what the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge said. Our reports were cross-party and both were unanimous. There is a growing recognition in the House that we need to revise our approach to some aspects of sentencing policy and the way in which we use imprisonment. I am fortified by the nearly 30 years I spent in the criminal justice system as a practising barrister before coming here. I prosecuted as much as I defended. I therefore had a hand in convicting people who sometimes went to prison for long periods of time—deservedly so—and sometimes people who went to prison for short periods. I also defended people who sometimes went to prison for long periods, having been convicted after due process, and deservedly so, and also people who sometimes went to prison for short periods.

I defended and prosecuted people who were sometimes fundamentally dangerous, and in a few instances really quite evil, but in very many instances people who were foolish and had made a series of chaotic and disastrous mistakes in their lives. Some were greedy, some were naive and some were easily led. There was a mixture of reasons. Some needed to be kept out of circulation for some time, but they were a minority. The vast majority were going to have to return to society at some point once they had served their sentence. Regrettably, we have a system that does not do all that it could to make sure that those people change their lives when they get back into the community.

I see our proposals and those put forward by the Secretary of State, which I warmly support, to look again at the way in which we use shorter custodial sentences as absolutely not going soft on crime—quite the reverse. Preventing reoffending is the best possible way of reducing the number of victims. The less reoffending, the fewer victims there are likely to be. That is a desirable state of affairs.

There is a place for punishment in our justice system. People who break the rules against society have to be brought up sharp and must recognise that it is not acceptable. However, the punishment has to be constructive as well as condign. That is why we need to make sure there is room in our prisons for those who have committed serious offences for which prison is the only appropriate penalty. That will always be the case, but there are many for whom that is not the most appropriate and constructive way forward. We need to be more up front about recognising that.

The debate has a focus on cost-effectiveness. That is worth mentioning because, as well as having a background as a criminal justice practitioner, I am also influenced by being a Conservative and believing in the good use of taxpayers’ money. The way we currently deal with people going through the prison system, particularly in relation to shorter sentences, is not a good use of taxpayers’ money, for the reasons that have been set out.

It is exceedingly expensive to keep people in custody. Sometimes it must happen, with the public policy justification of protection of the public and prevention of crime. However, there are other proper purposes of imprisonment; not just punishment, deterrence and public protection. A recognised purpose of sentencing—I hope that in due course it will be enshrined in statute as a purpose of imprisonment—is reform and rehabilitation. The vast majority of people whom I dealt with were not beyond reformation or rehabilitation, and I think that is true of human society as a whole. However, we do not carry it out effectively, for the reasons that have been set out, and we spend significant amounts of public money. The consequence is high rates of reoffending, which hurts the economy.

As to the social and economic cost of crime, the total cost is about £59 billion. I think that, broadly, the cost attributed specifically to reoffending is about £15 billion to £18 billion. That is the economic cost. There is also a social cost to the victims of reoffending. Both those costs should be treated as important, but at the moment we are not getting there. Were we to make more effective use of our resources, by concentrating on those who need to be inside for a period of time, we could do the proper rehabilitative work that is needed in many cases. There may be some who it will be impossible to turn around, or who it will never be safe to release.

However, such people are a small minority of the population. In the vast majority of cases, if there is sufficient time, there can be rehabilitative work. That can involve education and training—getting people literate so that they can hold down a job—and dealing with what are sometimes significant addiction problems of one kind or another. That weaning-off cannot be done in a short period, and neither can the acquiring of skills to get back into society. Frequently there are underlying mental health or personality issues that need treatment, and those cannot be dealt with in a short period either.

Short sentences do not permit any of those things to be done, and they often disrupt such ties as the offenders have in the community, as the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge pointed out. The Minister and others have rightly observed that the best way to keep people out of trouble and out of offending is a home, a family and a job. The things we equip people with should mean that when they come out they are better placed to achieve those things, but if they already have them, a short sentence is more likely than not to disrupt them.

To do as I have described, we must have credible alternatives. One of my concerns is the decline in sentencer confidence in community sentences that has been noted, which has been well referenced by many who have given evidence to the Select Committee and, recently, by the former chairman of the Sentencing Council, Lord Justice Treacy, an immensely experienced criminal justice practitioner and judge. That means that there must be a punitive element to community sentences. There has to be some bite to them for sentencers and the public to have faith in them. I do not see the move to community sentences for less serious offences—I do not say non-serious, because I mean those of perhaps lesser gravity—as a soft option. That is not how the approach should be perceived.

The challenge, at the same time as we make better use of prison space, is to come up with tough and viable alternatives that bring home to the offender the fact that they have done wrong and broken their contract with society, but that do so constructively, in a way that enables them to turn their life around. I should have thought that a move in that direction, which I know the Secretary of State and the Minister seek, is to be welcomed and supported. It would be a better use of public resource and, above all, it would produce better social outcomes.

