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24 July 2007 : Column 732

However, it was at the end of the 1980s, 10 years into the then Conservative Administration, that the biggest crisis ever hit the service. It was so bad that the then Home Secretary, now the noble Lord Hurd of Westwell, had to come to the House—I remember sitting on the Opposition Benches and listening to the statement—to announce not that over a period 1,500 to 2,000 places would be saved, but that at a stroke 3,500 places would be saved by extending remission of sentences of less than 12 months from one third to one half of sentence length. The hon. Gentleman says that we have done that, but I remind him that that was supposed to be a temporary measure. It was made permanent in the Criminal Justice Act 1991.

The end of custody licence is necessary to cope with the current prison numbers, and it is proportionate to the problem. It involves the early release of prisoners who are serving less than four years just 18 days— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman. A chorus of sedentary comments across the House is not helping progress in a strictly time-limited debate.

Mr. Straw: Indeed, I blame the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), not the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle).

The end of custody licence involves the early release of prisoners serving less than four years 18 days—just two and a half weeks—before the date when they would have been released in any event. In other words, eligible prisoners due in normal circumstances to come out today, 24 July, would, under the scheme, have been released on 6 July. I understand the point about the reassurance of the public, so it is important to put this into context.

Overall, average determinate sentence lengths for adults discharged from prison have increased by more than two months since 1995, and notwithstanding home detention curfew, the average time spent in prison has also increased from 14.7 months in 1995 to 16.8 months in 2005. That obviously does not take account of the effect of ECL, but ECL cannot have any significant effect on those numbers. The hon. Gentleman is dining out on the fact that prisoners are being released early, which they have been under all systems of sentencing.

Although it now appears that the Opposition are about to change their mind, as I will explain, I would advise them to continue with a system under which, if prisoners earn good behaviour and have to be reintroduced to the community, they are released before their full term. The proportion of the nominal sentence actually served has marginally increased, not decreased, from 46 per cent. to 48 per cent. over the period from 1995 to 2005.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the arrangements for ECL exclude many categories, including those who are serious, violent and dangerous offenders. But because ECL involves such a relatively short period of prior release, it is done by assessment against set criteria and not individual risk assessments of the kind that necessarily apply to HDC and parole, where the prior release times are much longer, and in the case of either,
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the offences may be more serious. As I explained, there are a number of exclusions from ECL, including those who have no release address, or who have previously broken temporary release arrangements or escaped from custody.

The logical consequence of the hon. Gentleman’s argument was that no one should ever be released from prison unless we could be certain that they would not commit a further offence. The dismal truth is that quite a large number of prisoners, however long they are kept, are likely to commit a further offence. Would that it were otherwise. One of the reasons I am so keen on working to improve the effectiveness of community sentences and also public understanding, but above all the effectiveness, is so that there is less likelihood of those offenders reoffending, but some will. I strongly advise the hon. Gentleman against going into the next election saying that once someone is admitted to prison, they are never going to be released, or that the Conservatives will abandon any idea of early release for good behaviour, or that no offender will ever commit a further offence.

A luxury of opposition, as Conservative Members so ably demonstrate, is that they do not need to come up with the answers. The job of Government is to come up with answers. Although we understand that an effective penal policy must be based on more than the bricks and mortar of prisons, we have also recognised the need for additional places, which is why in the past 10 years we have provided additional prison places at twice the rate as under the previous Administration. Sorry, but that is a fact. It took the Conservatives 18 years to produce just under 20,000 places. It has taken us 10. In other words, they added an average of 1,000 places a year, whereas we have added an average of 2,000 places a year. [ Interruption. ] There is no dubiety about that—it is the truth.

In addition, my right hon. Friend the previous Home Secretary announced a further building programme to deliver 8,000 new prison places by 2012. On top of that, a further 1,500 places were announced by the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), on 19 June. Work has started on 500 of those extra places, the first of which will come into use in January next year.

I welcome this debate, not least because I hope that, as the hon. Gentleman said, we can agree that it is time to have a sensible national debate about sentencing and the use of prison in England and Wales. Lord Hurd of Westwell sought to tackle that when he was Home Secretary back in 1987. Would that we had heard similar balanced remarks from the hon. Gentleman, who wishes to succeed him in due course. Lord Hurd told this House of

That sentiment was expressed as the Tory Administration were seeking again to address the pressure of prison numbers. They had first sought to do so in 1984 by increasing parole in order to double the overall rate of release. I was reminded of Lord Hurd’s wise words
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when reading the detailed comments of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, who favours a review of sentencing. He says that there are

I agree with that, although he has gone on to say that prison does not work, which I question. Yet his bosses take a completely different view. “Build more prisons,” they say, without any details of how to pay for them.

