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6.16 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue. I agree that there is a need for a national conversation about it, and I hope that it is slightly better informed and more valuable than is sometimes the case. The motion is extremely timely because there is a crisis in our prison system. It is one that has developed not in the past few weeks, but in the past few years. Many of us recall the situation under the previous Conservative Administration. I remember, as a chairman of a police authority, having to find a large number of police cells to help out with long-term prisoners, and those cells were no longer available for their primary purpose. That was a very difficult circumstance.

I tend to agree that the position during the past few weeks with regard to early release, and the system’s lack of ability to cope with the risk assessment of some of those released, has been shambolic, and we should say so. The Government have not shown themselves in the best light through their inability to perform their basic duties appropriately.

What I cannot agree with or accept is the simplistic demand for more and more prison capacity. It does not make sense. It is not a logical response to the situation in the country. When I see Conservative Members blithely saying that they would like to double the prison population, and spend an extra £3.4 billion on building prisons—an extra penny on income tax—

Nick Herbert: The extra penny on income tax was your idea.

Mr. Heath: Our plan was a penny on income tax to go towards education, but the hon. Gentleman’s party wants a penny on income tax to build more prisons, and support a policy of failure. Is that the right way? It does not seem appropriate to me at all. The Leader of the Opposition seems to be all over the place on the issue, too. Sometimes he wants to hug a hoodie, and other times, he wants—as he told the Evening Standard—to convict and lock up more and more criminals. I presume it depends on whether one catches him on a flip or a flop. The former is a flip, and the latter a flop.

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The Government have a problem with their attitude, and they know it perfectly well. It was encapsulated by the response from the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) at Justice questions the other day. He recognised the fact that we cannot simply carry on increasing the prison population, but went on to say:

He sees the increase in the number of people in prison as inexorable, while at the same time, he wants a reduction. I do not think that it is inexorable because we need to find ways of making our penal policy more effective. Let us be clear that only one aspect of prison is effective; it works in only way: protecting the public from the activities of those who are locked up.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that not only the length of a prison sentence is important, but the person’s fitness to lead a productive and law-abiding life at the point of release—whenever that happens? There should be opportunities not simply to rehabilitate prisoners’ attitudes to life but to educate and train them so that they are ready for employment.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Lady is right and that is the substance of what I shall say shortly.

Prison works in the sense that it stops offenders knocking people over the head or robbing their homes while they are inside. It does not act as a deterrent—that is obvious from the statistics—and it does not reduce reoffending. We have an extraordinary rate of recidivism. In rehabilitation terms, we have a process that does not work. The Liberal Democrats have called for some time for an evidence-based approach, whereby we support the processes that work and reject those that do not in reducing crime and offending.

The public do not want more people in prison; they want less crime on our streets. We therefore need urgently to stabilise and then reduce the prison population.

Dr. Murrison: I accept a great deal of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. However, does he accept that one cannot possibly have effective rehabilitation as long as there is overcrowding? The current prison population means that there must be more prison cells. Surely he understands that.

Mr. Heath: Precisely so—there cannot be effective rehabilitation and overcrowding.

However, let us consider the people who are in prison. Are they the right people? I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and read the motion carefully. First, it does not deal properly with those with mental illness in our prison estate. The hon. Gentleman mentioned in passing that 90 per cent. of prisoners have some symptoms of mental illness, but simply went on to say that that means building more prisons. It does not. It means that we should have more treatment centres that are capable of dealing with mental illness. When one in 10 of our prisoners are functionally psychotic and in ordinary cells, it does not do them, the Prison Service or society any good.

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I hoped that the new Lord Chancellor would say today that he had reviewed the position on building more prisons and reached the sensible conclusion that we need to build more secure mental health provision in the Prison Service instead. That is the logical way in which to move people who should not be in prison out of the prison estate. That would deal with their needs and those of society. A sensible approach would be to use the money that the right hon. Gentleman has earmarked for prison expansion to increase the places in secure mental health provision. We have only 1,150 places in Ashworth, Broadmoor and Rampton. That is hugely insufficient to meet the needs of the current prison population. Why do we not tackle that scarcity rather than simply building more run-of-the-mill prison cells?

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman consider sex offenders to have mental health problems? How would he tackle the high levels of reoffending among that group of people? They pose a genuine concern to the public and my understanding of Liberal Democrat policy is that proposals about tackling those serious and worrying offenders are unclear.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman uses the term “sex offender”, but it covers a wide spectrum of offences. I believe that there are those who need active support through a mental health programme and that it is wrong that they are not given it. However, there is a wider spectrum of those who are simply violent criminals who express their violence in sexual offences. I am not sure whether they fall into the same category—I think that the hon. Gentleman probably agrees.

