Previous Section Index Home Page

7.3 pm

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I am conscious of the fact that Front Benchers wish to speak. I wish to add one small point to the debate and to take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). He pointed out that 50 per cent. of crime comes from reoffending. The evidence shows clearly that some basic things need to be provided to support people to turn away from that path. One is some accommodation to go to; another is some family support to tap into; and the third is a job and some prospect of meaningful employment.

I recommend to the Minister that he takes some time to look at an initiative in my constituency introduced by Blue Sky. That initiative was set up by Mick May in partnership with Groundwork locally and it is supported by Hillingdon council. It is the only company in the country that insists on someone having a criminal record before entering its employment. It employs ex-cons basically to clean up and to green Hillingdon and to look after the parks. They are highly visible, making a contribution to the community. If the Minister were to talk to the people on that scheme, he would recognise how crucial to their lives those six months at Blue Sky are. One young man travels two hours a day to take part because he sees it as his lifeline at that crucial moment after he exited prison.

Innovative voluntary projects such as that are making a huge difference, but the Government and the Prison Service, and the culture of “Not invented here” seem to be so resistant. We have to open our minds.

7.4 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I thank my hon. Friends and other right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I think
24 July 2007 : Column 752
that the Secretary of State would agree that that was probably not the best of his speeches, but I do not want to abuse him too much in his absence. He has apologised for the fact that he cannot be here for the winding-up speeches because he has to give evidence to the Select Committee that is chaired by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith).

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), I want to confess to being a Crown court recorder and to having to deal with the sort of feeble people who appear before the courts week in, week out—feeble intellectually, socially and in terms of mental and physical health—on that great conveyor belt of people who come before district judges, recorders and pretty well every other member of the judiciary who have to deal with criminal defendants in that jurisdiction. What both my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who spoke cogently, if briefly, have said is key. We will never reduce reoffending until we get a better product, if I can use that hideous expression, coming out of our custodial establishments, be they young offender institutions, or adult prisons, and until we get people who are off drugs, can read, can write, are physically healthy and motivated, so that they can lead sensible and constructive lives.

The Conservative party’s review of this area of debate will be led by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). One of the many things that it will think hard about is incarceration because that is an important and central part of any criminal justice policy. I hope that that pleases my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies). It will also ensure that we do not simply incarcerate, but do something with the people whom we incarcerate when they are in prisons, young offender institutions or secure training units, so that when they come out—most people who are sent into custody are released at some stage; only about 1 or 2 per cent. of those who are sent into custody never come out again—they can go to the jobcentre, read what is on offer and get a job, and they can stagger out into the streets healthy rather than looking for the next fix.

At the moment, other than those people who are released on ECL, as it is called nowadays, I think that most prisoners get demob money of about £45 to £50. Far too many of them go straight to the nearest railway cutting and buy the next fix, and around they go again. It will not do. It is a waste of everyone's money. It is not an absence of Conservative thinking to say, “Let us think rather more carefully about what we do in prison with prisoners, just as we want to think about what we do outside prison to prevent offending and reoffending.”

Sir Patrick Cormack: I will be brief. I have been much impressed by the achievements of some of the community restorative justice schemes in Northern Ireland. Is that something that we could have a look at?

Mr. Garnier: Yes. The Secretary of State thought it amusing to chide me for having admitted to Mary Ann Sieghart in an article that she wrote in The Times nearly 18 months ago, when I was appointed by the Leader of the Opposition to shadow the prisons portfolio, that I was on a voyage of discovery. The one
24 July 2007 : Column 753
thing about being on a voyage of discovery is that one looks, learns and sees and one gains from the experience of looking and learning. Rather than arrogantly saying that we know everything, those of us on a voyage of discovery allow ourselves to be influenced by the people we have met and by what we have seen on that voyage. Part of that voyage of discovery has taken me to 25 custodial institutions, adult prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales. That is probably rather more—I am subject to correction—than the present Lord Chancellor visited when he was Home Secretary and started the fiasco that we are now having to sort out. It is true that the Minister has already been to one or two prisons. [Interruption.] He says that he has been to eight in eight weeks; that is very good, but he ought to go to many more to see the evidence of the failure of his Government’s policies, and they should then come up with some better ones.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth that we tend to forget about the prison officers who have to work and live in very difficult circumstances day in and day out. Let me give an example: 18 months ago a wing of Norwich prison had to be decanted because inmates were living in their own sewage and officers were having to work in it. That is a disgusting state of affairs, and it was presided over by this Government thanks to their overcrowding policy. Because of overcrowding and the Government’s incompetent management of our prison system, that disgusting wing has had to be refilled with prisoners and officers. I have some sympathy for the prisoners, who have been sent to prison because of their misdemeanours, but I have a huge amount of sympathy for the prison officers working in both private and public prisons who have to endure such unattractive circumstances in their working lives.

