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A year ago the Lord Chancellor said that he wanted to lock people up and that community sentences did not work; now he is saying that he wants to send fewer people to jail, have more community sentences, and have a conversation. So what is his current view? Is he going to be Judge Dredd or Mary Poppins? If he wants to build confidence in community sentencing, he has a very long way to go. Under the home detention curfew scheme that he introduced in 1999, more than 4,000 prisoners who were released early have reoffended, committing more than 7,000 crimes. More than 1,000 of those were violent offences, including one murder, 56 woundings and more than 700 assaults. Earlier this month, “Panorama” revealed serious flaws in the tagging of offenders. The public do not want a conversation with him. They want to feel safe. They want to walk home from work in the knowledge that they will not be mugged by somebody who should have been safely behind bars. They certainly do not want to be told that the answer is to weaken the sentencing of dangerous offenders.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the other things that the public and the judiciary need to be confident about is that, when sentences are passed by a judge, those sentences will be served? The expectation of the court will be that the sentence will be served as it was passed and the danger of early release schemes is that those sentences are not in fact served. That in its turn will undermine the public’s confidence in the judiciary.

Nick Herbert: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. One of the worst effects of the early release scheme is that it undermines public confidence in sentencing, just as the Government undermined it in relation to their changes to determinate sentences, which mean that there is automatic early release after half the sentence is served—a proposal that we opposed.

Ten years ago, the present Lord Chancellor said that indeterminate sentences gave

Now he wants to review those sentences. Perhaps he should have a word with the Home Secretary about his plans. Only last Thursday, she was berating hon. Members for not supporting the sentences. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) is worried. In his column for The Sun he said:

He said that the Home Secretary

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That is the problem with splitting the Home Office, which is no doubt why the current Secretary of State for Justice opposed the idea last year. One Department talks tough and the other lets prisoners out early.

The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside was right about another thing: the new Prime Minister shares the blame for the current crisis in our prisons. In his diaries, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside describes the 2004 spending review, in which the then Chancellor would agree to fund only two thirds of the additional prison places requested. The then Chancellor removed the Home Office from the current spending review and froze its budget. Clearly, in his judgment law and order was not a priority. That is why we have the catastrophe of overcrowded prisons. Some 17,000 prisoners are doubling up in cells—twice as many as when Labour came to power. More than 1,000 cells designed for two people are occupied by three. That means that nearly a quarter of the entire prison population is housed in cells designed for one fewer person. The price of such overcrowding is that the rehabilitation of offenders is made impossible. As the prison service annual report says:

The number of prison officers has risen at only half the rate of the increase in the prison population, and prisoners are being transferred early to open prisons. Last summer, the governor of Ford open prison in my constituency warned that the transfer of prisoners who should really be in category C conditions

She went on to say:

The chief inspector of prisons has warned that high-risk offenders are being transferred to open prisons, some without any proper risk assessment. Murderers are walking out of open prisons at will. In an overstretched probation service, some officers supervise up to 80 offenders and, as a result, reconviction rates have soared. Of the people discharged from prison, 65 per cent. reoffend within two years—up from 59 per cent. in 1998. Among young people, the recidivism rate is even higher. Reoffending accounts for more than half of all crime.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I note that the hon. Gentleman has referred to Ford open prison in his constituency, so will he support it being upgraded to category C?

Nick Herbert: The problem is that the prison governor made that proposal behind the backs of people in the local community. Uniquely, they have an agreement with the prison not to house more serious offenders locally. I think that the local community would be willing to have a higher category prison located in the area, but only if the debate is held openly with them. In my view, it was disgraceful of the governor to make that proposal at the same time as she
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was negotiating renewal of the agreement with the local authority. I think that the right hon. Gentleman should be careful before he asks other hon. Members about matters to do with their constituencies.

