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Another thing that voluntary organisations seem better placed to do is allow offenders themselves to play a part in determining strategies that would work for them as individuals. Rather than operating a set programme, such organisations have long discussions with offenders. They tolerate the occasional lapse. When they work in partnership, which is happening increasingly in Bristol, they can provide an integrated package of interventions and support dealing with addictions in prison and on release, accommodation and employment problems, family relationships, mental health and debt—all factors that contribute to
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the revolving-door lifestyle, which NOMS has already identified in its action plan as being particularly important.

I mentioned family relationships. Over the past year or so, I have had some dealing with Action for Prisoners’ Families, and I commend it for its work. I think most people would agree that an important element in the prevention of reoffending, particularly among those who have served short sentences, is the maintenance of a stable and secure family life to which offenders can return. If an offender’s family has not disintegrated or turned its back on him, that will be a key factor in putting him back on the straight and narrow.

I recently visited Ashfield young offenders’ institution, which is just outside Bristol. I talked to very young men from broken homes, who were due to be released within the next two or three weeks and had nowhere to go. They did not even know which city they would be going to. Some had come from as far away as London. As for their family homes, they were the last places in the world where one would want them to go. If there were more organisations working with young offenders and giving them a helping hand when they leave such institutions, they would stand a better chance of not becoming involved in crime and not falling in with the wrong people again.

Those who read the “Society” section of The Guardian—I am sure that that now includes many Opposition Members—

David T.C. Davies: Not me.

Kerry McCarthy: Apparently it does not include all of them. Anyway, last week “Society” announced the “public servant of the year” awards. One of the awards was won by a Bristol-based community liaison officer from Avon’s fire and rescue service, Allan Middleton. He has set up a fire cadets’ scheme at Ashfield. He said that the scheme was not so much about teaching youngsters firefighting skills—although that too is important—as about building respect and establishing positive role models. He said that all the young offenders with whom he had worked had poor self-esteem and low expectations of life. That is just one example of an imaginative approach to working with young offenders that is not provided through the established channels.

Each year that passes, however, sees good initiatives like that fail through lack of Government funding. That is why the voluntary sector does not consider the current regime sufficient to meet all its aspirations, and that is why bodies such as the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, NACRO, Turning Point and Crime Concern welcome the Bill so much.

Mr. Sutcliffe: When we talk of the voluntary sector, we talk of professionalism in that sector. While volunteers are important and it is great that we have them, many people in the sector are professional in terms of their careers and in terms of what they do.

Kerry McCarthy: It is not just that they are professional. Believe, for example, is run by a former Army officer with a lengthy history of working in such
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projects, but people are also incredibly passionate and dedicated. The caricature that presents people as embarking on such work solely for profit is completely wrong.

The voluntary sector has notified me of some concerns which I hope the Bill will address. There is, for instance, a fear that the commissioning process may favour larger charitable organisations, which are seen as less of a risk. Some of those groups do excellent work, but it has been suggested to me that some may have lost the desire for innovation and the passion that I mentioned earlier, and may not create genuinely new solutions. There is also a fear that funds will be given to quasi-voluntary sector organisations emanating from probation or to the private sector, which might also be seen as less of a risk.

If a commitment is made to funding a voluntary sector organisation, the funding must be on a sufficiently long-term basis to ensure that the organisation is given a chance to succeed. Small organisations simply do not have the reserves to survive constant changes in commitment. It would be hugely damaging if they started to work successfully with groups of offenders only to have their budgets cut, so that they could not continue their work. There needs to be a clear commitment to funding innovation. The acceptance that there will be some risk must be accompanied by the understanding that profoundly better solutions to seemingly intractable problems will emerge.

I myself feel that it is important for voluntary sector organisations not to become completely absorbed into the mainstream. I think that one of the key reasons for their success is that offenders do not see them as part of the establishment.

Finally, I want to mention a family with whom I came into contact many years ago. I have kept in touch with their progress over the years. There were nine boys in the family. Both their parents were alcoholics, and anyone would describe their home lives in a tiny council house as dysfunctional. Only one of those nine boys remained clear of crime and drugs throughout his life. The other eight, one by one, grew up to acquire lengthy criminal records and hard-drug habits, fathering children and wrecking the lives of young women along the way. Two are already dead through heroin overdoses.

