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I have some sympathy with the Minister. I am not sure that everyone in debates such as this sets out with that viewpoint, but I think that he is a victim of a style of government pioneered by the Labour party after it won the 1997 general election. Almost 10 years into that period of government, we can make a mature assessment of how effective new Labour has been at reinventing the way in which the country is governed. One of the greatest failings and the commonest traits of the Labour party in government is the confusion of media stunts and talking about effective action with carrying out effective action. The greatest myth that needs to be exposed about the Labour party in
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government is that it is masterful in the black arts of media manipulation and presentation. Looking at each day’s headlines about the Home Office, I can only say that if that is a masterful display of media management I should not like to see a Government who were incapable of managing the media.

Yesterday’s Daily Express, for example, has the headline: “Now we let rapists and child sex offenders go free: Yet another scandal rocks beleaguered Home Office.” That kind of thing is in the newspapers every day. The Sun on the same day had the big headline: “Violence rockets in crowded jails”, with the subheading: “Reid’s brain is still missing”. That gives a flavour of the present situation. It is the Minister’s misfortune to have to come to the House and try to make the best of a bad job against such a background of criticism of his and his colleagues’ management of Home Office policy.

Like my party and I assume most hon. Members, I start from the belief that there is a legitimate and important place for prisons in our criminal justice system. First and most obviously, prisons are a punishment for people who have committed an offence and transgressed the rules of society in a particularly serious way; a prison sentence is thought appropriate in such cases to reflect the views of the public about what those people have done. Secondly, prison protects the public, in some circumstances. The person in prison may of course be a direct threat to wider society, so that it is in the interest of society to keep that person out of the main stream of interaction with other people. Thirdly, prison can serve as a deterrent, as can other forms of punishment.

All those are reasons for considering prison appropriate in some circumstances. I should not want anyone to think that my party does not want serious and in some cases persistent offenders to spend time in prison. It may be that people who have committed particularly abhorrent crimes should spend more time in prison than they now do. What horrifies so many people about the current state of affairs is the potential for some people who have committed serious crimes to spend less time in prison than they might, because of capacity being taken up by other people, some of whom might be better dealt with elsewhere in the criminal justice system. I start, therefore, from the assumption that prison is an important tool at the disposal of any Government in trying to enforce the collective rules of society.

We have, however, got into an extraordinary situation. It has been mentioned that the United Kingdom now has the highest rate of imprisonment per head of population in western Europe. The problem is acute. Reoffending seems to me to be an obvious measure of prison success, because it affects everyone. It is not just a matter of the well-being of the individuals concerned. It affects everyone in this Chamber, through the likelihood of our becoming victims of violent crime or having our houses burgled. It is of interest not only to those who follow criminal justice debates closely. Perhaps we might consider the reoffending rates in this country, which show that 82 per cent. of relevant teenage boys, 75 per cent. of burglars and 79 per cent. of thieves reoffend within two years. In our system, more than four out of five teenage boys who go to prison reoffend. That is not an abstract
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figure. It means that more than four out of five of those teenage boys commit crimes against my constituents and those of the other hon. Members present. More than 60 per cent. of prisoners are convicted again within two years of release. Reoffending is rife. We must ask why, and what we can do about it.

I suspect that one of the problems is that people in prison are not equipped to manage life outside prison when they leave. We are all familiar with cases of people who were persistent truants at school and perhaps left school prematurely, because their truancy had developed to such an extent that they were effectively no longer attending; people who cannot read or write properly or add up, and who have never held down a meaningful job or any job at all; people with no fixed abode, who may have all kinds of family background circumstances that make it hard for them to settle in mainstream society. Those people end up in prison. Prison becomes the dustbin for people who have not managed until then to succeed in any other part of society, or engage with public service provision.

Many such people spend a reasonably short time in prison; it is rare that their first serious offence is so serious that they are likely to spend decades there. Then they are released. It would take an extremely enlightened employer to choose from a competitive list of job applicants the person with an inability to read or write, who did not attend school properly as a teenager, has never done a job, did not have a fixed abode before going to prison and has just been released from prison.