I have said that there is a social reform case for the change in question. Social reform does not belong to one party. There is also a case on the basis of good economics and use of taxpayers’ money, which does not belong to one party either. It is interesting to note that an approach that is closer to what we propose, and closer to the direction in which the Minister and Secretary of State wish to go, has been successful under Governments of various political complexions elsewhere in the world. Right-of-centre Governments have adopted the same approach in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, and the same thing has been done by some Republican governors and state legislatures in parts of the United States. It does not belong to one political side. That point is worth emphasising, because we need a more informed debate about the most cost-effective and socially effective way to use prison. That requires a degree of recognition of the evidence base, which I hope is well set out in the Committee’s two reports, across political opinion. I hope that the debate will contribute to that process.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Labour, Enfield, Southgate 3:26 pm, 7th March 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ellie Reeves on securing the debate, and it is a pleasure to follow Robert Neill. I wholeheartedly agree with much of what he said.

In England and Wales, roughly 83,000 people are presently in prison, and the majority are there for sentences six months or less. In 2017 almost 50,000 offenders were sentenced to custody for six months or less. In England and Wales, we incarcerate 139 people per 100,000 of the population. That is the highest number in Europe. The Netherlands, for example, incarcerates 61 people per 100,000. In Denmark it is 63 people; in Germany it is 76; in Italy it is 99; and in France it is 104. We therefore incarcerate far more people proportionate to the population than those countries.

In the past five years, more than 250,000 custodial sentences of six months or less have been given to offenders. More than 300,000 sentences were for 12 months or less. However, nearly two thirds of those offenders go on to commit a further crime within a year of being released. Clearly, custody is not working for those people. They are the ones whose situation we need to address so that, as well as punishment, there can be rehabilitation that stops them reoffending.

Some 27% of all reoffending is committed by those who have served 12 months or less, and the most common offence for which a sentence is given is shoplifting. More often than not, offenders who shoplift have a drug or alcohol problem, and almost half of the sentences in question are given to women; 60% of female offenders who are convicted of shoplifting are victims themselves—many have been victims of domestic violence and have mental health issues. Part of the problem, therefore, is that we are not addressing those issues. We need to tackle them in order to get to the root of why the offending occurs in the first place.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Privileges

My hon. Friend is right about the high incidence of short custodial sentences imposed on women for shoplifting. Is he aware of the initiative in Greater Manchester that the police have taken up with some large stores? When a woman is found shoplifting in one of those shops, they can immediately refer her not to the police—and into the criminal justice system—but to our women’s centres. Does he agree that that would be a really positive model for the Government to encourage across the whole country?

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Labour, Enfield, Southgate

I am aware of that initiative. More investment in women’s centres would be a great thing that would help to stop reoffending, particularly by female offenders. I support women’s centres in their plight; we should provide them with as much funding as we can.

All the evidence shows that there is a strong case for abolishing sentences of six months or less, but we also need to have a robust community order regime. The Revolving Doors Agency made a freedom of information request and found that, of those people sentenced to six months in custody, three in five reported a drug or alcohol problem on arrival in prison, one in four were released homeless, and seven in 10 reoffend within a year of release. Clearly short sentences are not working. In his speech on 18 February, the Secretary of State for Justice said:

“Why would we spend taxpayers’
money doing what we know doesn’t work, and indeed, makes us less safe?”

I entirely agree with him about that.

I have touched on some of the issues where our investment could help. Accommodation is a big factor. When people leave prison and they are homeless, they are more prone to reoffend. Clearly, the through-the-gate resettlement service has not been working with the probation service, which needs to be looked at. Making sure that prisoners are housed and have accommodation when they leave prison would help prevent reoffending.

Many of the support services that prisoners need when they are released relate to benefits applications. They also need to be looked at, as well as the mental health support that they need. Sometimes people leave prison having had some treatment, but they do not get treatment further on. Finally—I meant to mention this earlier—when they are in prison people can receive treatment for some of their addictions, but six months is too short a time for them to have the full support they need. All these areas need investment.

The Secretary of State also said in his speech that he supported “smart” justice. I agree with the gist of what he said, but much more needs to be done. There is a place for punishing people. We need prison for serious offenders and it should also be there as a deterrent. There may be an issue with why prison is not working as well as it should do; the reoffending rate is high, and there may be issues about what goes on in prison, the prison estate itself, the fact that there are insufficient prison officers, the prevalence of drugs in prison and various other factors. Clearly, prison is not working for some people.

I suggest that community orders are the best way forward for short sentences. There should be an element of rehabilitation but community orders should be tough, should not be treated as a soft touch, should be fully enforced, and people should be made to fulfil them. Serving them over a longer period of time could also help offenders change their ways.

Community orders would also save us money. The Revolving Doors Agency estimates that community sentences would save £9,237 per prisoner. I am often staggered by the fact that it costs roughly the same amount to send somebody to Eton as to send them to prison. I say let us send them to Eton—that is instead of prison, not as well as prison. These areas need to be looked at. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. I broadly support what the Secretary of State has set out and I hope he has the courage of his convictions to follow through. We could be in a position where these measures save us money in the long run and we are able to rehabilitate offenders, which has long-term benefits for us all.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings 3:33 pm, 7th March 2019

One of the greatest changes in my lifetime, and indeed my time in Parliament, has been the growing gulf between the preoccupations of the liberal establishment, and the hopes and fears of the people who have to live with the effects of their doubt-filled and guilt-fuelled erosion of the collective wisdom of ages.

