Previous Section Index Home Page

6 Feb 2007 : Column 230WH—continued

Only last month, we learnt that a wing in HMP Norwich that was emptied because it was unfit for human habitation has had to be refilled with prisoners.
6 Feb 2007 : Column 231WH
When prisoners were decanted from that wing, they were living in their own sewage. Of course, the Minister is not responsible for the direct day-to-day management of Norwich prison, but that example illustrates the hideous nature of the problem that we face because of the overcrowded prison population.

The prison estate is fit to accommodate approximately 79,500 individuals. As we know, it currently houses about 80,000. In addition, Operation Safeguard has had to be implemented, which allows the Home Secretary to keep prisoners in police station cells. We have seen the ridiculous farce of the Home Secretary having to negotiate the purchase of two prison ships, after his Government sold the last prison ship for something like £2 million—and they originally bought it for £10 million. I gather that they are having to buy one of those ships—I think it was HMP Weare—for something like the £10 million they originally paid for it.

We have seen not only a failure by the Government to plan sufficient accommodation to deal with the obvious consequences of their sentencing policies, but financial mismanagement, in that the Home Office, whose accounts have yet to be passed by the Comptroller and Auditor General, is piling further problems on an already stretched budget.

We see the Home Secretary turning disused mental hospitals in Liverpool into temporary prisons. We hear talk of him potentially using the police college in south Wales as a prison. We see also the constitutional problems, let alone the practical issues, that were revealed by the unedifying spectacle of Home Secretary having to plead with judges in mid to late January not to send to prison people who might in other circumstances be sent to prison, because of the overcrowded prison estate. I declare an interest in that context, in that I am a Crown court recorder and spend four weeks a year trying criminal cases with juries in London.

If we are to have both a criminal justice system and a Home Secretary whom the public can respect and have confidence in, it is essential that sufficient prison spaces are available for the consequences of the Government’s sentencing policy, so that it can be properly carried out. The Government have decided over the past 10 years that more people should go to prison for longer. They take great pride in the fact that the man in the saloon bar in Tunbridge Wells would be wholly satisfied with the tough attitude that they have taken towards penal policy.

Having demanded that Parliament should pass laws increasing the number of criminal offences—the Government have created about 1,000 new criminal offences since they came to office—and demanded that sentences for certain offences should increase, the Government then forgot to build or let contracts for the needed accommodation, despite the fact that civil servants in the Home Office predicted that if the policy were to continue, they would need 100,000 prison places by 2006. I accept that the Home Secretary said in October last year that he would ensure that there were 8,000 additional prison places by 2012. However, every prison place costs approximately £100,000 to
6 Feb 2007 : Column 232WH
build. Every adult prisoner in our prison system costs about £40,000 a year to house, while for the young offenders the cost is in the region of £75,000 a year.

The one problem is that, before the Home Secretary promised those additional prison places by 2012, he forgot to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s permission to spend the money, although he may have an understandable difficulty in asking the Chancellor such questions. We have a promise of 8,000 additional prison spaces by 2012, but we do not see the cheque from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to go with it. We have, if I may say so, an empty promise—or at least one that is unlikely to be fulfilled. That promise should be seen in the context of a Home Office official’s projection of a need for around 100,000 prison places by 2006, given the graph of the growing prison population. We are now in February 2007, and we see the Home Secretary scrabbling around and trying to find places here, there and everywhere, which leads to a ridiculous state of affairs.

However, we do not face just a ridiculous state of affairs, but a cruel and inhumane one. Most prisoners will at some stage in their lives be released. Very few people, such as the Yorkshire ripper, stay in prison for the whole of their natural lives. Yet we are not doing enough to ensure that those who will eventually be released to return to society will be in a fit state to become members of society. We put into prisons drug addicts, alcoholics, people suffering from mental illness and people who cannot read and write; and—surprise, surprise—as a consequence of prison overcrowding, people come out as drug addicts. Did you realise, Mr. Hood, that there is a thing in the prison system called the drug-free wing, into which prisoners can volunteer to go? If the public knew more about that, they would be a little noisier in complaining about the state of our prison system.

