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11.17 am

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Taylor, and to the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) for securing the debate on this important subject. I shall not speak for long, but I want to put a couple of things on the record and ask the Minister some questions.

First, I should say that our courts must be seen to be dispensing fair and even-handed justice. I hope that we would all agree on that. Judges are obliged to pass sentence in accordance with guidelines in order to ensure consistency in punishment. As a nation, we have held that close to us for many a year. If two offenders who have committed the same offence in identical circumstances can be given vastly disparate sentences based solely on political pressures, such as prison overcrowding, clearly justice will not be seen to be served.

I would be grateful if the Minister told us what evidence his Department has that judges were failing to follow the guidelines, as we are told that it prompted the recent letter from the Home Secretary. Will the Minister also tell us how many times in the past 10 years, and when, Home Secretaries have written to judges to remind them of sentencing guidelines? As it happens, I have tabled parliamentary questions to obtain the answers, but I would be grateful if the Minister would spend a moment answering those points. He adequately answered all of our questions in the Chamber last week, and my colleagues and I are enormously grateful for his time and tolerance in dealing with them.

It would also be helpful if the full text of the Home Secretary’s letter were put in the Library, if that has not yet been done. I personally have not received a copy of it and I would like to see it. His letter dealt another serious blow to the morale of police forces across the country. That is particularly so in Norfolk, but I imagine that forces throughout the country are dismayed by what is happening. Despite facing cuts in numbers, Norfolk constabulary continues to do all it can to find and arrest those who have committed crimes. Officers are furious that they risk seeing many of those that they have arrested walk away from court, despite the fact that, under normal circumstances, those found guilty would face custodial sentences.

What message does the current saga send to our police forces? They rightly feel that they have again been badly let down by the Government. Most importantly, what message does the current saga send to criminals and those who have received lighter sentences as a result of the Home Secretary’s interference? We need some straight answers to those questions because we are in a difficult position. As the hon. Member for Teignbridge said, we face a serious situation and we owe it to our constituents—they rightly raise those subjects week in, week out, at our surgeries—to feel safe in their own homes and, most importantly, to know that the judicial system in this country and our sentencing regime are fit for purpose. If that means prison overcrowding, we must consider proper funding for more prisons to cope with it. I am sure that the Minister takes the matter seriously and I hope that he will respond to some of my points.

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11.21 am

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I begin by posing a question: are we, the inhabitants of the British Isles, so intrinsically bad that we must lock up many more people per capita than our European neighbours? Some hon. Members might say yes, but the question is a proper one. It is especially apposite since we have had prison overcrowding every year since 1994, according to Home Office digest 4, which was published in 1999. However, I differ slightly from the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) in not laying all the blame at the door of the Home Office, because the problem has been going on for a long time.

I shall ask one or two questions and suggest one or two ideas that may find favour with the Home Office. Over the past year or so, more than half of prisons have been overcrowded according to the National Offender Management Service’s bulletin of January 2006. The problem is long standing and I recall serving on the Standing Committee of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, 10 years ago, and saying that as a direct result of that legislation everyone knew that there would be a substantial influx of new prisoners and that if the Bill was going to make any sense it would have to be matched with a substantial increase in prison places. That was evident to many of us, but very little provision was made and the situation was exacerbated by further legislation.

I venture to suggest that one of the complicating features is that the criminal justice system in general and sentencing in particular is and always has been a political football. Every now and then, the Tories and Labour get into a bidding war about how to be beastly to offenders and that is normally to the background music of the tabloid drumbeat. If the matter were depoliticised—if that is possible—the system could be greatly improved for the benefit of society and, crucially, the taxpayer. Terrence Grange, chief constable of Dyfed-Powys Police put it very well when he said:

Many of those involved in the criminal justice system have long concluded that for the vast majority of offenders prison simply does not work. Even before the 2003 Carter report, it was clear that policy was wrongly directed. That report was stark in its findings and said that a 22 per cent. increase in the prison population since 1997 is estimated to have reduced crime by around 5 per cent. The report concluded:

Indeed, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) said:

Surprisingly, that was not an ex cathedra statement, but was made during a debate on the Floor of the House when the right hon. Gentleman was very much in harness. If that was the Home Office’s thinking then, what has happened since? Not a lot, to use a phrase.