That collective wisdom is given shape by institutions, small and large. There are large institutions, such as the law, Parliament, the Church and the monarchy, and small institutions, such as civil society, families and Burke’s “little platoons”. Sadly, what Burke said about order being the foundation of the good life and a working civil society—

“Good order is the foundation of all things.”— is a far cry from where Britain is now, as a result of the work of that liberal establishment over the decades.

Too much of urban Britain, in particular, is either brutish or brutalised. When good order and the rule of law is eroded, it is the vulnerable who suffer most, for they, unlike those bourgeois liberals who live gated lives, survive on the frontline of crime. Those vulnerable people are suffering at the hands of violent criminals who are punishing them every day, through the fear they cause and the hurt they do.

Yet we are very sheepish now about punishing the culprits. We have learned so little from the time when I studied criminology, almost 40 years ago. We have continued down the road of seeing crime as an illness to be treated, rather than a malevolent choice to be dealt with.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

I will make this point, and then happily give way. The effect of that is to put great emphasis on the culprit and, by nature, less emphasis on the event and the victims of crime. That is precisely what has happened, and I know the hon. Lady could not possibly want to agree with that.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Privileges

I do not disagree at all that people’s lives are made a misery by violent and persistent criminals in their community, but I cannot really agree that we have become less willing to take action against criminals, when the prison population has gone from between 42,000 and 43,000 in the mid-1990s to more than 80,000 today.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

The hon. Lady is a very distinguished Member of this House, with whom I have worked in the past, so I do not want to suggest in any sense that I am patronising her. However, that could be a measure of either the scale of the problem or of our response to it, and I suggest that it is much more likely to be the former. I have to tell her that the view that is frequently expressed in this House—I put it this way only for the sake of brevity, because it is a little more complex—that we should place greater emphasis on the way we deal with criminals, rather than focusing on the way we support victims and protect those who are at risk of crime, is at odds with the sentiments of most of our constituents.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee

I have great respect for my right hon. Friend, and I understand the thrust of where he is coming from, but would he reflect on the fact that the two are not mutually exclusive? It is not mutually exclusive to have concern for the victims of crime and, at the same, to consider that one very potent means of having concern for victims of crime is to ensure that those who offend are punished and sentenced in a way that is more likely to rehabilitate and reform them than not. As a one-nation Tory of the cavalier tradition like I, he will know that few are beyond redemption.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

It is, of course, right that we need to consider the causes of crime. That is why I have talked about the erosion of civil society. Of course it is true that when communities become weaker, and when the ties that bind us become looser, people are more likely to act in a malign way. As my hon. Friend knows, life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short”. What stands between us and all of that are the things that I have described—the civil society that Burke defined and that I attempted to illustrate. The truth is that when we emphasise crime as an ill to be treated, by nature we put less emphasis on its effect: the event itself. In that way, there is often, although not necessarily, a tension between one position and the other.

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Although linguistically my right hon. Friend may be correct, and in language we may sound as though we are more liberal, Ellie Reeves pointed out the reality. Not simply do we incarcerate twice as many people as we did 25 years ago, but the crime rate has almost halved over the same period, so proportionately, the number of people incarcerated per crime is considerably more than it was 25 years ago. Typically, this is the hypocrisy of liberalism: we talk a liberal language, but in fact we are much more punitive than the Victorians were. In the Victorian period at the end of the 19th century, there were only four prisoners held in prison for sentences longer than two years. Now, for the first time, we have a very large number of young men serving 25 or 30-year prison sentences.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

My hon. Friend the Minister knows that that argument is predicated on several misassumptions. The first is the fundamental issue of population growth. Of course when we look to the past there were fewer criminals, because there were fewer people. The second, as he will know, is the very well-known criminological explanation of under-counting and under-reporting of crime; it is known as the black or dark figure, the number of crimes that are never reported and therefore never recorded. It also is probably true that the tolerance of crime has risen and more and more of what might be described as petty crimes, which would once have been taken very seriously, are now ignored, partly because people do not think they will be dealt with. That happens in all our constituencies all the time.

The third problem is that there has been a prevailing view about rehabilitation that, while not intrinsically incompatible with the idea of just deserts and a retributive approach to crime, is too often presented as such by people who are on what I described as the “liberal” side of this argument. Part of the business of the criminal justice system is to punish, and part of public faith in the criminal justice system relies and depends on people believing that those who do very bad things get their just deserts. Frankly, every poll that the Minister or I could cite shows that a growing number of people do not think that criminals get their just deserts.

There is a separate issue about what happens once people get to prison; my hon. Friend is the Prisons Minister, so he will know what a mess prisons are in. I hope he is trying to do something about that, because he is right that when people go to prison, one hopes they will not go back. Recidivism is a profound concern, but given that he is the Minister, that is as much his problem as anyone’s.