The Government’s social exclusion unit has estimated the cost of reoffending to the taxpayer at more than £11 billion a year. It is essential that that depressing spiral is broken. Nearly one fifth of prisoners have been convicted of drugs offences, and drugs are rife in prisons. Ninety per cent. of prisoners have a significant mental health problem. Prison suicides have leaped this year, but we will never deal with such problems without adequate prison capacity.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Is not a significant part of the problem the fact that there are 8,000 foreign prisoners in British jails? The Government have not done nearly enough to ensure that they are repatriated to their country of origin, so that they can serve their full sentences in secure detention, at the expense of their own taxpayers.

Nick Herbert: I agree with my hon. Friend, and one of the ironies of the current early release scheme is that it does not apply to foreign nationals. One would have thought an obvious way to deal with the overcrowding problem would be to remove foreign national prisoners more swiftly, perhaps before the end of their sentences. That would be preferable to releasing domestic prisoners and putting them out on the streets, where they are able to reoffend.

As I said, 90 per cent. of prisoners have a significant mental health problem, but we will never deal with that without adequate prison capacity. Not only have the Government missed their own pitifully low target to reduce overcrowding, but they appear to be complacent about the situation. The Prime Minister was barely briefed on the matter last week, and the Minister with responsibility for prisons, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), told “The Westminster Hour” on Sunday that

What could he have meant by that? What does he think is “right” about the prisons being at bursting point? Last year, the Lord Chancellor said that he was proud of the Government’s record on law and order in that respect. Is pride what he feels when he learns that prisoners whom he has released have committed robbery?

In the biography of the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside, an “adviser” famously remarks:

He added that the Home Office was “a giant mess.” Actually, we know what he did. He talked tough on sentencing, but he failed to build prisons. He promised action on violent crime, but it soared by a third. He said that he would protect the public, but he let prisoners out on tags, and they committed the most serious offences. In spite of my belief in rehabilitation, when it comes to his record, I am afraid that the Lord Chancellor is a serial offender who has no chance of going straight.

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The Lord Chancellor should have begun his new role with an urgent meeting with the Prime Minister to review capacity. He should have looked at the thousands of foreign nationals who remain in our prisons and asked why more are not being deported. He should have asked what happened to the prison ship Weare, which was bought by the Home Office for £3.7 million, and skilfully sold off last year for a rumoured £2 million. Instead, within days of taking office, he released hundreds of violent offenders on to the streets. The Government’s management of the prison system has become nothing less than a national disgrace. They are failing prisoners, who cannot be rehabilitated in overcrowded conditions. They are failing the staff, who are being asked to do an almost impossible job. Above all, they are failing the public, whom the Government are putting at risk.

5.45 pm

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I welcome this debate, and I am grateful to the Opposition for enabling it, because there is no more important priority for this Government—and, I hope, all Governments—than ensuring the safety of our citizens. I am proud of our achievements in that respect. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) forgot to mention that over the past 10 years, crime has fallen by 35 per cent. There are record numbers of police, and the chances of being a victim of crime are the lowest for 25 years. We have provided 20,000 new prison places and will be building another 9,500. More offences and offenders than ever before—over 1.3 million in 2006—are being brought to justice. More of the most violent and dangerous offenders are being sent to jail for longer.

That record contrasts starkly with that of the Conservatives in their 18 years in government. They failed: in their 18 years in government, crime doubled, police numbers fell, and the number of people convicted plummeted by a third, with only one crime in 50 leading to a conviction. The party’s complacency was insulting to the British people, who responded by evicting it from office. Ten years later, the Conservatives’ approach is just as incoherent as it was back in 1997. They talked tough, but they failed to support many of the measures that we introduced to cut crime. They opposed tougher sentences for murder, and for sexual and violent offences. They opposed indeterminate sentences for those who commit serious sexual or violence offences. They opposed the new five-year minimum custodial sentences for
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unauthorised possession of firearms, and at first they dismissed our antisocial behaviour measures as gimmicks. For all their fancy words about more prison places, the Opposition have consistently voted against the taxation and public spending that would allow any new prisons to be built.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con) rose—

Mr. Straw: Of course I will give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman; indeed, I will refer to him in a moment, so bring him on.

Mr. Garnier: Will the former Home Secretary tell us precisely where the 20,000 additional places are that he claims have been built? Which prisons are they in? What new buildings are they in? Is it not true that the majority of those new places are simply the result of prisoners doubling up in single cells and trebling up in double cells?