We put into prison people who are socially and economically inept and—surprise, surprise—we let them out again as socially and economically inept. We expect them not to reoffend, but if we put junk in, we will of course get junk out. They reoffend, and they do so in industrial quantities. Even the previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), said in a debate in the Commons in February 2005 that more than half of all crime is committed by people who have been through the criminal justice system before.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that his time is up and that it is for the Minister to come back.

Mr. Garnier: May I finish this sentence, Mr. Hood? Much of what I wanted to say is familiar—it was said in the Offender Management Bill Committee last week, and it has been said in other public places and by others today. I regret to say that the Government have a shameful record. I hope that the Minister will do rather more than simply say that the Government are doing their best, and will instead set out a practical programme of improvement to make our prisons better not only for the prisoners, but for us, who desperately need the security on our streets of having prisoners return to society and not reoffending.

6 Feb 2007 : Column 233WH
12.16 pm

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing this debate and, in general, on the way in which he and others dealt with what are serious issues. I am grateful for that, because we are not just talking about the immediacy of overcrowding in the prison estate, but taking in the fuller context, in terms of sentencing and many of the other social and economic issues to which he referred. It is important that we should consider penal policy generally in that regard. I do not want simply to repeat everything that the Government have been saying over the past few days, but it is important to put in context where we are at, much of which has been alluded to by the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members.

Public protection is our top priority and we have achieved a great deal since 1997. We have legislated to give the courts the powers that they need to ensure that the punishment is appropriate for the offender and the offence. We have introduced tough new laws on the sentencing of violent and sexual offenders, including new tariffs for murder, and longer maximum terms for knife and gun crime, and death by dangerous driving. There are now 7,000 more seriously violent offenders in prison than in 1997. In addition, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced indeterminate public protection sentences, which mean that dangerous offenders are kept in prison for as long as they are a danger to the public—indeed, in some cases they may never be released. Currently, 2,000 offenders are in prison on IPP sentences.

Having said that, I take the general thrust of hon. Members’ contributions that questions must constantly be asked about whether the right people are in prison for the right length of time and whether they are treated appropriately while there. We have toughened community sentences and made them much more flexible, to deal most effectively with non-dangerous offenders. They can be made to pay back to the local community for the damage they have done, through enforced unpaid work, and at the same be required to address their offending behaviour.

The general thrust of what hon. Members have said is right: we need to consider both those elements. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who perhaps needs to have a word with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and see what she is doing on social exclusion. All the points made about education, early intervention and people in the care system are entirely fair. My right hon. Friend was lampooned in the press for the saying that it is possible at an early stage to look at some young people’s profiles, in terms of family structure, socio-economic background and access to education, and plot out their future in the care system—excluded from school—and subsequently in the judicial and custodial system. I agree that there should be prevention at the early stages.

The courts and the probation service are now rigorously enforcing sentences and bail conditions. Interestingly, fine collection rates are up, although the use of fines as an instrument has gone down. Offenders who breach their community sentences or licence
6 Feb 2007 : Column 234WH
conditions after release from prison are being dealt with robustly and the police and courts are cracking down on so-called bail bandits.

More offenders are being brought to justice. There has been a general tough response to crime, reflected by the courts in their severity of sentencing—the right people for the right sentences. There has been a significant increase in the proportion of offenders getting custody and in the average length of prison sentences across the board for all types of offence, as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said. However, the issue has to be seen in the broader context, as he suggested.

It is right that the most serious and violent offenders should receive tougher sentences, and we have taken account of the pressures involved. Since 1997, we have delivered an extra 19,000 prison places; spending on prisons has gone up by 35 per cent. in real terms in the past 10 years. As hon. Members have mentioned, we will spend more in the next five years to deliver a further 8,000 places.