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Since my right hon. Friend has taken the opportunity to challenge the statistics and suggest that they can be explained by population growth, population growth from 1992 to 2018 in Britain has been approximately 10%. The prison population during that period has doubled. This cannot be accounted for by population growth.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

Yes, but if we look at the number of crimes committed in the year of my birth, 1958—I know that is hard to believe, but that is the year—compared with the number of crimes committed now, in almost every category crimes have grown. The number of homicides, for example, in that year, the number of violent crimes in that year, the number of sex-related crimes in that year—if the Minister looks at the figures, which by the way are available from the Library, he will see that in all those categories and many others, the number of crimes has grown immensely over my lifetime, the period I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks.

I want to address the specifics of the debate introduced by Ellie Reeves. It is useful that she has brought this matter to the attention of the House, because the figures from the Minister’s Department make clear that the effect of doing what I understand the Minister has advocated, and with which others may agree, would essentially be that 34,000 offenders who currently go to prison would no longer do so. Roughly speaking, 30,000 of those are repeat, not new offenders. Their offences include burglary, theft, public order offences and weapon and drug possession, as well as drink-driving and other similar things.

Those are not offences that most members of the public would regard as inconsequential, slight or not a cause for worry—far from it. I suspect that the vast majority of our constituents would anticipate that those sorts of things should attract a prison sentence. If any hon. Members take the opposite view, I would be happy to debate with them in their constituencies on a public platform, and see who held the majority view and who was seen to be on the margins. I wonder whether Bambos Charalambous is on the margins; I will give way to him.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Labour, Enfield, Southgate

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has just said that there are 30,000 repeat offenders. Those are people who have already been to prison, so clearly that would indicate that prison has not worked for them and we should look at other forms of punishment. Does he agree that prison is not the only form of punishment that would act as a deterrent, and that other options might work better and stop people being recycled into prison?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

I mentioned recidivism a moment ago, but since the hon. Gentleman was clearly listening, I cannot have made myself clear. I did not say people who had been to prison once; I said repeat offenders. These may be people who have had other kinds of sentences and then gone to prison, because very often, for a first offence, people do not go to prison; they go to prison for a second or later offence. When I speak of repeat offenders, I do not necessarily mean people who are in and out of prison regularly. It is very important to be precise about these things.

The problem with that kind of policy is not only what it would do to public faith in criminal justice, on which it would have a devastating effect—in its response to the Government’s proposals, Civitas, the think-tank, says that it would unleash a crime wave on hundreds of thousands of citizens—but that it would reinforce the idea that prison cannot work. We have profound problems at present; the Minister is aware of that and has spoken very openly and straightforwardly about it. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate has just alluded to those problems—prisons becoming universities of crime, where people who go in are worsened by the experience, rather than rehabilitated.

Even from the rehabilitative perspective, therefore, prison is not doing what it could, but that is not a good enough reason to say to the public, “We are worried about sending people to prison, because they might get worse, so we will leave them on the streets.” That cannot be the signal that this place or this Government want to send. Let us get our prisons right, not be embarrassed or ashamed to send people there.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Privileges

The point we are trying to make in this debate is that people are going to prison for short sentences. By definition, that is unlikely to be for the level of serious crimes that the right hon. Gentleman rightly says our constituents would be horrified if they thought people could commit and then run around at liberty. He is right that we are talking about, in some cases, persistent offenders. A written answer from the Minister, which I received on 5 November last year, said that in 2017, 6,793 people went to prison for less than six months, having never previously received a community penalty for offences that they had committed. I find that baffling. Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that sometimes we are too ready to use custody?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

All I would say in response to that is that the hon. Lady will have seen the national newspaper this week that showed, shockingly, a picture on the front cover of a smirking criminal who, having committed an offence for the second time, took a selfie of himself outside the court. This was a person who was found in possession of both a knife and cocaine, and had been known to the police for a considerable time. Time permitting, I could give account of many similar stories, and particularly of the police’s frustration when we do not, in their judgment, provide the just deserts I mentioned earlier, which so undermines their confidence. As one policeman said of a similar case, “Why do we bother?”.

Prison is of course about trying to put people straight, but it is also about punishing people for the harm they have done. That is an entirely respectable part of criminal justice, and it is what our constituents expect of us and of the Government.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

I will give way one last time, but then I really must conclude, because others may want to speak.

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

The only reason I keep intervening is that, unfortunately, my right hon. Friend will be unable to hear my speech, so will be unable to hear me answer, point by point, every point that he makes. Evidence from the Ministry of Justice strongly suggests that sending somebody to prison makes them more likely to reoffend, by one offence a year, than somebody given a non-custodial sentence. Given that the short-sentence population in a single year is about 50,000 people, my right hon. Friend’s proposals would indirectly inflict 50,000 additional offences on innocent victims in Britain. In other words, the wrong use of short prison sentences endangers the public, rather than protecting them.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

Yes, but by letting on to the streets 34,000 people who would currently go to prison, we would by nature make it more likely that those people would have more victims, unless the Minister believes that those non-custodial sentences have a perfect effect—are an entire solution. I think that the Minister should refocus his efforts on getting prisons right, as I would not want his ministerial career to be characterised by prisons being worse when he ended than when he started. I know he is determined to do so, but he has a lot of work to do. The Government have to pull their socks up in respect of the way our prisons are run, partly because of the policies adopted by previous Governments.

