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28 Mar 2007 : Column 486WH—continued

The hon. Gentleman has painted a picture of our prisons as almost like holiday camps. I was in Belmarsh yesterday, and if he went there he would not see the
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regime as anything like a holiday camp because of the high security aspect of that prison. Clearly, we need to strike a balance on the matter of punishment. That aspect needs to be there for dangerous and serious offenders, and it is quite right that we have prison places for those people. However, I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on some of the other points that he has raised, and I shall try to go through some of them in the time that we have. As usual, one can only set the scene in a half hour debate. I know that on several occasions the hon. Gentleman asked questions of the Home Office but was not able to get answers because of the time it takes to provide them. There was no deliberate move by me to make sure that we did not get to his questions.

This Government are proud of their record on tackling crime. It is a success story that has been independently commented on by bodies such as the British crime survey, which shows that, compared with 1997, all crime is down by 35 per cent., burglary is down by 55 per cent. and violence, as measured by the British crime survey, is down by 34 per cent. The survey estimates that there are 5.8 million fewer offences overall than in 1997. The crime rate, particularly for householders, is at a historically low level: 24 per cent., down from 35 per cent. in 1997.

We aim to build on that success. Hon. Members will know that yesterday we published “Building on progress: Security, crime and justice”, which sets out the vision for confronting crime and criminals over the next 10 years. It endorses the direction that we have been taking in rebalancing the criminal justice system, including putting more time and effort into dealing with serious and persistent crime and offenders, improving early intervention and mental health care, and strengthening both non-custodial sentences and prison programmes in order to cut reoffending. I believe that prisons play an essential part in that vision.

Yes, there must be punishment that protects the public. The hon. Gentleman is arguing for longer prison sentences and more prison capacity, but that comes at a cost. He will know that we have brought into play 19,000 extra spaces since 1997, and that we have announced a further 8,000 places. He talks about prison capacity. Clearly, there is a problem with prison capacity. The prison population, which is nearly 80,000, is at a record high.

Philip Davies: I agree that building more prisons comes at a cost, but will the Minister clarify whether he accepts that the crime rate would be reduced if we had more prisons and more prisoners serving longer sentences, irrespective of the cost?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but I do not accept it. One must think about the offenders and the types of crime that people are in prison for. It is clear that serious and dangerous criminals must be locked up in prison to protect the public, and that is why in 2003 the Government introduced the indeterminate sentence, under which the Parole Board must determine whether somebody is safe to release back into society. That is an appropriate sentence, and I am pleased that the figures are increasing.

Yes, prison has to be there for dangerous offenders, but we must consider how we deal with and view offenders. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was a councillor in Bradford before I became an MP. The reality is that, as elected representatives—in my case, as a councillor and then as an MP—our view of people who enter the criminal justice system must be different from that of
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the rest of the community. Offenders come from our communities. Yes, the punishment must fit the crime, but we must try to find out why people are committing crimes and try to rehabilitate them back into society.

Prisons are austere places. The hon. Gentleman makes a point about televisions in prison cells. Prisoners do not get Sky TV. They have to pay £1 a week for television sets, and not everybody gets them. The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of keys. I am sure that he will have read this morning’s Daily Express, in which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) sets out her view that it is appropriate for prisoners to have keys on the basis of protection of an individual’s property and, in some circumstances, because of some of the bullying that goes on in prison, on the basis of protection of individuals in dangerous situations. Keys are given out in an attempt to get people to become responsible, and to be part of society when they come out. The weakness in the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that people should be kept in prison longer and then they should be released, but we must consider that old process of offender management.

Philip Davies: I do not wish to interrupt the Minister unnecessarily, but can he clarify what he said about prisoners having Sky TV in their cells? I asked a parliamentary question about the matter last year and was told that more than 1,500 prisoners had Sky TV in their cells. Is the Minister telling me that the answer to my question was wrong, or that the practice has now ceased? Or did I mishear him?

Mr. Sutcliffe: Let me read the briefing note that I have on the issue. I am sure that it is in line with the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s parliamentary question. If it is not, I shall be asking questions as well. Prisoners can have televisions in their cells as part of the incentives and earned privilege scheme. TVs must be earned and can be withdrawn if a prisoner fails to comply with the prison regime or breaches discipline. A small number of prisoners have access to freeview in their cell. Like the rest of the country, the Prison Service must prepare for the switchover to digital TV, and that will mean that prisoners who have earned the right to have a TV will have access to additional channels, because everybody will have that access with the move to digital TV. As I said, prisoners pay £1 per week to rent a TV from the Prison Service. That is a million miles away from the hon. Gentleman’s comments about watching Sky TV or Sky Sport on television in prison.

The hon. Gentleman’s argument trivialises the tremendous work that is being done in prison. There are different types of prisons. For example, there are local prisons, where people are sent immediately. There is one close to his constituency and mine—Armley prison in Leeds—which he may have visited. I do not know whether he has. If he has not, he should visit it. It may change his view about prisons being holiday camps. They are about making sure that offenders are managed properly.