Additional secure mental health provision is necessary. Secondly, we need secure drug treatment centres. Again, there is a huge lack. Ten thousand prisoners are in prison for drugs offences. We know that three quarters of all male prisoners took illegal drugs in the 12 months before their imprisonment. Yet our secure drug treatment centres have only 2,500 places. Again, I had hoped that, instead of building more bog-standard prisons, we would deal with the problem, which clogs up the system. People cannot be sent for the drug treatments that the courts prescribe through legislation that the Lord Chancellor introduced when he was Home Secretary. Those orders cannot be complied with because insufficient drug treatment places are available.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the small reduction in illegal drugs that are detected in prisons, drugs remain a major problem in many of our prisons. Many offenders go to prison without a drugs problem but leave with one. Drugs are a major motor of reoffending as they are of crime generally. They are the major motor of acquisitive crime.

Mr. Malins: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, when he says that 2,500 drug rehabilitation places are available, he knows that, because of Government underfunding, not nearly all of them are occupied. As well as more beds, we need more funding. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that residential rehabilitation beds are cheaper than prison?

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Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right. They are cheaper—and not only by a bit. I am informed that a residential rehabilitation bed costs £674.10 a week—the hon. Gentleman holds up his excellent pamphlet on the subject, which he was good enough to send me. That is £6,000 less per annum than the equivalent prison place. The case therefore makes economic as well as social policy sense.

My third point takes me back to the comments of the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). We hugely underestimate the need and capacity for training and education in prison. If many prisoners share one common characteristic it is that they underperform in their scholastic achievement. Their reading age is generally 50 per cent. below what is expected of an 11-year-old; numeracy is 66 per cent. below, and writing is 80 per cent. below. All those who consider penal policy carefully agree that a major factor in the propensity for criminality is finding it difficult to cope with normal social behaviour because of that lack of attainment.

We should not only massively increase the scope for education—we cannot do that in an overcrowded system—but we must make much of the work in prisons compulsory. We should expand it so that it is much more focused on things that are socially useful. We should also pay prisoners properly for their work in prison, and let it contribute to compensation funds so that we do something for our victims, too.

I hope that the Lord Chancellor has had the opportunity to read the submission from Citizens Advice—

Mr. Straw: Lord Chancellor.

Mr. Heath: What did I say?

Mr. Straw: Lord Justice.

Mr. Heath: Lord Chief Justice—good lord, no.

Mr. Straw: Lord High Chancellor.

Mr. Heath: Indeed, Lord High Chancellor. I ask him to examine the submission from Citizens Advice, which makes sensible suggestions about what could be provided in prison, not only to help prisoners manage their affairs on entry to prison and make sure that their homes and loved ones are properly cared for, but to prepare them effectively for release so that they do not suffer an immediate crisis on leaving prison, which, without proper support, results in reoffending.

Mr. Beith: I want to illustrate my hon. Friend’s earlier point, by reminding him that the inspector of prisons has twice reported that Acklington prison in my constituency is unable to fulfil its designated training role because of overcrowding. She has run out of words to describe the situation, which she regards as unsatisfactory.

Mr. Heath: That is not an uncommon situation, sadly. Those who work in the prison education service would give a despondent and discouraging view of what they can now provide and of what they could provide, given appropriate support.

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The fourth element in reducing the prison population is doing something much more effective with what are often disparagingly called community sentences—I prefer to call them public service sentences. We have to make them much more appropriate to the crimes that are committed and much more related to the communities in which they are committed.

That point was made by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) during his ten-minute Bill speech, which immediately preceded this debate. His Bill hit the nail on the head. He talked about the effect of minor vandalism and graffiti, and about how restorative justice procedures could make people not only put right the damage that they have done within the community, but be seen to be making amends. Also, all the evidence supports the view that they would be far less likely to offend as a result of that than they would be after a short prison sentence. All the evidence shows that sentences of less than three months have very little deterrent effect—in fact, quite the reverse. They tend to encourage a sense of criminality and an identification with criminality among those who might otherwise be diverted from more serious offences. That is something on which we need to concentrate.

My final point about reducing the numbers in the estate is about the position of children. We have 2,200 people under 18 in prison. That is not the right place for children. I accept that there are young offenders who make the lives of people in communities a misery. We need to do something effective to stop them reoffending and, particularly if they are persistent offenders of a certain type, to remove them from the community, so that they can no longer inflict damage upon it. However, I do not think that prison is the right way of doing that. We have to have alternative and more appropriate ways of detaining young people.