My earlier offer applies to the Minister, too: I would be happy for him to come to my constituency, or for me to go to his, and debate this issue with the people there, to see whether they think that fewer or more criminals should be sent to prison. When they know that we are speaking of the kind of crimes that I described earlier, according to data from the Minister’s own Department, I think they would not only be surprised but, frankly, be outraged.

G.K. Chesterton spoke of the people of England who have not spoken yet, but now the people of England are speaking loud and clear. There may be those who have been deafened by the shrill bleating of political correctness, but many of us have not. We will speak for the people of England, and we will not be silenced.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Small Business, Enterprise and Innovation) 3:53 pm, 7th March 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Ellie Reeves on securing this important debate. “Follow that” is still ringing in my ears; I will make an attempt. She gave a positive and persuasive argument for looking at 12-month prison sentences, talking about how squalid prisons do not help with rehabilitation, drug abuse or mental illness, and looking at the difficulties for prisoners of being released.

Robert Neill, who chairs the Justice Committee, gave us the benefit of his time in the criminal justice system, although I should add that that was as a barrister. He talked about constructive punishment and the good use of public money, saying that prisons must reform and rehabilitate, and that the high rates of reoffending of those who serve short sentences have a social and monetary cost. Bambos Charalambous further exemplified some of the difficulties with short-term prison sentences. He talked about women and shoplifting, looking at the other side—why they commit such crimes and what we can do to prevent that. That is an important issue, which the Scottish Government have taken on board a bit. I will speak further on what we are doing in Scotland, which I know the Minister and the Secretary of State have been looking at.

Sir John Hayes gave a speech at odds with a lot of what had already been said. He spoke with real passion about how people who do bad things should get their just desserts. The abolition of prison sentences of up to 12 months is not about people not getting their just desserts; it is about an effective use of the prison estate and of public money that actually helps people not to reoffend. That is how we look at things in Scotland.

The Scottish National party is committed to smart justice and proportionate, just and effective responses. A focus on community sentences in place of short custodial sentences has helped to achieve a 19-year low in reconviction rates in Scotland, and it is encouraging to see the UK Government following Scotland’s lead in this area. Scotland has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe, with 144 per 100,000 of the population incarcerated. The average length of prison sentences has increased by 21% over the last decade. For many individuals, however, prison is not an effective solution.

Individuals released from short sentences of 12 months or less are reconvicted nearly twice as often as those sentenced to a community payback order. It makes sense to look at community payback orders. Community sentencing has proven to be an effective tool in replacement of short sentences, as the statistics bear out. Between 2006-07 and 2015-16, the reconviction rate in Scotland fell by 5.4%, to a 19-year low, while the average number of reconvictions per offender has fallen by 22% over the last 10 years. Under the SNP Government, completion rates for community sentences have increased to 70%.

Around 7 million hours of unpaid work have been carried out since community payback orders were introduced, delivering real benefits to communities. In 2017-18, some 1.7 million hours of unpaid work were imposed as part of these orders, and the projects undertaken ranged from support for winter resilience to the refurbishment and redecoration of community spaces. I have seen many such things in my constituency—work that would not otherwise be done, improving how the community lives and works. Overall, recorded crime is at its second-lowest level since 1974, down 42% since 2006-07.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving examples of what has been very effective in Scotland. It is asserted that the public equate just desserts and punishment only with imprisonment. Does she agree that, when the public see community sentences in operation, they are often much more appreciative of the constructive way in which somebody is being punished while doing some good at the same time? The public are not as blinkered in their views as is sometimes suggested, once they see good schemes working.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Small Business, Enterprise and Innovation)

Indeed. Several projects that have been undertaken are marked by plaques saying how that was done. It is really positive that people can see that there are other ways. The public are not necessarily bloodthirsty or looking for people to be locked up and the key thrown away. They want people to be better. I have been around Shotts prison in my neighbouring constituency and looked at the good rehabilitation work it does. It follows that, if prisons are full of people on short sentences, there will be less time and money available for real rehabilitative work within the prison system. While prison is still the right place for the most serious offenders, the extension of the presumption against short sentences to 12 months would help to ensure that prison was used only when the judiciary decided it was necessary, having considered alternatives.

The Scottish Government have spent quite a bit of money working on that basis, because it is important. I hope that this Minister will say that, if and when that happens in England, the UK Government will put money into the equivalent of the criminal justice social work services that we have in Scotland. It cannot just be said, “We won’t put people in prison and therefore we’ll save money.” Some money has to be put into the restorative justice system and community criminal justice. The Scottish Government have given additional funding for community sentences and women offenders, which includes additional provision for bail supervision for women. A number of years ago, there was a suggestion to build a new women’s prison in Scotland. That was stopped because what we are trying to do now is more preventive work and more work that does not separate women from their families, especially their children.