The question is what can we do to deal with that malaise. More than half of men in prison—52 per cent.—and 71 per cent. of women, which is almost three quarters, have no formal qualifications. Some 65 per cent. of prisoners have a numeracy level below that of an 11-year-old child, and 82 per cent. have a writing ability below that expected of an 11-year-old child.

Currently, people are incarcerated for a period, after which they leave and we and the Government know that the expectation—it is not just a possibility—is that they are ill equipped to manage in society and will commit another offence. We let teenage boys out of prison with the expectation that we will welcome back more than four out of five of them, because the system will have failed to deal with the underlying causes of their offending. I want serious measures introduced to address that problem, and I shall return to that in my comments about possible solutions.

I talked about prison being a dustbin for people who are unable to manage in society. Some prisoners do not have mental health problems, but many do. One can bandy about different estimates, but about one in 10 prisoners has severe mental disorders. I am talking not about problems that are more easily treatable, but about severe mental disorders, and we must ask ourselves whether prison is conducive to treating and rehabilitating those people. How can we look after them better and try to help them while protecting the public? Is the place to do so a severely overcrowded prison? Most people would accept that it is not. People with severe drug addictions also often end up in prison, because no other service is likely to help them, and that fails the public at large, too.

Another category of people in prison is minor offenders. I accept that all crimes have victims, and that if one is a victim of crime involving such an offender, it
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may not feel like a minor offence. However, some people are going to prison at huge cost. The more secure prison places cost more than a year’s education at Eton, and we must ask ourselves whether that provides the taxpayer with value for money. Offenders go to prison at huge cost when we know that in more than four cases out of five, they are likely to return to prison. They may return again and again, and the sentences may stretch to longer and longer terms as they go to prison initially for minor offences, relative to other crimes, meet people who can teach them about more serious criminal activity, and fall into a life of more serious crime. We must try to break that spiral.

The final bleak assessment of the position into which the Government have managed to put this country concerns the amount of violence in prisons. It is a topical issue, because my party raised it only this week. Violence in prison has risen by an amazing 600 per cent. since Labour came to power. In 1996, the year before this Administration took office, there were 2,342 violent attacks in prison; in 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available, the number had risen to 13,771.

It is worth considering the breakdown of attacks against prison wardens. We owe a huge debt to people who work in difficult circumstances to protect the public. In 1996, there were 551 reported attacks; in 2005, the number had risen to 2,971. There are prisons in which drug taking is rife, and in many cases it can fuel violence. There is heavy overcrowding, with its resultant unease, and there is also violence not only from one offender to another, but against prison staff.

That is the state of prisons. I shall offer some thoughts about how we might address that sorry state of affairs. First, we must introduce more effective and secure mental health treatment. Huge numbers of prisoners suffer from mental health disorders. The statistics that one picks depend on how one measures the disorders, so people can offer whatever numbers they like. However, a sizable minority of prisoners suffer from severe mental disorders, and many more besides them suffer from lesser mental health problems. The Liberal Democrats argue that money must be put into finding more secure and semi-secure mental health treatment for offenders.

Richard Younger-Ross: Many speakers in the debate have used figures, but I shall cite a particular case. Erwin James, in his foreword to “Troubled Inside: Responding to the Mental Health Needs of Men in Prison”, wrote:

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be brief. I plan to call the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) at 12 o’clock.

Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge paints a bleak picture that I fear is all too typical of the experiences of people with mental health problems in prison today.

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My party would also increase the amount of drug treatment that is available. Some 66 per cent. of male and 55 per cent. of female sentenced prisoners have used drugs in the previous year. Drug taking is rife in prison, and the problem must be tackled.

I have talked about literacy and numeracy problems in prison. The large number of prisoners who have a background of debt is also a problem, as well as prisoners who were dependent on benefit payments before entering prison being, in many cases, ill equipped to adjust to a normal working and law-abiding life after they leave prison.

Community sentencing and restorative justice must be used more intelligently. I do not mean soft options about which the public despair because they regard them as an inferior punishment to prison, but properly supervised and visible work in the community. I would be happy to see people on community orders dressed in a uniform to demonstrate to the public that proper activity is being undertaken to contribute to society. I should also like people in prisons to do meaningful paid work through which they can relate their activities to rewards. Such activity would prepare them meaningfully for life outside, and it would contribute to the victims whom they harmed, or more widely to the society against which they transgressed.

