Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  Q60  Chairman: I thought it might be useful to clarify that.

  Mr Blunkett: I think they would have had a job getting them on the buses!

  Q61  Chairman: There were things like cudgels.

  Mr Blunkett: Yes, there were.

  Q62  David Winnick: It could have been dealt with under various laws?

  Mr Blunkett: It could have been but the people actually asking people to get off the buses and display what they had were not aware of what they had until they displayed them.

  Q63  Chairman: Home Secretary, can we move on to prisons and sentencing? What effect do you expect sentencing trends to have on the prison population over the next five years?

  Mr Blunkett: There has just been a further readjustment, as you will be aware, Chairman, of the estimates that are made. I am trying to get people to look at two separate things, firstly the trends without the action we are taking, and that is what the statistical division have got, which is a prison population rising by 2009, so over six rather than five years, to 92,000 and a second look in terms of what it is we can do that would change that projection. Change it, because it is my intention to leave office with fewer people having to enter prison because fewer people are committing crime and those who are found guilty of what would in normal terms be described as first time or minor offences being dealt with rigorously but with a view to avoiding re-offending, so increasing community punishment, intermittent punishment and the development of what is in the Criminal Justice and Sentencing Bill, which we described as custody minus. For those in the gallery that is where someone receives a community sentence but the prison sentence has been delivered therefore if they breach they can be delivered to the prison on the sentence rather than having to be taken back through court again. There is a stick and carrot, if they get it right they stay out of prison and if they get it wrong they immediately go to jail. The intermittent sentences are where—and this has certainly worked in other countries, like Germany—people can be put in jail at the weekends or during the week rather than permanently and we can combine the experience of jail with community sentencing, depending on the nature of the crime, so that people do not lose their house, their family, their livelihood, which contribute to people re-offending rather than preventing them offending and at the same time to get really tough with those who have committed heinous crimes so that the public have trust in the system and know that people who threaten our lives and our children will literally be put away for life. That will increase the prison population at the top end but if we take the right steps and we have consistency in sentencing across the country we can manage a two-handed approach, which I believe is entirely logical and will build confidence in the system.

  Q64  Chairman: You talk about the trends over the next six years, if custody minus and custody plus are alternatives to prison and you are going to have an impact on the prison population by 2009 you must be expecting them to apply to a substantial number of people who are sentenced in courts over the next few years. Could you tell us what the timetable is for commencing those provisions from the Criminal Justice Bill and how many people in say three years or four years you expect to be sentenced under custody plus and custody minus? Do you have the resources that are needed to implement those parts of the Bill?

  Mr Blunkett: We expect to implement custody minus next year subject to Parliament's passing this legislation. We would like to pilot it, we would like to pick the areas of challenge and move on that quickly. We would then like to spread the practice immediately, learning the lessons including, as we were describing at the beginning of this session, with the help of the Judicial Studies Board and the necessary training and support that will be required. We are in the process of determining whether custody plus, where people receive a combined sentence of prison and supervision, can be piloted a year later. That is obviously about the capacity and the working of the Probation Service, not just the capacity but changing the operation and the nature of the Service. In 1997 the Probation Service had a budget of just under £500 million, £492 million, by 2005 they will have a budget of £841 million. It is my determination that as the Prisons Minister that we should examine how we are effectively using that extra £345 million, which is very substantial, it is over a 70% increase, to be able to effectively determine the supervision necessary to stop re-offending. I would like to say this afternoon that I think we need to think more broadly about how we tackle correction of the policy. After two years plus in the job I can be a little more imaginative than it has been possible to be so far in terms of what we do. In terms of looking at how we can reduce re-offending—and the Re-offending Reduction Programme is working but I think there is more that we can do—how we can use the experience in terms of supervision for youngsters with adults, how we can use not only home domestic curfew with tagging but how we can use satellite tracking to be much more imaginative and how we engage the Civil Renewal Agenda, the community volunteering to mentor and support. There is a much bigger agenda here which we can address.

