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28 Mar 2007 : Column 480WH—continued

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I should like to say how much I appreciated my hon. Friend’s starting point. Very often in debates about asylum, particularly in certain parts of the media, there is a conflation of the issues of humanitarian protection, the need to protect refugees, how we treat those seeking asylum and how we treat those who have failed in their asylum claims with those issues concerning people who come here to work, to study or, sometimes, to visit. There is a conflation of the whole issue of migration with that of those who are seeking asylum. That is extremely dangerous and has the potential to jeopardise this country’s proud tradition of offering humanitarian protection, refugee status and asylum to those fleeing persecution, torture or worse in different parts of the world.

In a sense, it is not an enormous surprise that we have run into that conflation. Since the 1960s, the pattern of global migration has transformed beyond all recognition. Migration has approximately doubled since the 1960s. There has been a marked increase in the annual rate of migration since the mid-1980s. There has also been a surge in the number of people seeking asylum, particularly since the mid to late 1990s, not just in this country but in different parts of Europe, too. The question that that left us with from 1997 onwards was: how do we create a system that can identify those who are in genuine need of asylum as opposed to those who are not? Asylum is an extremely important and time-honoured status, but the challenge that we have faced is that, as the statistics over the past seven or eight years show, some 70 per cent. of asylum claims have been deemed to be unfounded. That is problematic, because it has put an enormous amount of pressure on the system. The integrity of the system is important, because it must work effectively, in order to grant asylum to those who are genuinely in need of it.

The modernisation of the past few years is important, because we see the issue in even sharper relief when we think of what is still to come. World Bank and International Monetary Fund estimates show that the number of young people coming into the labour market in the developing world is projected to total some 1 billion extra between now and 2020. When we consider the difference between take-home pay in the developed world and that in the developing world, we see that there may well be strong economic incentives, mentioned by my hon. Friend at the start of his comments, for people to come to developed countries. There is therefore the risk that if the asylum system is not made to work effectively, it will be abused.

Obviously, the system that we inherited in 1997 was designed for a different era—it took not eight weeks, but about 22 months to make an initial decision. As a result of the time that it took to modernise that system, considerable backlogs of asylum claims built up. Last May, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was extremely honest, forthright and ambitious in his desire to get all the information about the backlogs looked after by the immigration and nationality directorate. In July, we said that there were about 465,000 cases—case files, not individuals—sitting with the IND. The director general of the IND is reporting regularly to the House on our progress. A large number of the cases have already been dealt with or relate to people who have left the country, passed away or regularised their status in different ways. None the less, my right hon. Friend
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estimates that it will take four or five years and considerable investment for the cases to be processed.

A number of changes have been made that address some of my hon. Friend’s points, particularly those about administrative reform. By next month, we will have achieved our target of setting up different kinds of asylum teams in different parts of the country. There will be a single case owner for an individual claiming asylum, rather than the bureaucratic run-around of cases being passed for different kinds of decisions to different sorts of people in different parts of the country. All that has now been swept away. Instead, single case owners will look after a single file and, most importantly, a single individual. They will make all the relevant decisions. That is an important step forward because it means that the case owner will be able to build up a much more sophisticated, nuanced understanding of the individual case. Frankly, that will unlock a great deal of the humanity that my hon. Friend seeks and ensure that decisions are made much faster than they are today. When decisions are long and drawn out, I fear that there is scope for injustice to creep in.

Jeremy Corbyn: Is any priority given to long-standing cases in respect of which there has simply been a bureaucratic run-around and no answers have been given to anybody? Such cases lead to the most incredible tensions in families.

Mr. Byrne: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set out our proposals on the issue, he said that we would prioritise cases that we were concerned posed a risk of harm to the public. We were also clear that cases in which there has been mishandling or maladministration must be prioritised too.

I shall deal quickly with some of the points that my hon. Friend raised. The one point that I want to stress is that when the treatment of people who have failed in their asylum claims is debated, something is often forgotten—the work that we do to encourage people to go home voluntarily. We work closely with the International Organisation for Migration and are extremely grateful for its assistance in putting together what it says is a world-leading scheme, which helps people, with up to £3,500 of support, to build a life back in their home countries.

The issue of legal aid is extremely important; as my hon. Friend knows, different procedures have been put in place to make sure that resources are targeted at meritorious claims with the greatest chance of success. As the number of asylum seekers—now at its lowest since 1993—comes down, it is incumbent on the Legal Services Commission to make sure that there is no distortion in the market, or, if you like, drying-up of supply. It is vital that the commission should keep that under constant review.

We have also debated the question of detention. I am anxious to explore alternatives to detaining children. Sometimes, parents have a responsibility too; when I sign off cases of children who have been in detention for some time, I often find out that that has been because their parents have been disruptive or abusive or have exhibited dangerous behaviour towards staff—

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. We must now move on to our next debate.

