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True though that might be, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that custodial sentences are still a useful and necessary option. At the very least, those in custody are not at liberty to continue offending.

So what early interventions should we explore? We know that many young offenders have more unstable lives, and that as they get beyond school age they are
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more likely to be unemployed and benefit dependent in one way or another. We should consider giving greater access to facilities that help to tackle this as early as possible. Sure Start schemes, for example, start at the very beginning of childhood to give people a better start in life. In Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, there are so-called large schools, in which a range of services for young people and their carers are available. We need to look more closely at such schemes and initiatives.

There are also examples of successful initiatives that introduce more structure into previously chaotic lives. One good example is the advanced skills academy in Liverpool, a military-style project run by ex-military personnel. The academy is designed for young people who are either excluded from school or unlikely to benefit from a conventional education. It offers a structured day and includes activities such as army drill and fitness sessions. It is a relatively new project, and having visited it, I believe that it is a good way to give disaffected young people pride in themselves and to put some structure into their lives.

On a national scale, Skill Force, which was established by the MOD, does a similar job. The Skill Force project that operates in All Saints school in my constituency offers young people positive role models from a military background. The young people find it easy to trust and respect those role models, and that can mean a great deal to otherwise alienated young people. I am working with Lieutenant-Colonel Tony Hollingsworth of the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment and the local education authority in Knowsley to adapt these military approaches as part of the package available for 14 to 19-year-olds. I should add that, if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice has a spare £50,000 in his budget, this project would be able to make good use of it. I hope to have an opportunity to talk to him about that.

Mr. Straw: I am very interested in that project. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) tells me that a similar project in Preston is having similar success. I can make no promises about a spare £50,000—we do not have a spare £50,000—but I will look carefully at any proposition that my right hon. Friend puts forward and do my best to be helpful.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend.

A number of the available interventions offer great benefits. There are many different people with a lot of complex needs, and if we can tailor a range of options and interventions to suit all those different needs, we will have a greater chance of success. As I mentioned earlier, it is essential that we ascertain how effective these interventions are, regardless of the point at which they take place in an offender’s career. We need to be able to measure their effectiveness, and to conduct studies of how one intervention compares with another. I believe that there is a lot to be gained from that kind of study.

Time prevents me from saying much more on this subject, but I believe that the reason we have a problem with the number of people in prison today, the number of places available and the costs involved is that we do
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not pay enough attention at an early stage to how patterns of offending can be prevented before they even start. The kind of interventions that I have described offer some ways forward, but there are many other ideas that are worthy of consideration. I hope that my right hon. Friend will listen hard to the large number of people who have ideas on this subject.

6.46 pm

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): When we have a debate about the NHS, mention is always made of the hard work of nurses. When we debate law and order, mention is usually made of the work of police officers. When we are discussing defence, people always talk about the bravery of our armed forces, and quite rightly so. It is interesting, however, that when we talk about prisons, we never seem to remember the important work done by prison officers. They carry out their work often at great risk to themselves. I believe that seven prison officers are assaulted every day, and those are not minor assaults but serious ones. I hope that the Lord Chancellor will mention those people when he sums up later.

Mr. Straw rose—

David T.C. Davies: The right hon. Gentleman was not that generous in giving way to me earlier, if I dare say that to a man held in such esteem. May I just say this to him? Prison officers are not allowed to go on strike at the moment, and I believe that that is right. However, if we are going to prevent them from striking by using the full might of the law, we must recognise their contribution, through financial means. I hope that he will listen, as I do, to Colin Moses, a man whose political views are very far from my own but who exudes a great deal of common sense.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I apologise for the fact that I was not able to give way to him earlier. I am usually pretty accommodating. May I also say that that was an omission from my speech, and I am grateful to be able to add to the record my tribute to prison officers, to probation officers and to the civilian staff in prisons?

David T.C. Davies: I thank the right hon. Gentleman.

The present system of sentencing is an absolute shambles. About the only subject on which I agreed with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was the need for transparency in sentencing. There has been talk today of letting prisoners out of jail 18 days early, but the reality is that virtually all prisoners are let out early, usually months or even years before the sentence that they have been given by a judge has been completed. Someone sentenced to one year in prison is often out on a tag after only three months. A two-year sentence will often mean just seven and a half months in prison, and a four-year sentence, which is usually handed out for serious crimes such as armed robbery or even rape, will often result in the offender spending only one year and seven and a half months or so in prison.

As for life sentences, the term is a joke. Some research that I did last year showed that, as of April 2006, more than 50 people who had been sentenced to
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life imprisonment since 2000 had already been let out, including a rapist who had been let out after just under a year. Our sentencing structure is a complete and utter disgrace. It is nothing more than a confidence trick designed to make the public think that they are a whole lot safer than they are, and that sentences are a lot longer than they are.