  Q65  Bob Russell: Home Secretary, I welcome your comment about the weekend prison concept, do I take it from that that the Home Office will now look at the Home Affairs Select Committee's report on Alternatives to Prison Sentences, which we did in the last Parliament, because that recommendation which was included there was rejected previously? Bearing in mind it has proved to be very successful in Finland is this in a way, if I can use the expression, a prison finishing school?

  Mr Blunkett: I certainly would not wish to use that expression because I could write the headline for you tomorrow morning. I have already indicated I am not only in agreement with looking at these alternatives and the dual experience but we have put it in the Bill and I would not have put it in the Bill if I did not believe we should use it. I am up for looking at any past Select Committee reports in terms of learning lessons and implementing them.

  Q66  Miss Widdecombe: Home Secretary, before turning to probation can I press you a little more on prison overcrowding numbers, capacity etcetera? At the moment we have just over 73,000 people in prison and there is an uncrowded capacity of only 66,000, so although you are within operational capacity you are nevertheless presiding over quite a position of overcrowding. You have said that you expect in the longer term when your various measures take effect that the prison population will decrease. I just want to press you slightly on the interim period, both in terms of the numbers you would expect and the prisons building programme. If we have 73,000 people in prison today, and I know you cannot be precise, I am not asking you to be, do you see that as having gone up or come down or being the same in say three years' time?

  Mr Blunkett: We have forecast the necessity over the next three years of putting in place a further set of measures that will lead us to have 78,700 places available. I appreciate this is operational, to use your term, at the moment we have 74,100, or thereabouts, in place and therefore we will have greater capacity to take account of the measures that are already in train. My view is that instead of simply taking capacity and using the exponential statistical diagram which has taken place in terms of what has happened over recent years (the rise from 45,000 to 73,000 in 10 years) that perhaps we should look at other measures. Pat Carter, who Members will be familiar with, has done a lot of work for Government in this area in the past is coming forward to us and to the Prime Minister and the Treasury with his review of what requirements will be and how we can configure the prison stock, prison places in a way that will be helpful. I want to see that report in the next few weeks and then consider the best way forward.

  Q67  Miss Widdecombe: Can I ask you to give me a brief indication, and you have talked about places, of how many new prisons you are building and any rebuilding of current, old Victorian prisons that you have in mind?

  Mr Blunkett: We have expanded Birmingham Prison substantially, there are 400 odd places there. We have Ashford and Peterborough as new prisons coming on stream. I am interested in looking at how, and I will come to the difficulty in a moment, we can release one of the less favourable, less acceptable prisons in terms of conditions which happen to be in high value areas in order to rebuild and reconfigure in a more acceptable style for the 21st century. I share the implicit criticism that in the 21st century some of our prison stock, and therefore the work we can do with prisoners in them, which is the crucial factor, are less than satisfactory. The difficulty is the bridge between the ability to rebuild and provide and the disposal of and the emptying of the prison. You are familiar with this as much as I am. We need to look imaginatively at how we might do that, and I am prepared to do so.

  Q68  Miss Widdecombe: When you say you are prepared to do so is that actually in hand, in train?

  Mr Blunkett: I have asked for work to be done on that so we can make collective decisions as to the best way of achieving that goal.

  Q69  Miss Widdecombe: Staying with prisons and overcrowding for the moment, do you accept that the first casualty of overcrowding is always purposeful activity?

  Mr Blunkett: I think it reduces the speed with which we can improve those purposeful activities. As you know I was responsible when I was Education Secretary for working with the then Home Secretary to transfer issues on literacy and numeracy, which are absolutely crucial to the avoidance of re-offending and to rehabilitation and, secondly, because I held the work brief at the time for setting in train the process of moving people into a situation of not only preparing for work but being able to reach out to employers with the help of the CBI, who have been very helpful on this, to actually get people into jobs and work links and the programmes that we put in place. Yes, that is more difficult, not less, if the prison is overcrowded and if it is more difficult to organise those purposeful activities then it makes it more difficult for prisoners to spend extra time out of their cells with safety.