The right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) was right to stress the importance of early intervention. Many of the problems we face, such as the current overcrowding in our prison estate, arise because people are allowed to slip through the net at far too young an age. That might have happened because of family breakdown, drugs or drink; but whatever the cause is, the Government have failed to get a grip on it, and I encourage them to follow the right hon. Gentleman’s advice on intervention.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) mentioned restorative justice. It is hugely valuable, but only in a limited number of cases; it works well only where there is the right defendant and the right victim and both of them agree that it is the right process to go through. If it does not work well, it goes badly wrong, but I have sometimes seen it work extremely well—in Wandsworth and in Cardiff, for instance—and it is of huge value to the criminal justice system.

Sadly, I have little time in which to deliver what should be a half-hour speech, but I shall endeavour to persuade the Government that our motion is worthy of support. On 12 July, the new Secretary of State for Justice unburdened himself to the Murdoch press by
24 July 2007 : Column 754
calling for a national debate on the prison overcrowding crisis. He said that he wanted to send fewer people to prison. Some of us will remember the Secretary of State as the last Home Secretary but three and the man who was in charge of prisons and criminal justice policy from 1997 to 2001—half the period that this Government have been in office—but anyone would think from what he said that he considers the mess that he and his colleagues have created to be a totally surprising state of affairs.

The Government’s policy then and now is to be seen as being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. In order to demonstrate that, they have created 3,000 additional criminal offences, introduced 65 criminal justice statutes and decreed that more people should be sent to prison, and for longer. However, they have failed to understand that that will result in the prisons filling up. If they had planned sensibly, they would have ensured that there was sufficient capacity in the prisons to accommodate the additional people being sent there as a result of public policy.

Overcrowded prisons are the rock on which this Government’s criminal justice policy has foundered. If we have overcrowded prisons, we can achieve nothing with prisoners. If we can achieve nothing with prisoners because the prison estate is overcrowded, we will not reduce reoffending but we will increase the danger to the public. My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth wants to reduce reoffending to protect the public—our electors and taxpayers. The Government must get their head around the simple equation that overcrowding equals sclerosis and ineffective rehabilitation of offenders. This is not about being soft; it is about being competent—it is about using money wisely, and ensuring that the citizens of our country can, as my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs said, walk out of their houses or come home from their jobs without being hit on the head by some demented drug addict who wants their purse or wallet.

As has been said in the debate, a huge proportion of those who commit crimes are under the influence of drugs. In the main, it is addicts who commit crimes, not criminals who become drug addicts. What my hon. Friend the Member for Woking said on this matter was right: until the Government deal with that fact, they will be putting the cart before the horse.

The Government make a further mistake. They assume that when they say that they have built 20,000 new prison places since 1997, the public believe that it is true. That is not true. They have increased the number of prisoners by more than 20,000, and they have sought to reduce that in a panic-driven way through the ECL scheme, which will over the course of the next year lead to an increase of 25,000 in the number of people being pushed out of prison early and produce a net reduction in the prison population of only 1,250.

Mary Riddell noted this weekend in The Observer that despite ECL, the prison population would increase by 500 a week. If that is competent management of our prison system, I am a banana—and I am not talking about Robert Peel. The Government have not produced 20,000 additional spaces, as they claim. As my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs said, they have merely doubled-up single cells,
24 July 2007 : Column 755
trebled-up double cells and created a continuing and growing mess. It is a mess of their own making, and I wish I had longer to speak on it. It is not only a national disgrace, but criminally reckless.

7.17 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I thank Members for the tone in which they have conducted the debate.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has just admitted that he might be a banana. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) will back me up in that there are certainly some banana splits on the Opposition Benches today as there is a difference in policy approach between the hon. and learned Gentleman and the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) and other Opposition Members who have made different points.

I do not duck the fact that there are serious issues that need to be tackled in respect of the prison population, or that we face challenges in preventing reoffending and ensuring that our citizens get what they deserve: a crime-free society in which they can live safely in their homes and communities. I could go on about the fact that there is 35 per cent. less crime in our society now than there was when the Conservative party was in office, but that would not be a constructive way to approach the debate.

There is common ground on some of the challenges we face. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), the hon. and learned Gentleman and the hon. Member for Woking agree that we need to slow the growth in the prison population, and that is clearly true. There are 79,500 people in prison, and according to Government forecasts—which are due to be revised in October—that figure might rise to between 102,000 and 104,000 by 2012. We have planned some 9,500 new prison places—real ones—and for new prisons, extensions to prisons and units to be built over the next five years, but it is clear that a gap remains between the number of new places and the forecasted rise in the prison population. We have two options. As the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) said, we can raise even further the number of prison places. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) would happily support that, and I suspect that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) would also support it. However, I do not think that the hon. and learned Gentleman or the hon. Member for Woking would support that principle.

We need to look at how we manage prison population issues for the future. We are clear that we need to build extra prison places to meet present need, but we also need—as I have said to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome in correspondence and discussions on the matter—to try to reduce the growth in the prison population.