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Prisons (Crime Reduction)

4.45 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the effectiveness of prisons in reducing crime, an issue of great importance in many areas. Indeed, in all the surveys that I carry out in my constituency of Shipley, crime always features as the issue about which my constituents are most concerned. I am also grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), for taking the time to respond to this debate.

For far too long in this country, the small band of trendy, left-wing, liberal,Guardian-reading, sandal-wearing, politically correct do-gooders has had a disproportionate sway over the debate on law and order. “Prison doesn’t work,” they say. “We lock up more people than any other civilised country,” they add, working on the basis that if they repeat such mantras often enough, people will start believing them.

Unfortunately, the age-old political tip about repeating a lie often enough and people believing it appears to have worked. I therefore wish to focus on and try to explode two myths in particular: that we have a high prison population and that prison does not work. I also wish to touch on the prison regime in this country.

I start with the familiar myth that we have a very high prison population. Only recently, the Minister himself was quoted in our local paper, the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, as saying that we lock up more people than any other country in Europe and that we have to look for alternatives.

Let us look at the facts. In terms of absolute numbers, we do have a relatively high prison population. However, we are a relatively highly populated country. If we consider the number of prisoners that we have for each 100,000 of population, we are nearer the average, but still quite high. However, those figures are meaningless; surely the only meaningful measure of the size of the prison population is how many prisoners there are in relation to the number of crimes committed. On that measure, the evidence is startling: we do not have the highest prison population in the western world, but the lowest. Compared with the US, Canada, Australia and the other EU countries as a whole, the UK has the lowest prison population of all. For every 1,000 crimes committed in the UK, we have approximately13 prisoners, compared with approximately 15 in Canada and Australia, well over 20 in the rest of the EU as a whole and a whopping 166 in the US. The Minister has recently been to the United States. I hope that he has been learning about its prison regime, which is much more effective than that in this country. Those figures clearly expose the myth that we have a high prison population. Will the Minister confirm that, on the measure that I have used, we have a low prison population? Will he clarify which measure of prison population he thinks the most relevant?

Then we are told that prison does not work. I am the first to concede that the prison regime is far too lax and cushy—something I will return to shortly—but even with such a soft regime, the evidence shows that prison does work in reducing crime. The fact is that the country with the lowest prison rate, the UK, has the highest crime rate—more than 10,000 crimes for every 100,000 of population. The country with the highest prison rate,
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the USA, has the lowest crime rate: about 4,400 crimes for every 100,000 of population. Canada, the country with the second lowest prison rate of the western countries that I looked at, has the second highest crime rate. The EU has the second highest prison rate and the second lowest crime rate. Is all that a coincidence? I do not believe so. Indeed, it seems blindingly obvious to me that the more criminals who are locked up in prison, the fewer there will be out on the streets to commit crimes. Does the Minister accept that blindingly obvious statement?

We should always beware of politicians who tell us that things are far more complicated than they really are. The issue is actually quite simple, but the simple fact appears not to have reached the Home Office. I hope that the Minister will clarify where he stands on the issue.

Then we are told that prison does not prevent people reoffending and actually makes it worse. However, just before Christmas, the Home Office sneaked out a report that blew that hypothesis apart. The report clearly demonstrated that the longer people stay in prison, the less likely they are to reoffend. It might be presumed that the people with the longest prison sentences are the most hardened criminals and are therefore the most likely to reoffend. However, a Home Office report showed that that was clearly not the case. The “Re-offending of adults” report, published in November 2006, concluded that

It is worth repeating those figures. Sentences of up to one year had a reoffending rate of 70 per cent. while in cases of sentences of more than two years, the reoffending rate dropped to 49 per cent. The report showed that for people who had spent more than four years in prison, the reoffending rate was merely 35 per cent.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I do not want to stunt the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but I want to be clear about his argument. Is he arguing for longer sentencing? Is he saying that people who go to prison should be in prison for more than 12 months, and that that should be the starting point?

Philip Davies: The Minister has looked accurately into his crystal ball. I certainly am saying that prison sentences should be longer, and I shall explore that in more detail in a few minutes.

The reason why prisoners reoffend has nothing to do with prison. The Minister has been very perceptive; it is largely due to the fact that people do not spend long enough in prison. As the Home Office report suggested, most prisoners go to jail via the magistrates courts, and many have a drug addiction, too. The maximum prison sentence that a magistrate can impose is six months. If a criminal pleads guilty, they are likely to get a third knocked off. That reduces the sentence to four months. They are then likely to serve only half of the remaining time. In effect, that means that in many cases magistrates can send people to prison for only two months. They go into prison as drug addicts, and we should not be surprised that they come out as drug addicts to start their crime spree all over again. They need to be in prison longer, not only to be punished properly for their crime—or crimes, as few are sent to prison for their first offence—but to have time to kick their addiction.

