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6.22 pm

Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham): Like the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), I have visited Usk prison. I thought that it was very good, and I am glad that it is keeping up the standards that I observed; but many prisons are hopeless and degrading places, and many have always been so. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) quoted Winston Churchill; it is nearly a century since he said that a test of a civilised country is the way in which it treats its prisoners. The Lord Chief Justice, the chief inspector of prisons and the Director General of the Prison Service--in a passionate speech only last week--have all reminded us of how bad prisons can be. No doubt some tabloid editors who would, by implication, dismiss Churchill as a wimpish do-gooder, regard prisons as holiday camps. I do not believe, however, that most of the public do.

Whatever the arguments on civilisation and morality, it makes no sense for society to spend--or, as the Government would say, invest--so much on or in a system that produces over 50 per cent. reoffending, in the case of adult prisons, and over 80 per cent. in the case of young offender institutions. In reality, those figures are even worse than they appear, because crime is generally a young person's occupation, especially young people from fractured homes. Most of them grow out of crime by their early 30s, leaving the suspicion that those who do not have become embedded in a criminal substratum because of, not in spite of, their experience in prison.

Of course, there is a huge number of dedicated people throughout the Prison Service running excellent programmes and producing a positive effect on the

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prisoners in their charge. Quite rightly, the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend have quoted them. However, by looking on the bright side and constantly doing justice to them, it is dangerously easy to obscure quite how negative and third-rate much of the system is. I am certain that no Minister, whether in this Government or the previous one, wants it like that. It is true that some of my colleagues in the previous Government thought that prisons should be austere--which is how most prisons remain--but they always preceded that adjective with "decent", and they meant it. The reasons why the problem nevertheless remains intractable are many and difficult.

First, there is overcrowding. As has been said many times in this debate and outside the House, there is a major impediment to constructive work if prison officers are obliged simply to run a convict warehouse. The Government's answer, like the previous Government's, is to build more prisons. However, that should not be their top priority; they should look at sentencing first. Short sentences, in which the prisoner is inside for only a few weeks or months, are pointless. They simply ensure that the prisoner loses his job, if he has one, and possibly break up his family, if he has one; the retention of both being key factors in his keeping out of trouble in the future. What is more, rapidly bringing him in and out of prison creates maximum disruption for the Prison Service, and does not give it time to do any remedial work.

On the other hand, long sentences, which drive up the prison population, have become increasingly common. There is no sign that, as deterrents, they are any more effective than rather shorter ones. It is plain that, even if the right programmes were available in prison, sentences are frequently far longer than is necessary to produce the maximum beneficial impact. Indeed, past a certain point, prisoners become institutionalised and are less able to lead a law-abiding life on release than they would be if released earlier. In practice, sentencing is a crucial process, but to me it seems hopelessly crude.

For the most part, judges are intelligent and thoughtful. However, when it comes to sentencing, they seem to be saying little more than "What do we usually give in this sort of case?" They increase the sentence by 20 per cent. for a bad example of the crime, and knock off 20 per cent. for extenuating circumstances. It is good that John Halliday at the Home Office and Lord Justice Auld are looking separately at that issue. I hope that they will go back to first principles and, in particular, do that which is seldom done: consider the effect that the sentence is supposed to have on the prisoner on whom it is passed.

I said that prison building ought not to be the priority. Of course, there is sense in building new prisons to replace those that were constructed in a way that makes it hard to provide the range of activity essential for a good regime. However, what is really needed, if conditions are to be improved, is the building of secure hospitals, in which the large number of severely mentally disordered prisoners can be properly treated. That would give them a far greater chance of recovery than they have in the prison system, which simply cannot cope with them, and would make it possible for prison staff to concentrate much more singlemindedly and effectively on those prisoners who remain more or less in touch with reality.

I was glad that the Home Secretary said that co-operation between the national health service and prisons is much closer than it was. However, that is an area in which completely joined-up government is

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essential, and we have not got it yet. Plenty has been said about the lack of education, skills training and drug, alcohol and offending behaviour programmes, and about the need for real work. The situation is much worse than it appears from the figures, because sometimes programmes that are recorded as being offered do not function, sometimes they are available only to a limited number of prisoners--indeed, that is generally the case--and many are not well run.