I cite that family not as an example of something that has gone wrong—although something has obviously gone incredibly wrong throughout their lives—but because two of the brothers eventually got their lives together. One is actually studying to become a probation officer. It would have been easy to write off the whole family and dismiss them as a lost cause that the criminal justice system could only punish, not rehabilitate. But two of them managed to pull themselves out of the depths into which they had sunk. The reason they give is not anything that happened to them during their passage through the penal system or their support from probation, but the support that they received from others outside the establishment—people who they felt really cared about how their lives turned out. I believe that many such individuals could be helped in a similar way through involvement with the voluntary sector, as opposed to state institutions.

This is not about being soft on crime or criminals. It is not in any way about excusing their actions, or giving greater priority to them than to the victims of their
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crimes. It is simply a hard fact that if we want to bring down crime rates, protect the public and make our streets and communities safer, the temporary incapacitation of criminals is not the solution. Protection of the public is best achieved by ensuring that those who are released from prison will not offend again. We must look beyond what we have tried to do in the past, and think of imaginative ways of achieving that aim.

6.49 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I do not welcome the Bill at all, but I do welcome much of what the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) said about the work of the voluntary sector. My initial question is this: if we are to broaden the partnership between the probation service and the voluntary sector, do we need this Bill? I do not think that we do. The Minister referred to resettlement, but I am unsure whether we need the Bill for that either. Let me give him an example why. The National Assembly for Wales has made those who have just come out of prison the No. 1 priority in the allocation of public sector housing. That is not primary legislation; it is subordinate. Although I am talking about a part of the proposed legislation that I might be able to accept, I do not think that a justification for the Bill lies in the resettlement point, as that can be done by subordinate legislation in any case.

I have another question: what do classroom assistants, police community support officers and voluntary bodies delivering legal advice have in common? The answer is that each of them is an attempt to provide a service on the cheap. If that is what the Bill seeks to do, its outcomes are doomed to failure. We heard from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), among others, about the savings that are envisaged in the regulatory assessment—some £625 million. We also know that contestability is nothing short of privatisation. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head, but I heard the Home Secretary talk earlier about more voluntary sector involvement. That is fine, and I dare say that every probation officer would be happy to have more involvement with the voluntary sector. What the Minister said in a recent intervention is right. It is also my experience that the voluntary sector is very professional and has a high degree of expertise, and that is all to the good, but people are gravely concerned that the large companies that are now involved in this area will sweep up the market.

The key question is whether profit-making organisations deliver the best possible service—in the prison sector, I do not think so. I will not go on about that, although I could give plenty of examples. I shall, however, point out what has happened since the carriage of prisoners from prisons to Crown courts was privatised. In the old days, if a prisoner arrived an hour late, the judge would go spare and would ask to see the senior officer, and the senior officer would then report back to the prison, and that would not happen again. Let me tell Members what can happen nowadays, by recounting an experience that I had last year. A prisoner came half a day late to the Crown court, and the officer concerned would not even present himself in chambers to be questioned about what had happened.
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That is the level of accountability now in that area, and it is absolutely disgraceful. If the Bill is enacted in its present form, it will only make matters worse.

There is another question that must be asked: why are the workers in public sector prisons not allowed to tender for some work on an equal footing with those in private organisations? I was told by the Home Secretary that there is no impediment, but, with respect, there is. I am not saying that the right hon. Gentleman meant to mislead, but I am putting on the record that there is such an impediment. That has been raised with me by the Prison Officers Association—by no less a person than Colin Moses, the chairman. Therefore, I ask that question.

In common with many Members, I have over past months tabled reams of questions about the National Offender Management Service—about how it will pan out and how it will look on the ground. Half, if not three quarters, of those questions are unanswered, because we simply do not know. We are treading on dangerous ground, particularly with such a justice forum, as Ministers do not yet know how things will pan out.

I listened intently to the comments of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood). He has experience in this field, and he is greatly concerned about the evidential base for the legislation. I do not understand why probation boards have to be abolished and replaced by trusts. The Home Secretary said in opening the debate that the trusts will be made up of people from business. I am unsure whether people from business are aware of the needs and other issues involved in resettling criminals—in assisting their rehabilitation and so forth. People from business look at the bottom line—at the costs. I repeat what I said earlier: the measures under discussion cannot be implemented on the cheap; otherwise they will be doomed to failure from day one.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The probation trusts will not be made up only of business people. We are trying to get a wide representation of the local community. The membership of the current boards is quite narrow, in that members must be magistrates or from specific areas of the criminal justice system. We want to broaden that out, because we think that tackling reoffending is a matter for all parts of our communities, and not just the narrow criminal justice sector.

