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Mr. Hogg: Of course, what my right hon. and learned Friend says on this matter and on all matters should be listened to with great respect. He is right for a number of reasons, one of which I think that he would emphasise: confidence in the criminal system depends, at least in part, on a response by those administering sentences to the public sense of what is right and wrong. One must concede that, oddly enough, politicians are rather better at sensing that than are judges.

I suspect that at the back of my right hon. and learned Friend's mind is a fear that the tariffs to be set by the trial judge might be somewhat on the low side. I share that anxiety, but in the end my conclusion is that it is important that the trial judge sets the tariff. However, it is a difference of degree. We have so much in common, that I am sorry not to agree with my right hon. and learned Friend on this narrow point.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. I do not disagree with him about the judge setting the tariff, providing that it is a minimum. What is important is that the overview of life sentences for the most serious offence should remain with the Government of the day, answerable democratically to the people of the country.

Mr. Hogg: We are very close, my right hon. and learned Friend and I, on the matter. I think that I do not agree with him, but it is a matter on which two friends may disagree without any acrimony, so I hope that he will forgive me if I do not entirely accept what he said.

I shall make two final points. The first is about the nature of imprisonment. It is extremely important that the House should go on saying that the deprivation of liberty is the penalty. I say that because, like all constituency Members, I am often approached by people who want conditions in prison to be harsh. I do not. I want conditions to be sparse and rigorous, but I do not want to dishonour people.

The punishment lies in the deprivation of liberty, and one should not humiliate people unnecessarily. There are good pragmatic reasons for that. The first is that, if one dehumanises people, which comes from unnecessary humiliation, one yet further alienates them from the mores of society, to which they must ultimately return. Leaving aside reasons of humanity, I am pragmatically very much against that.

Secondly and differently--this goes back to a point that I made at the beginning of my speech--if one dehumanises people, one removes the inhibitions that others have about ill-treating them. If one coops them up in extremely unsanitary conditions and generally treats them as animals, one should not be at all surprised if the prison officers misbehave towards them. For those two pragmatic reasons, I am not in favour of unnecessarily humiliating prisoners.

That takes me to the next point, which was touched on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, who spoke eloquently on the same point at the Conservative conference two years ago, I think--the need to make prison as purposeful as possible. One of the

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things that struck me forcibly when I was prisons Minister and when I have gone round the prison in my constituency, Morton Hall, is the degree to which prisoners lack basic skills and social skills.

For an enormous number of prisoners, numeracy and literacy have no meaning at all. I am very much in favour of pursuing vigorous educational programmes to the extent possible in prisons, and related to that, taking every opportunity to give prisoners skills relevant to their employment prospects in the future. That, too, needs to be done in prisons to the maximum possible extent.

An overlapping but equally important point is that efforts should be made to get prisoners out of their cells, for association, yes, but for work as well, within the prison and sometimes--at Morton Hall it is possible--work outside the walls of the prison. Their time should be occupied in a fulfilling and purposeful way. It contributes a little to rehabilitation--I am not one of the great optimists about the prison system, but it makes a contribution.

My final point goes to the status of the inspector of prisons. During the greater part of the time when I was prisons Minister, the inspector of prisons was Judge Tumim, who was a highly distinguished inspector of prisons. I have a high regard also for the present inspector, Sir David Ramsbotham. The status of the inspectorate of prisons is important, and I do not want it to be in any way downgraded or its authority or status diluted.

The truth is--this goes back to a point that I made earlier--that there is too little external insight into the way in which prisons are run. We are greatly indebted to the boards of visitors. I used to read the report of the board of visitors in respect of every prison when I received it. The boards of visitors are valuable and have an important role to play, but it is not a sufficient role, partly because they spend a considerable time working with a particular prison, which means that their experience and judgment is focused on that prison and does not necessarily have the wider perspective that I would wish.

I know perfectly well that reports from the inspector of prisons can be extremely embarrassing to the prisons Minister. I must have had 20 reports while I was prisons Minister, and from time to time I was, indeed, embarrassed by what Judge Tumim stated. We were called upon to answer his criticisms. I would say to the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), that, although it is tiresome and one may be embarrassed at the time, for goodness sake, take a broad view.