  Q70  Miss Widdecombe: Is it also not true that you are operating on quite a narrow margin of staff, for example if there is a sudden post watch or something then an education class or a workshop session is likely to be closed down?

  Mr Blunkett: I think there are instances of that but I think we are working on adequate safety margins.

  Q71  Miss Widdecombe: You have talked about education in literacy and numeracy, would you not accept that the overwhelming majority, a big majority of people who come into prison have not actually led structured life styles and one of the most useful things you can do if you have them in prison for any length of time is to get them into the habit of an orderly working day, earning money from which deductions then have to be made before any of it is disposable. If so, would you agree there has been precious little progress to do that since 1997?

  Mr Blunkett: I would not accept there has been precious little progress because I think linked to the massive expansion of the literacy and numeracy programme last year—and I think the figure is 41,000—we are providing training places, and it takes time to do so because you have to establish the equipment and materials. I am very keen to expand faster the outreach that we have, where people are placed in work under secure and safe circumstances outside, the Press Association are doing it in Howden in Yorkshire, there are even a number of instances where horse race owners have been prepared to link into prisons so they can get experience in a purposeful way. I think that we need to do a lot more of that. We need employers to be prepared to embrace it.

  Q72  David Winnick: Martin Narey said as far as the overcrowding of prisons is concerned he told us that 22% of prisoners were sharing cells designed for one person and he did not expect to see this proportion significantly reduce in the next few years, that is a pretty dismal scenario, is it not?

  Mr Blunkett: Yes, it is. The juxtaposition of having expanded by 15,000 the number of places available in the last six years with replacing the stock that is unacceptable and expanding the stock to avoid doubling up in that way is quite a conundrum. I think the best thing politicians can do in these circumstances is to simply be honest about it. Expanding places we can fight for money for, replacing unacceptable conditions is something that I must fight for, replacing bad conditions, expanding the number of places and replacing doubling up is something that we have an aspiration for. I would say that there are not all that many—there are quite a few in this room—politicians standing up on Budget statements and at autumn Spending Reviews and demanding more spending in these areas, and regrettably neither are there in the public, so we are fighting on a sticky wicket.

  Q73  David Winnick: Your predecessor, not your immediate predecessor but your predecessor in the previous administration, proclaimed rather proudly that it would appear that prisons worked. Do you take the same view?

  Mr Blunkett: I think they do work for some people if the resources, the time, the activity in the prison, are geared to making it work, and above all are linked to proper transfer at the end of prison sentences so that there is a joined-up programme, hence the Criminal Justice Sentencing Bill with a new programme and Custody Plus, and why it is quite important to build confidence in the community around such programmes.

  Q74  Miss Widdecombe: I just want to press you slightly, Home Secretary, because you said, and I understand why you said it, that expanding places and trying to reduce doubling up and trying to make the conditions more acceptable is an aspiration. However, I cannot resist putting it to you that between 1993 and 1995 when the Prison Service expanded by almost 25%, that is the number of prisoners, and the actual budget per prisoner was cut, nevertheless in that period we managed to eliminate slopping out, to reduce doubling up from 21% to 17%, and it has effectively now gone right back to more than it was, and all that was achieved in a period of an expanding prison population. If the will is there, and I sympathise with you that the will is not always echoed all round the House, but if the will is there it can be done.

  Mr Blunkett: I am always willing to learn from your miracle touch.

  Miss Widdecombe: I was not in the service at the time.

  Q75  Bob Russell: That shows how good it was then.

  Mr Blunkett: I am risking my life and limb, but I would I would be very happy to have a private conversation with the honourable lady about what she picked up when she came in and what she thinks we might learn from it now.

  Q76  Miss Widdecombe: I will give you that private conversation any day. Home Secretary, have you considered, and if so in what depth, merging the Prison and Probation Services? Can you just tell us what you think would be the pluses and what would be the minuses?