I listened with some interest to the Lord Chancellor earlier. It appeared that he and my colleagues on the Front Bench accept the importance of prison and the need to ensure that people spend longer in prison than is currently the case. The same cannot be said for the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, however, who trotted out all the usual arguments put forward by the anti-prison lobby for allowing offenders to run amok on the streets.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the costs involved. If I cannot say anything else in my allotted time today, I want to get this across: prison is actually very cheap indeed. He mentioned a figure of about £36,000 per annum for keeping someone in prison. The Government say that it is about £32,000 a year. In actual fact, we are not talking about category A prisoners here. Everyone—even the Liberal Democrats—accepts that category A prisoners need to be in prison, and they are the most expensive to house. What we are talking about is category B, C and D prisoners, and the actual cost of keeping them in prison is well under £30,000 a year; indeed, I believe it is about £25,000. From that gross figure to the taxpayer, however, one has to remember that three quarters of people entering a prison estate are on various forms of benefits when they do so. In order to get the true net cost to the taxpayer, we have to deduct from that £25,000 the money that they would have been receiving on benefit outside prison. That brings the net cost to the taxpayer to well under £20,000 a year.

We then need to take into account the cost of leaving those people outside prison. The Carter report, to which the Lord Chancellor referred, makes it clear—on page 15, I believe—that most crime in this country is carried out by 100,000 people, of whom only 15,000 are in prison at any given time. It also makes it clear that if we doubled the current prison population from around 80,000 to 160,000, which I think would be the optimum amount, crime in this country would halve. The costs of crime were estimated by the Home Office in 2000 at £60 billion a year, and I have subsequently seen estimates of up to £90 billion a year. That is the total cost to society of the crimes committed in a year.

If we doubled the prison population and spent not £3 billion but £6 billion to house 160,000 people, taking out the 85,000 recidivist offenders, we would actually make a net saving according to the Government’s own figures—yes, on the Government’s own figures— [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) does not agree with what is in the Carter report, I will give way to him. As I was saying, the Government’s own figures suggest that we could make a saving of tens of billions of pounds a year by putting persistent offenders in prison.

Of course, when confronted with the cost argument, all these anti-prison people such as the Liberal Democrats suddenly want to change the subject and they start talking about the rehabilitation rates, as did the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. It is certainly true
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that about 60 per cent. of people coming out after a short prison sentence will reoffend, but what the hon. Gentleman does not know, or does not want to know, is that people serving longer prison sentences are much less likely to reoffend. For those serving one to four years, the reoffending rate is 50 per cent.; for those serving four to 10 years, the reoffending rate within two years is 33 per cent.—and that does not include lifers.

What that demonstrates is that, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, there is no point in putting people in prison for a short time, but there is every reason to put people in for a longer time. Many people entering the prison estate, by the time they have been assessed and then put there, face only a few months of incarceration, so prison officers make life as comfortable as they can for them and leave them to it. What we should be doing is keeping hold of people for at least one to two years and ensuring that they have proper access to the vocational qualifications and the drug-related and anger management courses that they need.

There are two prisons in my constituency. One is a high-security sex offenders prison and the other is an open prison. By the way, a propos of nothing, it is the open prisons that cause the problems, because those are the ones that people walk out of. The sex offenders prison, despite the people who are in there, runs very good vocational courses. It can do that because the prisoners are in there for long enough. That is what we should be offering young offenders and prisoners in the B and C estates. We often cannot do that, because they are simply not in prison for long enough.

On of the greatest problems with prison, apart from the fact that people are completely biased against it, is the fact that we do not do enough to support the prison officers who work in the prison estates. Those who come to see me often complain that although they have access to items such as the retractable baton and gas in adult prisons, they do not have access to them in some young offenders prisons.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred earlier to young offenders as “children”—an emotive word. Let me tell him that in my work as an occasional special constable, the first person I arrested was a 16-year-old carrying two handguns—and he had a third one back at his house. In my view, that sort of person is a very serious offender, and I hope he was locked up for it—although I never quite found out what happened. According to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, that offender is an innocent little child who should be left to his own devices. The reality is that we will never tackle crime in this country unless we recognise the importance of putting a certain number of people in prison and keeping them there for long enough to change their behaviour.

The first thing we should do is to stop all forms of early release. That applies to the 18-day scheme in place at the moment—although frankly, it is small beer in comparison with what else is going on—or any other schemes, including tagging and automatic early release. All those need to stop, so that the public can be assured that when a judge hands out a sentence, it will be served in full.

Next, we should ensure that all those who go to prison are kept there long enough to get some form of vocational qualification, and to get off the drugs and
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alcohol that have so often brought them there in the first place. We need to raise the status of prison officers and stop thinking about them in terms of the documentaries and so-called “docu-films” such as “Scum”, which presented the work of prison officers wrongly. The vast majority of prison officers, like the vast majority of police officers, nurses, doctors and other public servants, do an excellent job to very high standards.

If we did all that, we might just have a chance. Unfortunately, we are likely to carry on in the same way. We might get the prison population up to about 90,000, but the length of sentences will not be long enough to deter people from a life of crime, and we will continue to listen to the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Reform Trust—and, unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats, who do not seem to recognise that there are some people who are simply not fit to walk the streets of this country.