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Given that since 1997 alone, more than 7,000 crimes were committed by people who were tagged or were released before the end of the jail sentences handed down by the courts, ensuring that prisoners served the full sentence handed down by the courts would help to reduce crime, too. The public have no faith in the criminal justice system, and honesty in sentencing would do a great deal to reassure them as well as to reduce reoffending. Prisoners should not be let out of prison early for good behaviour; they should be left in prison longer for bad behaviour. When I was at school, if I behaved properly that was what was expected of me and I was allowed to leave school on time. If I misbehaved, I was kept back for detention. Can the Minister explain to the British people why he thinks that that should not apply to prisoners, too, and why they should not serve the sentence handed down by the courts in full?

The public know that that all makes sense. Surveys that I have conducted in my constituency show that 84 per cent. of people believe that prisoners should serve the sentence handed down by the courts in full. The police know that that makes sense, too. In my time on the parliamentary police scheme, working with my local Keighley division of West Yorkshire police, many police officers told me that if their top 10 persistent criminals were in prison, crime would be reduced by about half. If the top 20 persistent offenders were in prison, crime would be reduced by about 90 per cent. Does the Minister agree with that analysis by the police?

The Government are at sixes and sevens. They started off knowing that to be tough on crime they needed to send more people to prison. However, because the Chancellor has consistently refused to invest in building more prisons, that has resulted in their being full. The Government now have to pretend that prison does not work after all, and that it is tougher not to send people to prison and to give them some so-called tough community sentence. We saw pictures in the papers this week of such sentences, with people lying on benches instead of doing any work. That seems a laughable position for the Government to hold. Will the Minister make clear whether he believes that prison works or not? If he does, will he commit to not letting dangerous criminals out early and to abandoning the plans that we have read about this week to avoid sending people to prison at all costs?

I want to touch on the prison regime in this country, which I believe is far too lax. The fact that more than 1,500 prisoners have Sky TV in their cells—not in a communal area but in their cells—will disgust most decent people. I am sure that many people in my constituency wish they had Sky TV and could watch premiership football, but they cannot afford it. Why should they have to pay through their taxes for a regime that allows prisoners to enjoy such a luxury? It has also recently emerged that roughly 60 per cent. of prisoners have keys to their own cells. Most people could be forgiven for believing that that is just typical of the Government’s determination to put the human rights of criminals and prisoners above the rights of victims and decent, hard-working, law-abiding people in this country.

Successive chief inspectors of prisons and judges are parts of the establishment with a lot to answer for in respect of prison life. Those people leave their luxury, idyllic homes to visit prisons and report back on what an awful place they are. They do not consider the environment from which many people in prison come: not luxury homes in idyllic locations, but drug and
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crime-ridden estates. During my time on the parliamentary police scheme, a custody sergeant said to me that in her experience the biggest deterrent to crime was the prospect of being sent to prison for the first time. People were genuinely afraid of that. However, she said that once they had been sent to prison, they found that many of their friends and associates were there, they got three square meals a day, they had access to a gym, which most of us would have to pay for, and other facilities, and their quality of life was higher in prison than on the outside. That cannot be right.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I re-emphasise the point that he has just made. Like him, I took part in the parliamentary police scheme and officers in my constituency told me that, after having served time in jail, criminals saw further time in jail as a career break before they went out burgling, stealing and so on again.

Philip Davies: As usual, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is an experience that police officers have across the country.

Once somebody has been sent to prison they should never want to go again. The fact that many people feel that it is not as bad as they expected is not only offensive but counter-productive. The Minister will no doubt use the word “rehabilitation” at some point in his speech—that is my crystal ball gazing for the afternoon. Of course we want people to be rehabilitated, but in my experience the word “rehabilitation” is simply used by the liberal left to excuse making life as luxurious as possible for prisoners. Can the Minister explain how giving prisoners Sky TV in their own cells rehabilitates them?

The Minister might wish to read about Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix, Arizona, who has introduced a tough regime in prisons in his state and has a public approval rating of 85 per cent. Oh, what Home Office Ministers would give for a public approval rating of 85 per cent. Prison does work. We just do not have enough prisoners, they do not spend enough time in prison and the prisons too often resemble hotels or holiday camps rather than prisons. The Home Office blueprint should be to double the number of prisoners, to ensure that they serve the sentence handed down by the courts in full, to make prison more austere and to halve the crime rate. Is that a vision that the Minister shares?

4.58 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), and, like the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), I congratulate him on securing the debate.

In his own unique way the hon. Member for Shipley has raised some interesting points about the importance of prison and, in his view, reducing crime. I notice that there is no one from the Opposition Front Bench in today’s debate. We have had many debates about prisons and what is going on with prison capacity, so perhaps he has to convince not only me but his Front-Bench colleagues of his views on prisons. I do not minimise the seriousness with which he has approached the issue. There is a need for a debate about what is going on in our prisons.

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