I return to restorative justice processes, which are shown to be particularly effective with young people. We have a community justice panel in Chard in Somerset, where there is a 5 per cent. reoffending rate. Let us compare that with the rates for prison and consider which has the most effective outcome.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman tell us why it is that as soon somebody under 18 enters the justice system they cease to be a young person or a youth and they become a child?

Mr. Heath: I am very happy to call the person a child, a youth or whatever the hon. Gentleman chooses. I just note the fact that they are under 18. Therefore, for many of us they are children and they need to be treated as children, even if they are extremely badly behaved children who need particular measures to put them straight. They are still not beyond redemption, although some might take the view that they are.

I want to finish now, because this is a short debate. If those various measures were put in place, we could see a substantial and sustained reduction in the prison population. We need more research on the subject of early release. I am aware that the Lord Chancellor recently received correspondence from a professor of criminology saying precisely that. He has a point: we
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do not have a proper research base for the different options available for early release. That needs to be put into effect through controlled trials.

We need more active management of the prison estate. We seem to accept that some of the hugely inefficient and inappropriate Victorian prisons in the centres of cities are still the right way of keeping prisoners, even if they happen to be in the wrong places, to be very expensive and to occupy extremely expensive pieces of land that could be sold for redevelopment. I would like much more active management of the prison estate, so that we can get the most appropriate accommodation in the right places and get rid of some of the large Victorian buildings that have outlived their usefulness as prisons.

My final point touches on what I think the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs was trying to say earlier—there was a little crossfire between the two Front Benches—about what the length of time served in a sentence means. I have long advocated honesty in sentencing and I will continue to do so. It is long overdue and is important to the public attitude towards the criminal justice system. That does not mean that the Executive should have no discretion in the system, but it does mean that judges should construct sentences so that there is a clear term that is going to be served and the public understand that. There should also be an additional term that will be served if there is not appropriate behaviour on the part of the prisoner. Instead of having x minus y, we would have x plus y. If the system made it clear that a prison sentence of a certain duration meant precisely that, the public would have much more confidence in our system and would believe that justice was being done. At the moment I do not believe that they have any such confidence, and the events of the past few weeks have served to undermine that confidence still further.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Had there been a 10-minute limit placed on Back-Bench speeches, this would be the point at which I would be reminding the House of it. However, it would be very helpful if hon. Members who are now about to be called behaved as though there were one.

6.36 pm

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I am grateful for that helpful advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and as you know, I always try to follow advice from the Chair. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). He presented his argument in a characteristically thoughtful and good-natured way, but to my mounting horror I found that I agreed with one of his points. I am beginning to assess whether to think through my arguments further.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice—or, as he prefers to be known, Lord High Chancellor—delivered a spirited rendition of the great achievements of the past 10 years. Since he has already done that I will take them as read and not repeat them. Despite all the achievements that he referred to, however, crime, antisocial behaviour and the fear of
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crime still have a terrible effect on many of our communities, and disproportionately so on the most vulnerable.

We need to place more emphasis on two or three key areas. We need to consider increasing the number of offences that are brought to justice—in other words, to do something about the offences that are committed, but whose perpetrators never end up inside a courtroom, for one reason or another. We need to look at reducing offending, as several hon. Members have already said, and we need to continue the search for better ways of tackling antisocial behaviour.

Just stating those aims does not result in any change. They cover difficult and challenging areas, but I welcome the fact that the Government are rightly addressing them; my right hon. Friend emphasised all three of them in his speech, albeit in perhaps slightly different terms. If we are to make real progress, it is essential that we focus our interventions on what has been shown to be most effective—this is where I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. Basically, that means using interventions that have a strong evidence base. It also means talking to offenders, who have direct experience of the criminal justice system.

For a period, I served under my right hon. Friend—perhaps in an undistinguished way—as a junior Minister in the Home Office. I learnt a great deal from talking to young people, mostly men, in young offender institutions. Surprisingly perhaps, they are quite honest. They will talk about things—what they have been involved in, their family background and so on—that they would not be so frank about in other walks of life. There is a great deal to be learnt from that. We can also learn a great deal from their experience. One of the conclusions that I reached was that they had spent far too long in an offending career before anyone even bothered to bring them into a courtroom. We should also be open to adapting the techniques pioneered in other countries to the circumstances that we find in Britain, and to measuring the effectiveness of such experiments against existing practice.

Much attention has been paid to offenders once they get into the criminal justice system—that is what today’s debate is about—and many commentators have observed that the system struggles because it is attempting to address wider social problems that are beyond the remit of the prison service. This means that we need to make earlier interventions to address problematic behaviour before it reaches the criminal justice system. Where such interventions work, there are obvious benefits. They reduce the incidence of antisocial behaviour, and there is less pressure on custodial sentences. A recent report from the King’s college centre for crime and justice studies stated that

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