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Mr. Clarke: Despite the negative tone adopted by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), I agree with a great deal of what he had to say. The cost of failure is, of course, the key point—by the way, the cost is the result not only of this Government, but of decisions made in past decades and centuries. Every time that we fail to rehabilitate somebody, the cost of failure to society as a whole—let alone to the individual, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said—is massive.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to identify the massive issues around the people who are in our criminal justice system. The Government are committed to education and health, and the least educated and least healthy people in the whole population are those within the criminal justice system—as the right hon. Gentleman has said, the issues include illiteracy, innumeracy, drug abuse, alcohol abuse and mental health.

Why have we not succeeded in conquering that problem? In my opinion, it is because we have been insufficiently systematic and rigorous, insufficiently determined to focus on the individual circumstances of each offender and insufficiently ready to form a partnership among all agencies. The essence of the right hon. Gentleman's criticism is that not enough has been done to deal with those questions, which is a criticism of the record rather than of this five-year strategy. He is entitled to make that criticism, but I am entitled to say that the result of years of neglect of the prison and probation system is that we have a long way to go to resolve the matter.

I acknowledge the difficulties and say that we must do two things: first, we must focus on individual offenders and implement regimes to get them to go straight; and secondly, we must build a partnership with a more diverse range of providers and other agencies to achieve the changes set out in the strategy. I hope that we will have the support of the right hon. Gentleman's party.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): The vision is correct, but the challenge is implementation. Will my right hon. Friend rule out the possibility that vital decisions about the supervision and management of dangerous sex offenders could in the future pass into the hands of private companies? A Minister confirmed that that is a possibility in the Home Affairs Committee last autumn. The introduction of commissioning may centralise funds at least at a regional level, but many hon. Members believe that greater flexibility is needed on the front line to ensure that support for individual offenders is tailored to their needs, the challenges that they pose and the communities in which they live.

Mr. Clarke: I agree with my right hon. Friend that the challenge is implementation. His Committee has taken a consistent interest in the subject, and I hope that we can work together on implementing the strategy.
 
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I agree with my right hon. Friend that we must ensure that the people who are most dangerous to society are under our control in prison. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) has identified some of the weaknesses in our regime, and we must resolve those issues in the public sector.

Finally, I also agree with my right hon. Friend that flexibility on the front line is the key issue. Candidly, I do not believe that the relationship between prisons, probation and other services such as education and health and local employers is as strong as it needs to be in communities in Norwich, Southampton and up and down the country.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I welcome the thrust of today's announcement and the Home Secretary's courtesy in providing an advance of copy of the statement.

The Home Secretary is right to say that we are sending too many people to prison, and I welcome the fact that he had the courage to say so. He will know that Liberal Democrat Members have long supported the principle that offenders should be required to pay back their communities for crimes that they have committed. However, the Home Secretary has had time since 1997 to make inroads into this problem, and several important studies have not been acted upon. Can he tell the House whether he intends to implement the recommendations made by the social exclusion unit in 2002, when it called for an increase in the discharge grant and the prioritisation of ex-prisoners on local authority lists? Can he explain why no action was taken on that?

Will the Home Secretary now implement the recommendations of the Home Office review of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which has been neglected and ignored since 2002? Does he accept that the disclosure rules have left thousands of ex-offenders in a Catch-22 situation whereby they cannot get work and therefore resort to further crime? Finally, if the Secretary of State is committed to ending the scandal of prison overcrowding, why did he abandon the commitment made by his predecessor to cap the prison population at 80,000?

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Lady raises five points. I generally welcome the approach that she has taken.

On the discharge grant, we are discussing with the Department for Work and Pensions whether we can get a better situation as regards the benefits for people leaving prison. On housing, I agree with the hon. Lady that there are serious issues about housing discontinuities. We are discussing with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and housing organisations how best to deal with that. We are also considering issues to do with the rehabilitation of offenders.

I do not accept that the disclosure rules are the problem in respect of ex-offenders being unable to get work; in fact, the reverse is true. Many employers are ready to give work to ex-offenders, but we have not succeeded in engaging with them properly to provide the necessary pathways. We will of course work on that.

On the hon. Lady's final point, for too long our policies in this area have been driven by a discussion about the size of the prison population. In my opinion,
 
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prison should be used where it is needed for dangerous prisoners, and we should proceed on that basis. Community sentences should be built up to work in a tough and effective way where they are needed. The process is not helped by picking a relatively arbitrary figure and saying that it is the appropriate size for the prison population.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that public confidence might increase if the public felt that they had a more direct input into recommending or designing the punishment project so that it was more relevant to local communities? Given that it is punishment, should not there be a prompt and visible consequence for non-compliance, no matter what the excuse?

Mr. Clarke: I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and I am grateful to him for raising the point in that way. My view is that unpaid work should be a much higher component in community sentencing than is sometimes the case, that a wide range of potential providers of unpaid work can resolve the issues, and that that unpaid work should be highly visible in a particular locality. We have seen in other countries that the visibility of unpaid work is an important component of the community sentence. We have to be far more ambitious, as is set out in the document, in providing better ways of dealing with that.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Is it not the case that this Government started by talking tough on prison and failing to make the necessary accommodation available, and are now, confronted by the consequences of that failure, shifting the emphasis to community sentencing without making available the resources that might make that work? Would it not be better if the Home Secretary, instead of reannouncing shallow initiatives that enable him to go on to the "Today" programme and pretend that he is taking effective action, simply rolled up his sleeves and got down to the hard graft of making the present system work?

Mr. Clarke: I am always grateful for the comments of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, with his experience in these areas, but with respect I think that he is entirely wrong.

We have to look at the people who are in prison today and consider whether prison is the right place for them. I cite foreign national prisoners—more than 10,000 of them. Is it right that they should be in British prisons rather than in their own countries? I cite remand prisoners. Is it right that they should be in prison rather than being in the courts and moving more quickly through the process? I cite mentally ill prisoners, where there are serious issues about their mental heath care. I cite prisoners on very short sentences caught in the revolving door, where our failure—I acknowledge that word to the right hon. and learned Gentleman—to provide credible and effective community sentences has meant that we cannot do what is needed for those people in the best possible way.

I am not telling the right hon. and learned Gentleman that everything has been got right—I do not think that. I do think, however, that it is fundamentally wrong
 
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simply to say that the current system is basically okay and we should work a bit harder at it. We have to focus on every offender and build genuine and diverse partnerships.


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