Lots of work has been done, and there are statistics proving that things such as workloads have gone down in the criminal justice system. The number of criminal justice social work reports submitted and social work orders issued both fell by 6%. That is another saving for the criminal justice system. There has also been a 7% drop in community payback orders recently.

In Scotland, we do things in partnership across the system, from local government all the way up to the national Government. The Scottish Government are committed to working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, Social Work Scotland, Community Justice Scotland, local authorities and third-sector partners, which take a great deal of interest and do some of the work when it comes to preparations for community payback orders.

It is strange to me, standing here opposite the Minister, whom I might quote in a moment, that Conservative MSPs in Holyrood criticise the SNP’s approach. It is very encouraging to see the UK Government looking to follow Scotland’s lead in this matter. What exists in Scotland has sometimes been called “soft-touch justice” in a derogatory sense, but it is actually proving to be effective and a much better way to use our prison estate. As the Justice Secretary said last month:

“Why would we spend taxpayers’
money doing what we know doesn’t work, and indeed, makes us less safe?”

This Minister has said:

“My No. 1 priority is to protect the public. I believe that the best way of protecting the public is to reduce significantly, if not eliminate, the under 12-month prison population, because people on community sentences are less likely to reoffend than people who are put in custody.”

The Justice Secretary has also said:

“If we can find effective alternatives to short sentences, it is not a question of pursuing a soft-justice approach, but rather a case of pursuing smart justice that is effective at reducing reoffending and crime. That is the approach that I want to take in England and Wales.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2019;
Vol. 654, c. 146.]

I am glad that there is almost unanimity across the House in this matter.

I believe that evidence was given to the Justice Committee by Karyn McCluskey, chief executive of Community Justice Scotland. She says in relation to Scotland:

“We have been on a prevention journey for the past 15 years. Short-term prison sentences do not reduce offending. It causes homelessness and breaks up any positive bonds” that offenders may have. She continues:

“Our courts and prisons should not be de facto psychiatric hospitals. I have met people who would much prefer to go to jail: it’s much easier for them. We want to change society’s view of what works.”

I think that that is really where we all are.

I should just say that, in Scotland, prison sentences of less than 12 months are not being abolished. Sheriffs and judges retain the discretion to pass the most appropriate sentence based on the facts and circumstances of the case. The legislation states that the court should not pass a sentence of a period shorter than the stated presumption, but it may do so where it considers that no other method of dealing with the person is appropriate. We have to look at this. It will never be the case that one sentence fits all in any justice system, but the facts speak for themselves. A presumption of no prison sentence under 12 months would only benefit the prison estate and the people being sentenced.

Will the Minister confirm that this is not just a money-saving exercise and that money will be spent on the implementation of the presumption of no prison sentences under 12 months? Does he agree that more money spent in that respect would reap huge rewards in the prison system and in the criminal justice system more generally?

Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Shadow Minister (Justice) 4:05 pm, 7th March 2019

It is, of course, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. First, I thank my hon. Friend Ellie Reeves for bringing this very important debate to the Chamber. She is right to say that it follows a number of linked debates of equal value. That shows the interest among hon. Members in this important subject, and I thank hon. Members for their valuable contributions.

The starting point is that we cannot shy away from the fact that many short sentences simply do not work. The points in that respect have been eloquently made by my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), and, of course, by the Chair of the Justice Committee, Robert Neill.

The reoffending rate for those serving a sentence shorter than 12 months is higher than that for community orders or suspended sentences. That is causing real damage not just to communities and victims, but to the public finances—another point that has been made. Short sentence reoffending is conservatively estimated to cost the economy between £7 billion and £10 billion a year; others rightly say that the figure could be £15 billion or more.

It is glaringly obvious why short sentences are so ineffective. An offender who is sentenced to just a few months or even a few weeks will still lose their job, their home and their family. These are all things that offenders themselves say are factors that influence whether they reoffend. The problems are exactly the same as those that an offender serving a sentence that runs into years experiences, but crucially, people serving short sentences are not in prison long enough to put in place steps to address these needs before their release.

An offender serving a short sentence also has no time for purposeful activity, which is proven to reduce reoffending. They have no time to equip themselves with skills or gain qualifications to get a job and pay for a home after release, because in most cases a course cannot be taught and skills cannot be gained in a matter of months, particularly when much of the time is spent isolated in cells due to the lack of experienced prison officers and the other issues that we face in the emergency that exists within our prisons.

There is also no time to get help with regard to other drivers of offending, such as mental health issues and substance misuse. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons states that one prisoner in three has mental health issues—a problem that is undoubtedly much greater than is portrayed—and one prisoner in five tested positive for drugs and psychoactive substances in 2017-18. Those are real, serious problems that these offenders face, but when serving short sentences they cannot get the treatment or rehabilitation that they need to get their lives in order. In some cases, people need rehab and medical attention, not cells.

It is clear that we need to end the use of ineffective short sentences, but although the Government have floated the idea on several occasions, the reality is that they are not doing much about it; we have yet to see them take any concrete action.