Mr. Garnier rose—

Mr. McNulty: Let me get some of my speech on the record; I shall then give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

However, the general rise in the length of sentences has included those for non-serious or non-violent offenders; again, a fair point was made about that. That was not our intention, but it has contributed significantly to the rising prison numbers. The point about the inter-relationship between, on the one hand, foreign national prisoners and the immigration estate, and on the other, the prison estate, was well made. That issue was discussed last night.

At Christmas, the expected seasonal dip in the prison population was not as deep or sustained as predicted. Projections at the beginning of 2005 on the impact of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 proved to have been over-optimistic. Members are right to say that, when legislating, we need to understand and try to judge the impact. At the time, it was felt that the Sentencing Guidelines Council recommendation would cut sentences by about 15 per cent., but they have not been cut by that much. Furthermore, there has not been the increased use of non-custodial sentences for less serious and non-violent offences that the Government had anticipated. Those factors mean that the prison population is significantly higher than we were expecting and that, as has been described, we face real pressures.

Mr. Garnier: I am grateful to the Minister. I appreciate that he is not in day-to-day charge of the prisons aspect of Home Office policy. However, will he accept that the vast proportion of the new prison places to which he referred may have been built during a Labour Government, but were commissioned by the last Conservative Government? I am not making a party political point, but simply want the Minister to bear in mind that there is an awful lot that this Government have not done and that they need to do a lot more if they are to achieve those 8,000 additional spaces by 2012.

Mr. McNulty: I certainly accept that many of the new prison places were initially commissioned under the last Conservative Government, but the subsequent
6 Feb 2007 : Column 235WH
PFI contracts that saw them all the way to fruition were carried out under the Labour Government. I do not say that in a partisan way either; that seemed appropriate at the time. All I am saying is that planning has been done, but all the various aspects have not come together quite as anticipated. That has got us to where we are now. The hon. and learned Gentleman’s point about having to plan and take full cognisance of the consequences of legislation is entirely fair. We have taken such things into account, but that has not worked out quite as anticipated in the context of the interlocking nature of all the elements involved, as hon. Members have said.

We cannot consider prisons without also considering the wider consequences of penal policy, sentencing guidelines and, as the hon. and learned Gentleman suggested, the wider societal backdrops. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman is not interested in having a to and fro about who started building what when and those sorts of things; nor am I. Some 19,000 places have been built, there are plans for 8,000 more and there are other elements that we need to take into account.

I want to touch on specific points made by hon. Members before concluding. I would say to the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) that there is not a letter as such to the judges. The statement to which he referred was made by criminal justice Ministers to the National Criminal Justice Board, not in a formal statement to Parliament or a formal letter. A senior presiding judge sits on the National Criminal Justice Board, and he agreed with the Lord Chief Justice that the statement should be sent to all judges and magistrates. However, I shall certainly arrange for it to go into the Library.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman and others outside the House that there has been a substantive blow to police morale and that the police have been badly let down by the Government. In fact, when the comments to which he referred were made, elements of the police force fully understood what was happening and what needed to be done to get out of it. They did not share in those rather stark claims. For example, the Association of Chief Police Officers knew and understood what the Government were doing. On behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), I should say that the police have been magnificent in supporting the reopening of Operation Safeguard.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) made a key point at the start of his speech in asking whether we were locking up too many people and the right people for the right length of time. Those points are entirely fair and need further substantial discussion. I agree in part that the criminal justice system is a political football that needs to be depoliticised. I do not mind politics, but the politics on this issue are always expressed in such a stark manner,
6 Feb 2007 : Column 236WH
as I think the hon. Gentleman was trying to say. They are hysterically driven, by not only the media but politicians as well.

I agree, too, with the notion that for every offender prison does not work or prison does not work for every single offender—whichever way it is put. That is also a fair point that we need to address. Hopefully, one point of consensus that can come from the issue is that community sentences and keeping people out of custody is not the soft option or almost a reward for miscreant behaviour. Carried out properly, they can be really effective, astute and work better to reduce rates of recidivism.