  Mr Blunkett: I think there has been some caution in going down this road because it was only in the year 2000 that the National Probation Service emerged as a national service with coherence and consistency across the country and the establishment of the local service to match. Therefore, I think there has been a belief, quite correctly, that we should allow that to settle down and sort out where there are difficulties, and there have been in places like London because of the geography and the size of the areas. I think it is sensible for us to look at how closer integration of the two services can lead to major gains. I mentioned a moment ago in answering another question that it was important that we did not just deal with what was happening in prison but what was happening when people came out and I believe that that conjunction is absolutely vital to successful rehabilitation, therefore avoidance of reoffending. I would like to link that with community and voluntary organisations as well so, again, we are not just seeing this as a government programme. I think that there is a debate to be had around this but at the moment we are not in a position to go further than that, although we have been looking at the whole issue of how we inspect the services so that we can have a coherence about that as well.

  Q77  Miss Widdecombe: Thank you. Have you any comment to make on what the Chief Executive of the Probation Boards Association said at the beginning of August when he said that the Probation Service targets, after all those are set by politicians, were "crude and amateurish and threatened to distort its work"?

  Mr Blunkett: I think making demands on people, as I have found in previous ministerial roles, creates a reaction. I think it is beholden on ministers when they are putting in very substantial sums of money, when you see an expansion of 2,000 officers in the Probation Service, that we are able to measure whether we are seeing an improvement for that public investment. I think this is a big issue for public service. I challenge those who believe that the role of government is simply to put the money in and leave the service alone. We are the only way in which the public can demand value for money, we are the only way in which we can hold to account, and if we have sensible light touch approaches in terms of those targets nationally with underpinning targets within the service at regional, local level then we will get some sense out of it. Of course I do not accept that they are crude or whatever the other pejorative term was, but I am very happy for the Prisons Minister to meet the individual concerned so they can have an eyeball to eyeball at the same time as you and I are having one.

  Miss Widdecombe: Thank you.

  Q78  Bob Russell: Home Secretary, clearly suicides in prison must be an issue which causes you considerable concern. I believe the figures are that on average every week there are two suicides in our prisons. With that in mind, could you explain why the installation of safer cells, the programme, has been cut back? Last year 2,700 were installed whereas I believe in the current year only 800 are planned when all the evidence shows that safer cells, if not lead to no suicides then very few, if any.

  Mr Blunkett: Yes, there were 105 suicides last year and that is far too many. I believe that the programme that has been put in place alongside the expansion of safer cells, which I saw for myself only a week ago, which is the massive investment in better health and daycare facilities, in mental health provision and in detoxification, is the way forward linked to listening services, the mentors picking up the moment someone comes into prison or a young offenders institution, and it is often the younger people who are most at risk and it is often during the first few days that that pattern of self-harm is established. I think putting the resources as we are doing now with the Prison Health Service being funded from the Department of Health as from last April, who obviously have the resources, will make the difference. It is a matter of choosing at particular prisons which formula works best on the evidence of the nature of suicide, what has led up to it, the time that the individual has been in the institution and the judgment that is made on examining the suicide as to what might have stopped it.

  Q79  Bob Russell: A broad welcome to that response, Home Secretary. If I could just go back to the point that last year 2,700 safer cells were installed, this year it is proposed to be only 800. Would you ask your officials to look to see whether there could be a greater number installed in remand prisons with predominantly young males, which I believe is the area of most concern and the increase in the level of suicides?

  Mr Blunkett: I will happily do that because obviously I will want to check the circumstance in terms of which priority should be invested in most quickly. When I went to Feltham two weeks ago, I was impressed with the way in which their wholly new facilities have transformed what was previously available and the risk that went with it. We should be mindful of improvements needed but we should also be celebrating some of the very substantial improvements that have taken place.

  Bob Russell: Thank you, Home Secretary.

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