The proportion of short custodial sentences has barely shifted in the past three years. More staggeringly, community sentences, which can provide an alternative to short custodial sentences, have fallen by 78% over the past five years, with the fastest decline being for non-violent theft and drug offences. The Minister’s first step must be to halt this worrying trend. Forgive me if I do not entirely believe that the Government will act.

I am even less assured by the Government’s record, because every major policy announcement that the Ministry of Justice has made on prisons falls short of the mark and has come to nothing thus far. The female offender strategy promised five new residential women’s centres—a rehashed Labour idea—which are nowhere near being built. The educational employment strategy scrapped careers advice in prison, which is a negative step, and has not done much beyond that. The Minister’s 10 prisons safety project is failing to deliver improvements in safety anywhere, let alone across the whole estate.

If we have learnt anything from the MOJ it is that it is all noise and no substance. I wish that were not the case. The overuse of short sentences is a substantial and important issue. We want to be able to work with the Government on this. We agree that short sentences do not work and that locking someone up for just a few weeks or months provides no benefit to anyone. We have common ground to build on.

However, the Government do not seem serious about tackling short sentence overuse. If they were serious, they would ensure that there was a real alternative to custody, in the form of robust community sentences or a stricter fines regime; they would not allow the disaster that is our probation system, which provides community sentences, to continue; and they would address the dangerous lack of confidence among magistrates in the probation system and community sentences—a point that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made very well.

A study conducted last year with the support of the Magistrates Association found that 37% of magistrates are not confident that community sentences are an effective alternative, 45% are not confident that community sentences currently rehabilitate effectively, and almost half believe that community sentences cannot be tailored to suit the individual needs of an offender. By contrast, a survey in 2003 showed that magistrates had much higher levels of confidence in the ability of community sentences to punish and rehabilitate offenders.

Even after that study and numerous recent, high-profile and wide-ranging critical reports, the Government are continuing with their failed privatisation experiment in probation. The reports are long and damning. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation found nine out of 13 community rehabilitation companies to be performing poorly overall, with poor-quality work in reducing reoffending and protecting the public. The Justice Committee ripped into poor performance on reoffending, concerning high workloads and worries over the confidence of judges and magistrates—a point made earlier. Last Friday’s National Audit Office report found that CRCs failed to meet MOJ targets to reduce reoffending and had created an increase in offenders on short sentences who were recalled. Community sentences simply are not viable under their current providers. Magistrates and judges do not trust them, and neither do the public.

We have heard about Scotland’s model in contrast to the Government’s action. The Labour shadow Justice team has committed to bringing probation services back in-house to deliver a service that works, has the confidence of judges and magistrates, and can show the public that there is a real robust alternative to short custodial sentences. The shadow Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Richard Burgon, recently visited Scotland, where a presumption against short sentences is being rolled out. He saw the positive work done to deliver justice for the public and victims through sentencing alternatives that do reduce reoffending. The use of community sentences in Scotland has risen by 16% in the past decade, which contrasts to a decline in England and Wales. The Scottish model has been in place for some time and shows a clear way forward, which the Government must seriously address.

The Government must show that they are capable of more than just words and setting the mood music; they must prove that they are serious. The Minister must set out what they are doing to end the huge overuse of ineffective short sentences, which serve little purpose in our justice system, including what action they are taking to stop the dramatic fall in the use of community sentences in recent years and how long it will be before the MOJ gets the proportion of community sentences back to previous levels.

Addressing this important issue can reduce reoffending, so I extend an offer to work with the Minister to bring reoffending down. However, that offer is not a blank cheque. A new consensus must be built on strong proposals by the Government. The Minister must show us that he is doing this for the right reasons: to reduce reoffending and better serve the public, not just to reduce the prison population. He needs to outline how he will regain the confidence and trust of the judiciary, which the Government have lost with their probation changes. Given the growing number of damning reports on these probation changes and their failure to reduce reoffending, he must commit to ending the failed privatisation experiment, which cannot deliver the viable and robust alternatives to custody that are needed, and bring this back into public ownership.

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 4:15 pm, 7th March 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to Ellie Reeves for bringing this important debate.

To think clearly about prison, we need to think about victims, and we must begin with a strong statement that the prime responsibility of the Government is to protect the public. That is particularly clear at the moment, when we are dealing with the horror of knife crime. We need to be absolutely clear—as this Government and, I hope, Members on both sides of the House are—about our abhorrence of crime and the misery it inflicts on victims, about our absolute commitment to punish criminals in proportion to their offence, and about ensuring, above all, that serious criminals are imprisoned.

We can go beyond that, because the point is that somebody who commits an offence is not simply technically breaking the law. For example, a shoplifter imposes misery on the individual who owns a private shop by stealing valuable possessions and affecting their psychological sense of security. Therefore, in responding to that act, as my hon. Friend Robert Neill has pointed out, we need to ensure that we punish them for the crime they committed, not only to give justice to the victim but to protect future victims of crime.

The nub of the issue is that punishment needs to be combined with deterrence and rehabilitation, and to symbolically express society’s abhorrence of crime. All that is true, and all that was recognised by my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes. However, where I respectfully disagree with him—I regret that he did not stay to hear my response—is that he must be more rigorous and serious in thinking through whether, in fact, a short-term prison sentence achieves any of the objectives that he wants to achieve.