Mr. Straw: I am afraid that I cannot provide the hon. and learned Gentleman with all the information, but some of the places are in new prisons. Some are in additional units in existing prisons, and some are the result of doubling or trebling in prison cells, which is far better— [Interruption.] I thought that the Opposition, too, were in favour of making the best use of existing accommodation, which is what we have done. The number of rehabilitation courses that prisoners have been able to take has vastly increased since the Conservative Administration.

Later, we will come on to the details of the pledges made by the hon. and learned Gentleman, who continues to imply what the shadow Home Secretary has made explicit. The shadow Home Secretary has offered to “spend what it takes” to build new prisons. He admits that he has no idea how much that is, but we can give him all the calculations that he needs.

At the same time, the Conservatives have made wild pledges to cut—not to increase—£21 billion of public spending. They disagree with one another about what their policy should be. The shadow Home Secretary is dreaming up uncosted plans for new prisons, while the hon. and learned Gentleman who adorns the Front Bench is saying that prison is not the answer and is calling for a review of sentencing. The hon. and learned Gentleman says that he is on a massive “voyage of discovery”, but that voyage is clearly taking place on a mystical vessel crowded out with Conservative Front Benchers, all heading for some fantasy island, with just one problem—they have no captain, no map, no compass and they cannot agree on whether to go forward, back, left or right.

There is, I will concede, one thing on which the Conservatives do agree—they want new prisons, but they do not want them in their own back yard. The hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire), for example, a shadow Home Affairs Minister, says that he wants more prisons, as long as they are not in his parliamentary constituency, Hornchurch, where a plan for a prison in Rainham is, apparently, “wholly inappropriate”. We have a little indication that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs is in the same position. Even when there is a proposal to increase the category of his open prison at Ford from D to C—yes,
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to relieve some overcrowding, by making it more secure—he says that he is wholly opposed to that as well.

Nick Herbert: Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied with the management of a prison from which, on average, over the past two years two offenders a week, including murderers, have absconded?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman must know, first, that if the prisons are open prisons, which I assume he supports, there will be some absconds. If his policy is for no open prisons, let him say so. The number of absconds from open prisons has dropped dramatically from more than 1,000 in 1996-97, when there was a Government whom he supported, to nearly half that number, 556, in the last year for which we have figures. Secondly, if his concern is about absconds from an open prison, why on earth is he opposing proposals— [ Interruption. ] He says build a fence, but his proposals are to do exactly that.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I say straight away to the right hon. Gentleman that over the years I have had a great deal of respect for the way in which he has approached these matters, particularly when he was Home Secretary. The Opposition are not always right, and the Government are not always right. There is much to be said for moving forward in a consensual way sometimes. One of the Government’s experiments with night courts at Bow street, for example, was something of a disaster and had to be abandoned. Occasionally, things go wrong.

Mr. Straw: If I may return the compliment without ruining a fine career ahead of him, I have always had great respect for the hon. Gentleman. We have always had sensible and respectful conversations about these matters. It is true of all Administrations that some of their proposals, which they think will work—especially in the area of criminal justice, where they are inevitably dealing with the most unpredictable, chaotic members of the community—will not work. That does not necessarily mean that they should not try them. I personally thought that night and evening courts would work, but that turned out not to be the case. That has worked in other countries, but not here.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs made much of the fact that rates of opening new places had not kept pace with some estimates of likely demand for places. Forecasting in this area, I readily accept, is not an exact science, but before the Opposition start pulling the mote from our eye, they ought to examine the beam in their own. The record of the previous Administration was dire. Shortly before I became Home Secretary, more than 1,000 police cells had been used to cope with overcrowding on a considerable scale throughout the early and mid-1990s.

Yes, I did ask the Prison Service to double and in some cases to treble accommodation because I judged, and so did the Prison Service, that that was a far better way of accommodating the increase in the prison population than by the use of police cells. We have had to use police cells again. I regret that, and I am working very hard to reduce that.

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