Let me come on to some of the key issues that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs must face if he is going to be serious about having a prison policy. He told the Littlehampton Gazette—of which, I hope he tells its editor, I have become an assiduous reader—that

[ Interruption. ] He says yes. Fine—if that is the policy of the Conservative party, I invite him to consider its effect. The effect of prisoners serving their sentence—that is, their nominal sentence—in full, period, would be to add 60,000 places to the prison population over a period of at least 10 years, on top of the other projections. If he questions that figure, I am happy to make available independent statisticians in my Department or the Office for National Statistics, or he can go to the Library if he prefers. He has committed himself to 60,000 extra places, and the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has said something similar:

An extra 60,000 prison places would cost £6.6 billion to build and £2.2 billion a year to run.

Mr. Garnier: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw: Of course. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will let me know whether the Conservatives’ policy is that prisoners

Mr. Garnier: Let me return the Secretary of State to what this debate is about—the Government’s policy, which is a national disgrace. A moment ago, he quickly elided the concept of ECL and the 18-day early release system. Most ECL prisoners serve relatively short terms, not life sentences, and it is in the last 18 days of a short sentence that most of the resettlement work is done, so that the probation service, social services, the housing people and the jobcentre people can come into prisons and interview those about to be released to ensure that they can then move out into the wider world and pick up where they left off. Is there not an argument, which the former Home Secretary should get his head around, that by releasing these people early, without allowing them the opportunity to be resettled, he is merely building up a reoffending problem that is foreseeable and has been predicted?

Mr. Straw: I do not accept that. We have provided additional resources to the probation service of, I think, £300,000, and we will continue to do so. Of course I regret any reoffending by any prisoner. However, we are talking about releasing people two
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and a half weeks early: anybody would think that we were talking about murderers sentenced for a minimum tariff of 20 years being let out after a year. The hon. and learned Gentleman must face the fact that there is always a risk when prisoners are released. We have increased the amount of resources to the probation service by more than 70 per cent. in real terms, above what the previous Conservative Administration provided, because I recognised as Home Secretary, as did my successors, the need to have end-to-end management of sentences. We also extended the period of licence to the end of the sentence, not the three-quarters point. He is absolutely right—we are talking about short-sentence prisoners who would be let out in any event, and always in no more than two and a half weeks’ time.

The oddest thing of all is the complaint that we should not give these prisoners any money, which has been part of the criticism levelled at us by the Conservatives. They are not eligible for benefit, but we are told, time and again, that we should release them on to the streets without any money at all—without the £200. That would be facile in the extreme, as well as being inhumane.

Mr. Garnier: That is disingenuous.

Mr. Straw: It certainly is not. I listened with great care to the hon. and learned Gentleman, who faffed around. He did not say whether he was supporting the Leader of Opposition’s policy, which is to end parole, or his senior Front-Bench spokesman’s policy, which is to ensure that prisoners serve their nominal sentence in full—period.

Nick Herbert: While the Secretary of State is talking about sentencing policy, could he tell me what his proposed review of indeterminate sentencing will mean? Could he assure me that the Home Secretary agrees with him that there is a problem in the operation of indeterminate sentences given that on Thursday she berated the Opposition—wrongly, as a matter of fact—for not supporting them?

Mr. Straw: There are two different matters here—one is the concept of indeterminate sentences, which has much merit, and the other is the practice of indeterminate sentences. All sentence structures must be kept under review. The previous Administration did so when they were being wise. As I said to the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), we are dealing with an area where prisoners’ behaviour is unpredictable. We are also dealing with the response to the messages that we send out as regards 30,000 sentences. Although one can predict some of that behaviour, one cannot predict it all.

I cannot tell the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs the results of the review, as it is currently under way. It would be very curious to invite somebody—

Nick Herbert: What is it about?

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Gentleman wants to know what it is about, I suggest that he examine the terms of reference of the Carter review, which has already been established. I was going to deal with this at the end of my speech, but I will do it now. As part of my Sunday
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reading, I read The Sunday Telegraph, which is usually extremely informative on further splits in the Conservative party and other difficulties that the Conservatives have faced, including in Ealing, Southall and Sedgefield. I do not wish to intrude on private grief, but the public interest requires it. The right hon. Member for Witney—currently in Rwanda—said that he had asked the hon. Gentleman to establish a review of prison policy. I think that it has only just been established, and I am not asking him what the results are. I was astonished that the Leader of the Opposition was saying that they were going to have a review, and thought that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would follow it. He has only just caught up. We spend millions of pounds on researchers in Conservative central office—we have trebled the amount of money that they receive—but they are still doing poor work. If they had Googled “prisons review”, they could have found out that on 10 May my predecessor announced that Lord Carter of Coles was to conduct a review about the balance between the supply of and demand for prison places, which will of course include the practice of indeterminate sentences. Moreover, the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is shortly to be renamed the Justice Committee, is conducting a review of sentences and other matters, on which I will be giving evidence later this evening.