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Two contrasting factors continue to predominate: the political imperative to which I alluded, and the fact that the vast majority of prisoners—67 per cent.—are reconvicted within two years of release. The figure for prisoners between the ages of 18 and 21 in Wales is 78 per cent. according to Home Office digest 2005, which gave results from the 2002 cohort. If there were a complete change of heart about custody it would be like an ocean-going vessel, which takes a long time to stop or turn round. The rehabilitation element of prison is severely undermined by gross overcrowding and by cutbacks in training and education, which may contribute to the statistics. It is becoming plain that if prison does not make a real difference to an individual's life chances on release, it is merely an expensive revolving door that is costly to society and useless to the offender.

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman refers to overcrowding and its impact on the ability to rehabilitate offenders. Does he realise the scale of that overcrowding? The certified normal accommodation at Swansea prison is 240 places, its operational capacity is 428, its current population is 428, so it is overcrowded by 178 per cent. Many other prisons are in exactly the same position with nearly double their capacity.

Mr. Llwyd: To make matters worse, the worst overcrowding is often in old Victorian prisons. I have visited many of them professionally and the position is often dire.

I shall speak briefly about the situation in Wales and the need for another prison facility. I am not a “lock ‘em up” person, but there is, sadly, a need for such a facility for north and mid-Wales. The Minister will know about the current discussions and the unhappiness, particularly among the North Wales Criminal Justice Board partnership. It is desperately unhappy about another prison in south Wales, which would leave north Wales without any kind of facility.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge mentioned the crucial drugs issue. We all know that two thirds of property crime is drugs-related in some way, so it is clear that prisons should have a considerable drugs rehabilitation capacity. That is nowhere near true and the stark fact is that it is easy to obtain illicit drugs in prison. An offender sentenced to 12 months or less is unlikely to receive any drug rehabilitation treatment while serving their sentence.

The situation is sporadic, and there are beacons of good practice here and there in the prison system. The drug rehabilitation scheme at Altcourse prison, in Liverpool, is an interesting initiative. Its supported detox programme is aimed at new admissions who are identified as needing assistance with withdrawing from drugs, including alcohol. The programme lasts 14 days and is based on a gradually reducing dosage of medication. It requires prisoners to participate in various activities, such as drug and alcohol misuse groups and healthy living and relaxation classes. A qualified substance misuse nurse is based at the unit to provide ongoing support, including advice on harm reduction, hepatitis B and C, HIV, diet and healthy living. Crucially, however, that support is also available when offenders are released from prison. That initiative could well be followed elsewhere.

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If prisons are to be made “fit for purpose”, to quote the Home Secretary, we need to have a fundamental rethink about issues such as who should go to prison, mental health facilities, drugs intervention programmes, education and training and, crucially, reducing overcrowding. There is a vast amount of work to be done, and I repeat that it is not all down to the Home Secretary, but the clock is ticking. We require something to be done fairly quickly, because prisons are a powder keg at the moment, and there will be problems sooner or later with inmates attacking each other and staff.

As I said, there is a vast amount to be done, but many of us believe that the National Offender Management Service will not be of much assistance. Clearly, we cannot run the prison service on the cheap; if we do, the current wasteful spiral will continue unabated, with awful results.

Like many others, I believe that there must be a complete and detailed overhaul of prisons and our approach to the prison population. For many months, if not years, I and others have called for a full audit of the prison population because many thousands of people undoubtedly should not be in prison. Such people may have alcohol or drug addiction problems, may not be dangerous to the public and may well require medication and back-up support when they come out of prison. Such an audit is the way forward; without it, we will perpetuate the current revolving-door policy, which is no use to individuals or society and which is ultimately extremely expensive.

Incidentally, that view is supported by Lord Woolf, who, according to TheTimes of 29 January, urged the Home Secretary to adopt the

That cannot be done overnight; if it were, there would complete anarchy on the streets—that is patently obvious to all. However, that call should be heeded, and urgent work should be done on the issue. Indeed, the Minister may advise us that work is being done, and that news would be gratefully received.

The call to look again at non-custodial sentences and at decreasing the current prison population has been supported by Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. As we know, non-custodial sentences can be just as effective as custodial sentences, and they can also be made socially and politically acceptable. If we had a mature debate, as opposed to the current hanging and flogging discourse, we could tell the public that non-custodial sentences were, for example, cost-effective, that they were a form of redress in which the transgressor gave something back to the transgressed and that they were far more effective at addressing reoffending. The widespread use of properly structured and supervised community sentences would take great pressure off the prison estate. Surely, the public would buy those arguments; if they were properly put, common sense dictates that people would accept them.