Let me take a single example. In Bedford prison last month I saw a prisoner who had been a heroin addict and had serious learning difficulties. Every time he is released from prison, he shoplifts again and he gets put back in prison for four weeks—he was put in Bedford prison eight times last year. My question to my right hon. Friend is this: what does it achieve to put this man in prison eight times in a year? Clearly it is not deterring him from committing crime or rehabilitating him, because he commits another crime as soon as he comes out. He does not even personally experience this as a punishment, so what is being done here?

Perhaps the judge feels that they have no other options, because the individual has committed many other crimes in the past. What else are they supposed to do? Yet what does imprisoning them achieve? Perhaps the judge feels that it is a symbolic disapproval of the act of shoplifting, but what kind of symbolism is it if it is untethered from reality? What is the symbolism of a punishment that does not deter, does not punish, does not rehabilitate and is not experienced subjectively by the victim or by society as having any purpose at all?

We then need to think about prisons, which are vast, complex, expensive organs of Government. A modern prison costs more than £100 million to build. It is manned by hundreds of highly trained prison officers, filled with electronic equipment and fitted with bars on its windows. It is a continual fight, day in, day out, which requires energy and dedication, to stay on top of the drugs and the phones, to challenge violence from prisoners and against prison officers, to control issues of suicide and self-harm, and, above all, to protect the public from the most serious offenders in society.

Short-term prisoners destabilise the whole prison system. They are the ones who disproportionately bring drugs into prisons, because they are the people who go in and out eight times a year—if a criminal gang is looking for somebody to carry drugs in, they target a short-term prisoner, not somebody who is in for 25 years and has no opportunity. They disproportionately have learning difficulties and addiction problems; they are disproportionately connected with violence against prison officers and against themselves.

Short-term prisoners also absorb disproportionately more time in the system than should be attributed to them. That distracts the entire system from focusing on rehabilitating and working with the serious criminals, such as the sex offenders, violent offenders and murderers, who pose a significant threat to the public and who, because of the distraction of this cohort, are not getting the education programmes, work and protection that they require.

As Bambos Charalambous has pointed out, we can do much more in relation to community sentences. We have just introduced GPS-enabled tagging, which for the first time allows us to know exactly where an offender is in the community by the minute, day in, day out. We have also introduced alcohol and drug monitoring tests, which for the first time allow us to know whether an individual outside prison is taking drugs or alcohol in violation of their conditions. We are improving unpaid work and investing in community rehabilitation companies to make sure that they have better supervision in place, that they are meeting people face to face and that they have a proper plan in place to follow them through.

We are investing in addiction treatment in the NHS. Again, with deference to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, that is not just liberal nonsense. Shoplifters make up by far the largest element in the under-six-months prison population, and 74% of shoplifters are addicted to heroin or crack cocaine. There is a direct causative relationship between their addiction to heroin or crack cocaine and their shoplifting. As Marion Fellows pointed out, that investment in NHS treatment requirements will be central if we are to reduce their reoffending.

The key point is that putting these people in prison is not simply futile, but perverse. It is not simply a waste of time; it makes the situation worse. It does not protect the public, but endangers them. A considerable amount of research has now been done on that. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research did a paper on it in 2012 and the Ministry of Justice did another in 2013.

We have just produced another paper that looks at 350,000 offenders and 130 variables—everything from offender demographics to school attendance, family, childhood and trauma—to produce a statistically significant survey of a large number of people that compares like with like. By taking two people who have both committed seven offences and who have almost identical backgrounds and offending histories—in so far as we can; we are looking at a statistical variation of 5%—it shows that the one who is given a custodial sentence, as opposed to the one who is given a community sentence, is likely to commit one extra offence a year. Some 50,000 people get custodial sentences, so that is 50,000 more victims of crime because of the wrong type of short prison sentence.

There is much that we should still learn from Scotland and much that we need to reflect on. It is important to bring people such as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings with us and keep public confidence. He may be correct that if we were to go in front of an audience, without the time to present incredibly serious and detailed research, it would be possible to whip up a crowd against it through cheap language about decriminalisation and laxity. I do not doubt that. The evidence is absolutely clear, however, and we should be bold in asking what we are trying to achieve with a prison or a community sentence. Is this prison sentence really deterring this individual? Is it really rehabilitating them? Above all, is it really protecting the public?

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Labour, Lewisham West and Penge 4:25 pm, 7th March 2019

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in this important debate, particularly Robert Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee, who co-sponsored the application for the debate and has done a huge amount of work to push the issue up the agenda.

I echo what other hon. Members have said. A presumption against short sentences is not about being soft on crime, but about following the evidence. We have heard that evidence today, which is clear that community sentences are more effective in reducing reoffending than short prison sentences. Short prison sentences simply exacerbate the problem. It is clear from the debate that there is cross-party support for reducing the use of short sentences, which I hope we can continue to build on in future.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the cost and effectiveness of sentences under 12 months and consequences for the prison population.

Sitting adjourned.