There is further common ground on the need for early intervention. My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) made a thoughtful speech on that point, as did the hon. Member for Woking. We need to reduce reoffending and make prisons a place where learned skills and
24 July 2007 : Column 756
employability—not only in prison, but on the outside—become a reality. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) touched on that issue and I concur with the points that he made.

Whatever we do, we need to ensure that we reduce crime, and that is also common ground. Every drop in crime means fewer of my constituents—and every other hon. Member’s constituents—suffering the burden of crime. We need to tackle the issue of clarity in sentencing and we need to consider the impact of sentencing policy on the prison population.

It has not been mentioned today, but we need to consider penal policy as it affects women. I will shortly consider the report by Baroness Corston, and I will give a response to it in the autumn. I will consider how we can reduce the number of women in prison, because a prison sentence affects not only the person imprisoned, but the families, the community and the people with whom they live, work and share lives, and it is clear that there are too many women in prison at present.

We are agreed that we need to reduce reoffending, protect the public and plan for the future. If I may make a minor political point, it has been evident today that there is a difference of approach between the hon. Member for Monmouth, who, I remind the House, urged that 160,000 people should be put in prison, at a cost that even the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) would not—

David T.C. Davies: Perhaps the Minister did not hear the argument. Page 15 of the Carter report clearly states that if one put in prison the 85,000 recidivist offenders who are out on the streets, the crime rate would halve. If the crime rate halved, the net saving to the state would be between £30 billion and £45 billion a year. Therefore, building more prisons is one of the best bargains that the taxpayer could have.

Mr. Hanson: I do not know which Carter report the hon. Gentleman is reading, but the Carter report to which I refer has not yet been written or published by Lord Carter. We have given him terms of reference, which he is considering, but the report will be brought back to the House and Ministers in the autumn.

The Government have a clear strategy to build more prison places, to prevent reoffending, to make community sentences a reality, and to consider how we tackle the problems of drugs, housing and employability both outside and inside prison. However, with due respect to Conservative Members, there appears to be a clear split between those, such as the hon. and learned Gentleman, who wish to see a focus on drug treatment, employability and the causes of crime, including improvements in literacy and housing provision, and those such as the hon. Gentleman, who said today that he wants to double the prison population, and the right hon. Gentleman, who wants to see more prisons built, whatever it takes. But the hon. Member for Tatton is not willing to commit resources even to the 9,500 places that I have promised.

Mr. Garnier: I know that the Minister is in full flow, but I do not wish him to continue to mislead himself, because it is embarrassing for him. The split that he is trying to create will be no truer simply because he
24 July 2007 : Column 757
repeats a canard. There is no split between Conservative Front Benchers about the need to have capacity into which to put the prisoners whom his Government will insist on putting into prison in industrial numbers. If one cannot produce the capacity, one cannot run a proper prison system.

Mr. Hanson: I will reflect on what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said about there being no splits between Conservative Front Benchers. I beg to differ, but I will not detain the House with the arguments today. I shall simply point out that the hon. Member for Tatton has not committed to a single penny of resources to meet the extra prison building programme or for the ambitious targets that the hon. and learned Gentleman sets for preventing reoffending. That is an issue that he needs to address, because we will return to it before the election in terms of resources to meet the needs of our prison population.

Hon. Members will be aware that Lord Carter has established clear terms of reference for the review of prisons and will report before the end of this year. We are considering value for money in the prison system, the efficiency of public sector prisons, the potential for further cost renewal of the prison estate, the impact of recommendations on the prison estate in terms of criminal justice policy, and the sentencing framework.

We need to undertake work on the prevention of reoffending. The figures for the past year show that more than 19,800 offenders have successfully completed offending programmes and 55,500 offenders have completed unpaid work. Many offenders have started and completed drug rehabilitation requirements, with more than 14,000 starts and 6,000 completions last year. The highest rates ever of enforcement have also been reached.

I am happy to look at what we do on reoffending. Indeed, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood mentioned the Blue Sky project. I will happily come and see that project in his constituency, because we need to learn lessons about what works. We have a target of a 5 per cent. reduction in reoffending and the Labour Government have exceeded that target by 6.9 per cent. We will increase the target to 10 per cent. in the very near future. We need to do more, but—I repeat—that requires resources, which my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Prime Minister and I are willing to commit, but which the Opposition are not willing to commit.

Other valid and real issues were raised in the debate, including early intervention, and the effect of imprisonment for public protection sentences on the prison population. There are 2,500 IPP prisoners and the number is rising. We are reviewing that issue and we need to learn the lessons of how to manage that population in the prison system in a positive way. The issue of foreign national prisoners has been mentioned. There are 8,000 foreign national prisoners in jails in England and Wales, and we need to look at what we do with the top five countries represented to try to make some progress on those issues.

Next Section Index Home Page