Mr. Llwyd: I accept what the Minister says, but my understanding is that it will no longer be necessary for sentences, for example, to be a matter for trusts; they can be, but I would have thought that they jolly well should be a central and core element, in respect of both Crown court judges and lay magistrates alike. Departing from that could be a recipe for disaster.

We know that there will be contracting out of probation services, and—to repeat something that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said—I am not averse to greater involvement of the voluntary sector, many of whose staff are experts and are well versed in many aspects of the work required. However, I do not see why we need such a wholesale series of measures as are in the Bill in order to achieve that.

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I cannot address the issue that we are discussing without raising sentencing policy. I echo something that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said: we cannot discuss this issue without looking at what is currently happening in the prisons. The first question I pose is whether we, the inhabitants of the British isles, are so intrinsically bad that we must lock up many more people per capita than our European neighbours. Some might say so, but it is a serious and proper question to ask. It is especially apposite since we have had prison overcrowding every year since 1994—that is according to Home Office figures. Over the past year, more than half of all prisons have been overcrowded—that is taken from the NOMS monthly bulletin from January.

I recall serving on the Standing Committee of the Crime (Sentences) Bill in 1997—some 10 years ago. I said then that as a direct result of that proposed legislation there would be a substantial influx of new prisoners, and that if the Bill was to make any sense at all it would have to be matched by a large increase in prison places. To many Members at that time that seemed self-evident, but very little provision was made and the situation was, indeed, exacerbated by that legislation.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): As the hon. Gentleman will remember, shortly before then many of us criticised the former Administration for reaching the milestone of 50,000 prisoners. It is interesting to reflect on that today. That is what we used to criticise the former Conservative Government for. The fact is that the depth of the problem with this Bill lies in the fact that it is based on the foundation belief that building more prisons and more prison places is a proper system in a modern society.

Mr. Llwyd: I absolutely agree, and I shall come on to that point shortly. The current figure is just over 80,000, which is considerably higher of course.

A complicating feature is that criminal justice in general, and sentencing in particular, are, and always have been, political footballs. Every now and again, Conservatives and Labour get into a bidding war about how to be more beastly to offenders—and that is normally to the background of the tabloid drumbeat. However, if the whole question were depoliticised as far as one can imagine possible, the system could be greatly improved for the benefit of society and the taxpayer.

Mention has been made on more than one occasion of the figures produced by Government in support of this proposed legislation. I agree with what has been said by several Members in our debate: the figures are not accurate, and if they are inaccurate one has to ask how the Government will bring the proposals forward. The Home Secretary claimed on 7 November that about 60 per cent. of offenders on probation re-convict within two years, and that the figure is similar to that applying to those leaving prison. That is not true. The 60 per cent. figure was unadjusted—the true figure for probation reoffending is nearer to 35 to 40 per cent., which is very different from the one that the Home Secretary gave by way of justification. I do not want to go over old ground, but I should point out that past dossiers have contained inaccuracies. One of the core justifications for this measure has been proven to be inaccurate, and that really concerns me.

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David T.C. Davies: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that even the adjusted figure is not correct? Such figures take into account people who have reconvicted within two years, and the important word to bear in mind is “reconvicted”. There are many more people who commit offences within that two-year period, but who, because of the nature of the offences—which might well be serious—are not convicted of them within the two-year period. They are not classified as recidivists, so the adjusted figure will always be higher than the figure that the Government give us.

Mr. Llwyd: Except that the adjusted figure is the same across probation and non-probation, which tends to answer the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Many people throughout the criminal justice system have concluded that for a lot of offenders—clearly not all—prison simply does not work. The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) mentioned part of the Carter report, and I referred to another part of it that was at direct variance with what he said; no doubt he and I picked up on what was convenient to us. However, the report concluded that a 22 per cent. increase in the prison population since 1997 is estimated to have reduced crime by around 5 per cent. It stated:

There we have it.

David T.C. Davies: The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way; I appreciate that. The report does say that, but he must accept that it also says, on page 15, that if we could identify the 100,000 persistent offenders—85,000 of whom are not in prison—which we can, crime would be drastically reduced, by as much as 50 per cent.

Mr. Llwyd: I will refer to page 15 of the report, and I will also refer the hon. Gentleman to the conclusion; we will have to beg to differ on this one.

I ask Members to tell me who said this:

The answer is the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who was Home Secretary at the time. In other words, surprisingly, that was an ex cathedra statement—one made by him during a debate in the Commons, when he was very much in harness. There we have it: the then Home Secretary says that prison does not work, so why are we stuffing prisons with people? That is a good question, and I do not know the answer. I should like the Minister to say whether there is a sensible answer, and if there is, may I have it?

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