I shall not promise the hon. Gentleman a brand, spanking new prison in north Wales, although I take his point about travel distances. I think that the average distance home is 50 miles for prisoners in England; it is probably closer to 68 or 70 miles in north Wales. However, I shall take the hon. Gentleman’s point back to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South. I should have told the hon. and learned Member for Harborough that I am a mere substitute; prisons have not suddenly been added to my portfolio. My hon. Friend is in the United States considering various aspects of sex offending and that will feed into the review on sex offenders.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) for saying that I am a victim; I have never thought of myself in that way. He tried to make a point by quoting the press, but if we are serious about not only prison overcrowding but sentencing and the wider issues of penal policy, we need to get away from press stories that in some cases are entirely invented and in others have an inappropriate spin.

I should say to the hon. Gentleman that in no terms did the Home Secretary, through the statement with the Lord Chief Justice or others, say that serious offenders should not be sent to prison. The Home Secretary did not say that, and it is not reflected in the sentencing guidelines that he was reminding people about.

Equally, it is not right to exhort the Government and others to draw up carefully thought-through and costed policies and then to list blithely four or five policies with no notion of what they cost, what benefits they will bring or any other dimension. We should have a wider debate about penal policy, but it should not just be about getting out of the immediate situation of our prisons. There is also a third dimension, which is about considering the nature of people who end up in the custody system and what we should do with them after they leave and about what we should do in the wider sense of public protection. Those are key issues. I take the points about mental health, drug addiction, minor offences and drink-related issues, not least as the Minister with responsibility for police and crime reduction; I know that in many cases, people are in the system only because of those dimensions.

I am grateful for the broad treatment of this highly topical but very serious issue, to which we need collectively to find real answers.

6 Feb 2007 : Column 237WH

Sporting Legacy (2012 Olympic Games)

12.30 pm

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I thank you, Mr. Hood, for giving me the opportunity today to discuss the Olympic and Paralympic games. The title of the debate should cover both, and I would like to set the record straight on that from the start.

I welcome the Minister, particularly as he will pass into history as the longest serving Minister of Sport. That will happen this week, so perhaps I am getting my congratulations in a little early. In the sportsthinktank .com lecture last night, we heard about the excellent time that he has had as a Minister. Perhaps a Westminster Hall debate will not be among the top 10 highlights, but I hope that part of the Olympic and Paralympic process is very much on his mind.

I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. Among other things, I am also the chairman of my local strategic partnership for volunteering in sport at the national level, and a county sports partnership chairman in Leicestershire. I am also president of Birstall rugby club, for which I played again at the weekend in a fine 29-nil win against Leicester Forest. We kicked off early so that we could watch the game between England and Scotland. Given your presence in the Chair, Mr. Hood, I shall not recount the score, but, looking around, I can see wry smiles—we can leave it at that.

Today’s debate is not about Olympic games costs. There is enough debate on that in the media, and enough scrutiny taking place elsewhere. Today, I hope to focus on what the Olympics should be about: a sporting legacy for UK plc. I am sure that the Minister is pleased to hear that, especially as my hon. Friend—I shall call him that, in these circumstances—the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) is here. The Minister gets nervous when he sees a Loughborough-Bath duo, and expects another plea for money.

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn): It has cost me a fortune.

Mr. Reed: Yes, it has; but, on this occasion, I assure my right hon. Friend that we are not necessarily pleading for money.

Also, it is important to say—I shall touch on this briefly—that the Government have achieved a great deal in terms of the sporting landscape that I want to discuss today. I shall highlight the good things about elite sport and school sport, but then—as is usual with Members of Parliament, I suppose—come on to the big “but”. I shall concentrate most of my comments on grass roots and community sport, and what we have managed to achieve.

Next Section Index Home Page