Disciplined, paid work, which my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary would put at the centre of the regime, has a lot of attractions and it would be interesting to see how much it can be developed. However, I hope that my right hon. Friend will not go too far down that route when she is Home Secretary. Inevitably, paid work in prison will be limited in range and skill content because of the size of prisons and the turnover of prisoners. What should be at the centre is a flexible range of programmes, directed at the needs of the individual prisoner and at those problems of skill, motivation and personality that get in the way of his capacity to lead a law-abiding life on release.

It is important, not just for the prisoner, but even more for the society that he will rejoin, that prison regimes address the individual prisoner's needs and problems, which should be identified in good sentence plans but often are not. What is most wrong in many prisons is not the poverty of the various programmes, but the fact that, too often, the prevailing atmosphere and relationships are conditioned not by the policies of the governor and his staff, but by the nastiest prisoners. It makes the work of well-meaning officers ineffective, and ensures that frightened and bullied prisoners cannot easily respond positively. There are some prisons where the governor's decisions and policies are carried through, and other prisons where they run into the sand or, at best, have a muffled and distorted impact somewhere down the line.

That is a major managerial problem in the service. Its solution must involve winning the understanding and full co-operation of more junior staff. Few mistreat prisoners, though some do, but far too many do not see it as their role to get to know the prisoners in their charge, to treat them with respect or to provide them with the positive encouragement that they need to make full use of the opportunities offered by the prison.

If prisoners are to learn to respect other people, and their persons and property when they come out, that is how they must be treated inside. What is the good of sending criminals to prison, undermining their dignity, winding them up in numerous petty ways and then turning them out into society angrier and more inadequate than when they went in? There needs to be far more training and retraining of prison staff at all levels, with much more serious oversight of their performance and a determination, however difficult and expensive, to terminate the services of those who cannot contribute to improving the way in which their prison runs and the prisoners in their care are treated.

Finally, I do not believe that Ministers of either party have ever appreciated how complicated the Prison Service is or how difficult it is to run. Prisons are a budget hotel chain, a string of training centres, a collection of mental hospitals, remedial schools and workshops in which guests, trainees, pupils and patients all badly want to be somewhere else. That is why the service is flooded with so many priorities, all making sense in themselves,

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but this week's one inevitably militating against the effective execution of last week's--and in its turn destined to be overtaken by next week's.

It is impossible for Ministers, even those who have the administrative skills, to run the system, as they have manifold other responsibilities and can attend to prisons for only part of their time. When I was at the Home Office in 1993, we set up the agency, which was intended to give professional managers the scope to manage well. It has had some success, but less than I had hoped because we did not go far enough--indeed, events subsequent to its setting up drew the Prison Service back more closely into the Home Office.

The time has come for Ministers to do that which Ministers find hardest--to surrender their daily power to intervene. That would leave Ministers free to concentrate on what they are really for: broad policy issues, of which there are more than enough in the Home Office requiring their attention. That would enable the Select Committee and Parliament to provide a continuing oversight. Above all, it would give management the chance to emerge completely from ministerial shadow, to provide the leadership and continuity that the organisation badly needs, and to embark on long-term institutional reform. If such a system is to be sustained, it will inevitably be long term--far longer than the term of office of even the longest-serving Minister.

The Government who devise such a robust and long-sighted system will do more to improve permanently the quality of what is done in the prison system than any number of well-meaning policy initiatives or short-term crisis management. I look forward in hope to what the Minister says in his winding-up speech.

Before I sit down, one other thought occurs to me. It has always been a source of frustration to those who want the prisons to serve the community better that community interest in the criminal justice system seems to stop at the prison gate. It is surely time for prisoners to be able to vote. It would certainly draw all candidates inside and be an education to them, their local parties and, through them, the wider public. As the number of prisoners is small compared with the number of voters outside, there is no chance that the interests of prisoners would be preferred to those of the rest of the electorate, but it would help to point up where the long-term interests of prisoners and society at large coincide, to the real benefit of both.

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