I endorse the comments that the present Lord Chief Justice made in his recent paper “Alternatives to Custody—the Case for Community Sentencing”, which was issued by Oxford university. I also applaud the recent experiment in which he spent time at the coal face, as it were, with people on non-custodial sentences. In his report, there is vital sentence:

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I recently attended a short conference held by the Coalition on Social and Criminal Justice, and the coalition’s wholehearted endorsement of the greater use of community penalties is welcome. In particular, its local partnership approach to bringing in social services, the probation service, the health service and magistrates is a helpful contribution to the debate. However, such suggestions presuppose that there is adequate investment in the probation service, because it is key that we have properly trained probation officers in the field.

When I began as a young and, I hope, idealistic solicitor in north Wales in the early 1970s, there were four probation officers in my local town of Dolgellau. Now, however, their work is done by one probation officer, who is situated 50 miles away. Of course, less work may now be going through the magistrates court, but those probation officers worked tirelessly with individuals and achieved great results. I saw young people who had offended and who were at a crossroads in their lives. I also saw dedicated probation officers working with those young people and disciplining them, but they also befriended them.

Now, those same ex-offenders are respected members of the community and proud parents and grandparents; they hold down good jobs and are on town and community councils. I shudder to think what would have happened to them if they had offended now, rather than then. Would they have gone to a young offenders institution? Would they have taken the wrong route at that crossroads in their lives? Sadly, I think that the answer is yes, and it gives me no pleasure at all to say so.

We therefore need far greater investment in the probation service to make sure that it is there not only to discipline people and ensure that community penalties are properly carried out, but to befriend people and provide back-up with other agencies so that medical health, mental health and/or drug problems can be addressed by other colleagues.

Finally, let me say a word about the ongoing debate about the need for a prison facility for north Wales. I began arguing the case for such a facility back in the early 1990s, when I was first elected. That was not because I wanted to send more people to prison, but because, at any given time, about 650 or 750 people from north and mid-Wales are held in Manchester, Shrewsbury, Liverpool and beyond. That is wrong in principle because a person who is in custody or on remand is entitled to be a reasonable travelling distance from his or her family. Indeed, it is part of rehabilitation to maintain good family ties and ties with friends.

I might also mention the Human Rights Act 1998, although that might annoy the Minister—the last time I referred to it, he got up and started insulting me, calling me a little backwoods solicitor who knew nothing about human rights. As it happens, I am a member of the Bar—not that it helps me very much.

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): Oh!

Mr. Llwyd: I thought that I would get that insult in before the Minister gave it to me. However, on a serious point, we are all becoming more aware of human
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rights, and there is an important human rights point here. It is unreasonable for friends and relatives to have to travel half a day to a prison facility and half a day back, because they are less likely to maintain contact with those who are on remand or in custody. I therefore seriously urge the Minister to enter that debate.

There has been talk of a prison facility coming to Wales, but the talk is about south-east Wales. As we know, however, south Wales already has Parc prison near Bridgend, Swansea prison to the west, Cardiff prison and the prison at Newport. All those prison facilities are within easy travelling distance of the M4. There is nothing in mid-Wales and north Wales. It is wrong, if a prison facility is to come to Wales, for it to be situated anywhere but in north Wales, to serve north and mid-Wales. It is an important point and I urge the Minister to deal with it. I know that the National Offender Management Service and the criminal justice partnership in Wales are unhappy about it. I ask the Minister whether he will think about the situation and consider whether he can lend his support to the establishment of a prison facility in north Wales.

Incidentally, the talk is of a prison facility in Cwmbran on the site of the old police college, which of course is owned by the Home Office. The local Member of Parliament is the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who is adamantly against such a facility. He, in fairness to him, pleads the case for a facility in north Wales. I should be much obliged if the Minister dealt with this matter when he responds.

11.40 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on giving the House an opportunity to discuss an extremely topical and worrying area of Government policy. Let us after all remember that what brings us here this morning is a state of affairs in which the Home Secretary is reduced to writing to judges reminding them of the political need to do their best not to send to prison serious offenders who in the past, or in different circumstances, might well have been given a custodial sentence. I agree with what other hon. Members have said, including the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), who asked what that approach tells the police force who work bravely and tirelessly to catch and convict criminals, and what it tells the criminals; the latter now realise that the Government’s mismanagement of the situation has made justice arbitrary—a moving target—so that their sentencing expectations depend on the ability of the Home Office to predict and provide prison places, something it has been shown to be incapable of doing.

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