This Government too often mistake talking tough on crime for acting effectively on crime. They too often think that eye-catching initiatives that are designed to win headlines in the next day’s newspapers are an alternative to long, carefully thought-through and properly and meticulously prepared policies and administration designed to protect the public. They too often think that a legislative frenzy in this House, designed to show activity and to try to reposition the Government favourably towards Opposition parties, is likely to protect people in my constituency and elsewhere. In prison policy, as in so much of the rest of the Home Office’s responsibilities, I am afraid to say that that approach has been found desperately wanting. It is time that we tried the more constructive and enlightened policies that I have outlined this morning.

11.59 am

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on initiating the debate. Since I am a friend of Jonathan Aitken, however, may I also invite the hon. Gentleman to recognise that the Erwin James quotation that he was trying to read into the record is in fact a quotation by Erwin James of Jonathan Aitken’s words, which were taken from his book about life inside prison? None the less, the facts lying behind the quotation are well worth bearing in mind when one considers an issue as difficult as prison overcrowding.

I want also to pay tribute to the contributions of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who is a noted contributor to debates on criminal justice, and I hope that his words have been listened to with care on this occasion, as they have on others, by those in the House and those on the Government Front Bench in particular. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) has a prison in his constituency—

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Mr. Fraser: Griston.

Mr. Garnier: It is in Griston, but it is called HMP Wayland and is named after Wayland wood, which I know very well. My hon. Friend pointed out with a great degree of accuracy the concerns that people have about the consequences of overcrowding in prisons, which ties into his plea for consistency in sentencing. That cannot be achieved if our prisons are overcrowded, the consequences of which are a demoralised public and a demoralised police force, who are doing their best to apprehend criminals and ensure that they are brought to justice.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) made, if I may say so, a speech that I could have made myself. Although much of what he said is uncontroversial—much of what I have said about prisons during the past 15 months or so is uncontroversial—it is difficult to get the Government to do anything more than say, “Yes, we hear what you say.” It is quite difficult to get the Government to deal with the facts and act on them. It is a pleasure, none the less, to have the Minister in our midst. Whether he has retaken this particular remit from the Home Office or he is merely substituting for the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), makes little difference to me. What is important is that he is here to respond to the debate. It is a debate to which we can give little justice in an hour and a half, but we must do our best.

Undoubtedly, overcrowding in the prison estate is one of the biggest problems facing the criminal justice system. At the moment, that system is probably at its lowest point in the public esteem and, within the whole criminal justice system, the prison system is in the most chaotic and troubled state. I am concerned that the inflated size of the prison population costs a fortune and causes difficulties by overburdening the prison estate. It inhibits the process of rehabilitation and thus also inhibits attempts to reduce reoffending, which are vital for an efficient criminal justice system and public safety.

Not only does overcrowding affect what I would call the regular criminal justice system but as we have learnt from the press today, it is affecting the Government’s ability to deal with illegal immigration. I make those remarks in the context of yesterday evening’s debate on the UK Borders Bill. According to today’s Daily Mail:

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The report says that an e-mail sent within the Home Office dated 17 January stated:

while another e-mail sent the following day adds:

The report continues:

destroyed the centre,

However, the e-mails that have been discovered

That shows how, as the Home Secretary tries to solve one problem, he only creates another.

The e-mails, which were sent to staff across the immigration and nationality directorate, sparked a degree of concern in the House last night. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who speaks for the Conservative party on immigration issues, said:

So we can see that overcrowding in the custodial system affects not just the criminal justice system, but the proper running of our immigration system.

I want to concentrate on one or two of the effects of overcrowding. It has a dramatic impact on the operation of both prisons and prisoners in relation to conditions; the ability of prison officers to work effectively; inmates’ access to educational and training programmes; the number of disruptive transfers; the success of and access to mental health treatment, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Taunton; drug and other vital rehabilitative programmes; and prison standards in general. The Prison Service business plan for the year 2006-07 describes clearly the impact of overcrowding on the prison estate, saying that

As the chief inspector of prisons said in her annual report, as long ago as 2004-05,

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