We have to have a rational, sensible debate about the totality of the prison estate and how we use other methods. I understand that it is very difficult because, on one level, for all of our constituents, the demand is that where a serious offence is committed, so-and-so should be jailed. I understand that—we have all faced it—and I do not apologise for the fact that I presided over an increase of 20,000 prison places, because I thought that it was necessary.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman touched upon a very important aspect of the debate, which is the reduction of reoffending rates, and the attempt to smooth the transition back into normal society for those leaving prison. At the moment, reoffending rates for some categories, particularly young offenders serving very short sentences, are as high as 92 per cent. What measures does the Secretary of State think could be taken to reduce that figure, and will he expand on the point about special provision being made to help ex-prisoners get into the workplace, find housing and make a meaningful contribution to society?

Mr. Straw: There is a real problem with young, persistent serious offenders, many of whom have drifted into criminal behaviour at a very early age. They often come from chaotic, dysfunctional families or—even worse from their point of view—are looked-after children, typically in local authority care. There are no easy answers that allow us to break this cycle. Some of those young people have to be locked up for the protection of the public, and sometimes for their own protection, to give them an opportunity to be educated. We have expanded the custodial estate for such prisoners.

One of the reasons my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister established the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and a joint responsibility in respect of the
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Youth Justice Board for the Secretary of State in that Department and myself, which I greatly welcome, was to look more widely at how we divert some of those young people from offending before they get to that point, and how we might support them better if and when they do offend.

I know that time is pressing, so I want to finish by saying this. We must have a sensible debate, and I welcome the contribution that some Opposition Members have made. Conservative Front Benchers have to make up their mind about this matter. We could, if we wanted to, carry on increasing the population, not just to the levels we propose—it will have to be increased—but to the levels to which it has been increased in the United States. The US now has 2 million people in prison. Its incarceration rate is five times that of the UK, and we have one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe. Such an increase would mean not 80,000 prisoners but 400,000, and not 140 prisons, but 700. The public may want that. I do not think that they do—I think that they want to go a different way—and if they do not, all of us have to participate in this debate about the sensible level of risk and the sensible balance between putting people in prison and doing our best to take them out of crime outside prison.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The Secretary of State has talked a lot about the state of prisons and overcrowding. Does he agree that one easy win might be to remove prison cells from the extraordinary smoking provisions that his Government introduced in the Health Act 2006? Those provisions appeared to be endorsed by his Cabinet colleagues as recently as 26 June, when the then Secretary of State for Health made the incredible assertion that a prison cell is akin to a prisoner’s own home.

Mr. Straw: I am sorry, I was briefed about most things, but—

Mr. Jeremy Browne: You can smoke in prisons.

Mr. Straw: Yes, you can.

When I went to Belmarsh recently, two things struck me. Belmarsh is not just a high security prison, but a local prison for that part of south-east London. One of the things that struck me was that far fewer prisoners were addicted to drugs in prison, which is reflected by the numbers. The number of prisoners testing positive for drugs has dropped from about 30 per cent. to about 9 per cent., and the regimes in prison are much better than they ever were. [ Interruption. ] It happens to be true, I say to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough.

The second thing I kept thinking was that something was not in the air. There was an absence, or a great reduction, in tobacco smoke, which usually fills prisons. My view is that prisoners should be able to smoke in prison cells, if they want to—

Mr. Malins: So should MPs. What about us?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman says MPs should too.

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I am unapologetic about the fact that alongside the doubling and trebling of prison cells, I also arranged for televisions to be introduced into prison cells, apart from for prisoners on the basic regime—those who had broken prison rules or were just being introduced to prison.

In conclusion, I agree with many of those in the Opposition, but I do not accept the rather rabid approach taken by the new shadow Justice Minister, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs. That is not true of the hon. and learned Gentleman, who is actually far to the left of many of us. He would actually let people out; I am in the middle, between the two of them. I welcome the opportunity to set out our approach to penal policy. It is a challenging area that requires hard choices and difficult decisions. We take our responsibilities seriously. This Government’s record of cutting crime, increasing police numbers and increasing prison places shows that we can assure the public that their safety is our paramount concern.

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