6.56 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I begin by declaring an interest as a Crown court recorder and a district judge who has to deal with some of these problems daily. The motion refers to

and that is the main aspect on which I want to concentrate briefly this evening. I wish to focus particularly on education, sport and drug rehabilitation for younger offenders under 21.

I would like to start with two anecdotes. First, about eight or 10 years ago, I talked to a young offender at a Cheltenham remand institution and I asked him what he was doing in there. He told me that he was there because he had been disqualified from driving for the third time and was given a three-month sentence. I asked him about his criminal record, but there was nothing else on it. I then asked him why he got disqualified and he told me that he was driving without a licence and without insurance and they kept catching him. I asked whether he had ever had an accident and he said, “No, of course not. I am a great driver and I have never had an accident”. I asked him why on earth he could not get a licence, for goodness’ sake—“Because I cannot pass the theory test because I cannot read and write. That is it”. That was a perfectly good young man, yet he was given a three-month sentence.

Let us move now to the magistrates court, where I sit as a district judge, and reflect on another young man. Today he stands in the dock; yesterday he walked into a supermarket and walked out, quite unashamedly with a whole lot of razor blades, which he was going to sell to make the money to get his drugs. There he is in the dock; he looks about 60; he is shaking and scratching his arm; he can barely hold his head up. I ask him to confirm his age—20. There is another ruined life. He began life in a dysfunctional family on a bad council estate; he was on solvents at 11, cannabis at 12; he gained no qualifications, no job, nothing. He got into serious drugs and there he goes.

It is worth talking a little about what we can do for our young offenders when they are in custody. Can we make a better fist of it? We would all agree that education is very important indeed. We know what
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young men are like; we were all young men. I look around the Chamber, and every colleague here this evening was once a young man—

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): One still is!

Mr. Malins: Perhaps one still is. We all know what we went through.

I acquired some statistics recently and they trouble me. I asked the Government—I do not blame any particular Government as Governments of all persuasions share this problem—about the average hours during week days spent in cells by young offenders at young offenders institutions. In other words, how long were these people under 21 locked up in their cells? At Deerbolt, 17 hours; Reading, 17.1 hours; Aylesbury, 16 hours; Brinsford, 16 hours. What the hell is going on? Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What is going on when we lock our young people up for 16 or 17 hours a day. The average across all young offender institutions is 15 hours a day locked up. We are not talking about an old lag of 50 or 60. We are talking about a young man of 18 or 19, locked up for 15 hours a day on average. That is not good enough.

What are we doing about educating our young men in these establishments? Going back to my man who could not pass his driving test because he could not pass the theory test, why are we not making him read and write? Why are we not giving him some hope when he comes out? I checked a year or so ago the average number of hours spent per week on education by young men in each of our young offender institutions. In Glen Parva, it was 6.4 hours per week. What is going on? In Portland it was 7.4 hours per week, in Reading eight hours per week, and in Rochester nine hours per week. Nine, eight, seven or six hours a week is just not good enough. It is time that we realised that in the House.

David T.C. Davies: My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point, but are those figures so low because those offenders will not go out and access the facilities available to them, or is that all that is on offer?

Mr. Malins: I do not know the answer to that. I just point out the fact that it is a national disgrace. I suspect that some facilities are not taken up, but it is nevertheless a national disgrace.

Thinking of myself as a young man, I checked how many hours a week are spent on sport—team sport, physical sport, something to get the energy levels going, something that binds people together, gives them standards of discipline and behaving properly. It is absolutely laughable how much time is spent on sport: one hour, two hours, a bit of PE here and there. There is no sign of team sports such as rugby and football. We need to focus on that.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way when he is pressed for time. I could not agree more with the emphasis that he is placing on such activities. Does he share my complete bemusement as to why, given the importance of that agenda, the Government have
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dropped purposeful activity of a modest 24 hours a week in prison as a key performance indicator, a target that was met only once in eight years?

Mr. Malins: I agree. It is such a shame.

There we are: those people are locked up for most of the day, with virtually no sport, and very little education. It is a miracle that not everyone who comes out reoffends the next day and reoffends more. Lest I be thought to be a softie, I am not a softie because I can pass a tough sentence when I need to, but I am trying to be constructive, too.

As for drugs, that is a subject worth days of debate. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and I have debated those issues before. He was right: drugs are available in many of these young offender institutions. Youngsters go in and they cannot help themselves. That young defendant at the south London court was out of control with drugs. It is cheaper to put him through a drug residential rehabilitation centre than it is to lock him away for three months or six months, saying “See how it goes.” I will tell hon. Members how it goes: it goes very badly. We have to have some cross-party thinking—some thinking from hon. Members on both sides of the House—about what we can do constructively for all our prisoners, not just our young offenders. The record of the past 10, 20 or 30 years is not one of which we can be proud.

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