Let us recognise that prisons are places where abuses can happen only too readily, and where they are never discovered. I hope that nothing will be done to undermine the authority, status or importance of the inspector of prisons. Above all, his office should not be merged with the inspectorate of probation. That would undermine and dilute it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald has returned. That is most kind. I congratulate her on introducing the debate. When she is responsible for implementing penal policy, could we please have regular debates on the prisons?

Miss Widdecombe: Yes.

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Mr. Hogg: That is reassuring. Will she also ensure that we get rid of the home detention curfew order scheme?

Miss Widdecombe: Yes.

Mr. Hogg: The answer is yes. Subject to my proviso, which she did not hear, but can read, will she be careful to ensure honesty in sentencing?

Miss Widdecombe: Yes.

Mr. Hogg: I know that my right hon. Friend attaches great importance to making prison life purposeful through education and work. I am sure that it will be one of her priorities.

Miss Widdecombe: Yes.

Mr. Hogg: Finally, my right hon. Friend should maintain the status, importance and authority of the inspector of prisons.

Miss Widdecombe: Hmm.

Mr. Hogg: Yes! That is all I wish to say.

6.1 pm

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): The main purpose of the debate is to discuss early release from prison in England and Wales. However, this Parliament covers the United Kingdom, and it is important to bring to the House a perspective on the early release of prisoners from the Celtic fringe, as it were. I listened to the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) on early release and large amounts of remission. I also listened with interest to the remarks of the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) on the same subject. Both appeared to believe remission should be earned. I suggest to the Minister that, regardless of the amount of remission, it should be earned more easily by a first offender who is serving his first prison sentence than by a chap who is serving a second or a third term and proving himself to be a persistent offender and professional criminal.

I hope that those who are in prison for the first time for lesser offences might be less willing to go back, and could have an early release target towards which to work. Thereafter, there should be harsher honesty about sentencing and remission. Folks should know that if they return to prison for the second, third or fourth time, it will be more difficult to get out early than it was the first time around.

I want to consider the consequences of the early release of prisoners that resulted from the Belfast agreement. We have heard that the Government have seen fit to grant early release to some 20,000 convicted criminals on the mainland, including drug dealers and traffickers, robbers, burglars, violent offenders, sex offenders and God knows what other sort of offender. The motion does not mention murderers. However, for anyone from Northern Ireland, the debate is a case of, "I've heard all this before; I've been there, done that."

I can give the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) some good news: early release of prisoners in Northern Ireland means that there

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will be many unemployed prison officers in Northern Ireland and two empty prisons of which good use could be made. It might be a little far to go to visit prisoners, but the accommodation is there. If the number of prisoners and misbehaviour is decreasing, use of Northern Ireland prisons for mainland prisoners would be a short-term answer. However, it would be useful, and would save money that would otherwise be expended on building a new prison on this side of the Irish sea.

As hon. Members will recall, the Belfast agreement was sold to the people of Northern Ireland as the answer to all their problems. Under the terms of the agreement, all terrorist prisoners--who are in a slightly different category from the prisoners that we have been discussing, but nevertheless wind up in prisons--were to be released in two years, no matter what their crime. Those two years end in four weeks. At the end of that time, every person convicted of terrorist murder up to a specific date will be out. We were told that peace and tranquillity would ensue if those mass murderers were released from prison and permitted to roam the streets freely. "Freely" is the operative word because none has something attached to his ankle to enable him to be watched. They are out, full stop. They are not electronically tagged.

The news for the people of Northern Ireland was not all bad. During the referendum campaign in 1998, the Prime Minister appeared in Coleraine in my constituency. He gave five handwritten pledges to the people of Northern Ireland, and asked them to vote for the agreement on that basis. I cannot stress enough the importance of those pledges to many Unionist people who were prepared to give the agreement a chance--wrongly, I believed. Those folk believed the Prime Minister when he promised them that those who threatened or used violence would be excluded from the Government of Northern Ireland and that prisoners would be kept in prison unless violence was given up for good.

When I dealt with a terrorist organisation, I did not believe in Santa Claus. I rarely believe it when a Government promise Santa Claus. Experience has taught us that those pledges, like so many from the Government, are merely the product of a highly sophisticated spin machine. The Government seem to us to have no clearer policy or strategic vision than to buy off terrorist organisations and to see themselves through whatever dominates the news headlines. They give no thought to the long-term consequences for the citizens who must live with them.

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