I read out the figures for where we are nationally in trying to reduce reoffending. The rates are far too high, and the hon. Gentleman makes a serious point when he talks about drugs in prisons and people entering prison with a problem. They may enter detoxification, but the solution involves not just what prisons do but what society does. The Government have involved primary care trusts in health provision in prisons because we need to consider how to manage offenders from end to end.

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From the minute someone is arrested, we try to find out what caused the offence—why have they offended? We must consider the different types of offenders. As I said, the prison population is at a record level of 80,000. Of those, fewer than 4,000 are women. We must try to find out what causes offenders to offend and do something about it, but something must be done by society, not just the prison regime. We must try to find education and work solutions so that people come out of prison not to reoffend but to find sustainable work or education. That is the way to stop reoffending.

That is why the National Offender Management Bill is important. The hon. Gentleman voted against it, as did the hon. Member for Kettering, and I am concerned about that. They must think through the issues. Yes, the public must be protected, and we must lock up dangerous and serious offenders, but not everybody in prison is a dangerous or serious offender. We must look at ways to reduce reoffending.

One way to deal with the problem is by involving a wider range of people. One of the problems is that when people are released from prison, there is no proper resettlement plan to help them avoid going back to what they were doing before. Offenders need housing and educational support. I believe that alternatives to custody are important, and that the public will understand and accept that they are not soft options.

I refer the hon. Member for Shipley to the north-west, where community justice is taking place. Communities identify projects that need to be carried out in their communities. Magistrates sentence against those projects and everybody wins: the communities see the work being done and that it is not a soft option, and they benefit from what is taking place, and the offender’s skills are developed.

We must consider alternatives to custody. I was pleased by the comments of Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice, that we need to look at alternative custody as a way not of dampening down the prison population but of offering up an alternative to try to cut reoffending rates. We have been working with the youth justice scheme. I know that the hon. Gentleman was on the police scheme, so he will know how many youngsters are involved in crime. We must try to nip that in the bud by supporting those young people, and ensuring that that they do not end up in a warehouse situation in prison as that can lead to a vicious cycle. We have to consider those alternatives.

I have just received further information on Sky TV. The hon. Gentleman is right on the figures; there were 1,500 Sky sets in cells and the parliamentary answer was correct. As I said, we changed the system in relation to the digital position.

We have an ambitious target of reducing reoffending by 10 per cent. by the end of the decade. Adult prison places cost £40,000 a year, and young offender places cost £50,000. That cannot be the right way to progress. We need to consider the alternatives and find ways of ensuring that people understand what prison is about. Elements of punishment are quite right when the punishment fits the crime, but so is rehabilitation and trying to bring people back into society by using the expertise of a number of bodies that work with prisoners.

This is an important debate, because we need to understand that prison is only part of the solution. The hon. Gentleman was right to raise the subject of public confidence in the
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criminal justice system. That was one of the things that the Home Secretary brought about when we took over as a new ministerial team. We were concerned that people did not understand existing sentencing policies. It is important that we have an independent judiciary, and that judges base their decisions on what is before them. However, it is also important to ensure that the public understand and have confidence in sentencing. We are embarking on that through consultation to ensure that people understand that reductions in sentences can sometimes be about the witness and the victims not having to go through the court procedure, and that it can be a benefit if someone pleads guilty. Nevertheless, such a process must be carried out in a good spirit and should not become the norm; it has to be appropriate and proper.

We will ensure that prison places are provided for serious offenders, but we need to drill further to find out what motivates people to offend. We estimate that offending is often drugs-related, and we are trying to deal with it by a 974 per cent. increase in drugs spending in prisons. It is not about addressing that problem only in prison; it is about ensuring end-to-end offender management so that people are supported in the community when they come out. Whether it is an educational matter or a drugs issue that needs to be addressed, rehabilitation should be a continuous process. I believe that the public will accept that.

There was a recent poll on women in prison. The hon. Gentleman will know about the work that Baroness Corston has done on vulnerable women, which indicated that prison should be the last alternative for women. The impact on women prisoners who have families often means that those families then have problems with crime. There are other problems associated with dysfunctional families.

It is important that the people who offer alternatives to prison are not seen as left-wing liberals, as described by the hon. Gentleman. Such people have witnessed what has happened to the prison system over many years.

Philip Davies: Before he winds up, I would like the Minister to touch on the report from November on the reoffending of adults, which shows that the reoffending rate for those serving sentences for up to a year was 70 per cent., for those serving over two years it was 49 per cent. and for those serving over four years it was 35 per cent. Does he agree that that demonstrates that the longer people spend in prison, the less likely they are to reoffend?

Mr. Sutcliffe: That is an easy set of figures, but we must consider the complexity of what takes place in terms of reoffending rates. That is why I asked the hon. Gentleman for his view on that. He is arguing for longer prison sentences after which, in his terms, people would magically turn into well-formed residents for whom, when they come out of prison, everything is okay. That is not how the system operates. The different reoffending rates are about the different types of sentences that are passed. My fundamental point is that there are people in prison who should not be there and should be offered alternatives. That is the complete opposite of what the hon. Gentleman is saying in the sense that he believes in longer sentences, more people in prison and therefore—

It being quarterpast Five o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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