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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I now must announce the result of a deferred Division on the motion relating to the global navigation satellite system and the European Institute of Technology. The Ayes were 267, the Noes were 201, so the motion was agreed to.

[The Division List is published at the end of today’s debates.]

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have to inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.32 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I beg to move,

This House debated the prisons crisis four months ago. We said then that the Government’s management of overcrowded prisons was a national disgrace. So what has changed since then? The prison population has risen by over 1,200, but capacity has risen by less than 200. Some 4,600 prisoners have been released early on to the streets—a policy described by the previous Lord Chancellor as “simply wrong”. More than 800 of those criminals have been violent offenders, and 26 went on to commit new offences when they should have been behind bars.

Millions of pounds have been wasted on accommodating prisoners in police cells. A Victorian wing of Norwich prison was closed by health and safety inspectors because sewage was leaking from broken drainage pipes. Prison vans are arriving late at night to drop off remand prisoners from courts hundreds of miles away because there are no spare cells anywhere closer. Twice as many prisoners are doubling up in cells as when the Government came to power. Nearly a quarter of the entire prison population is now housed in cells designed for one fewer person. Prisoners, as the Minister of State told us this week, are taking up drugs when in jail. Last Friday, the jail population was just 93 below the all-time high, recorded a week ago, and only 300 short of capacity, and that was excluding nearly 200 prisoners locked in police cells.

So four months after the last debate and five months to the day since the Lord Chancellor took office, the Government’s management of prisons continues to be a disgrace.

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Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the reasons for more individuals being in prison is that more offenders have been brought to justice by this Government?

Nick Herbert: If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will come to that issue— [ Interruption. ] No, I do not accept that point. More offenders have been brought to justice because of the huge increase in the fixed penalty notices that the Government have introduced in an attempt to take cases out of the courts and deal with them in a summary way—although it is in fact an administrative way.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): One of the reasons for prison overcrowding is the reoffending rates, which are high, because overcrowding means less training and education. People are leaving prison less qualified and more drugged up than before. It is a scandal.

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend is right. A reconviction rate of two thirds of adult offenders after two years means that offenders are cycling back into the criminal justice system. Our goal should be to drive down reoffending rates and so reduce crime and the prison population in the long term. I shall argue that it is wrong to set out with the direct objective of reducing the prison population by shifting people wholesale out of prison whose sentences suggest that they should be there.

The problem is that the Government will not listen. They have ignored every warning about prison overcrowding. They have ignored warnings from prison governors and probation officers. They have ignored warnings from prison officers, who yesterday said that the Prison Service is in meltdown and that it will not be able to cope much longer. What is the Government’s excuse?

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): This week, a shadow Minister said that if the Conservative party were in power, it would build new prisons. How many prisons, at what cost and how would that be accommodated in the £6 billion spending black hole?

Nick Herbert: That was not a very sensible intervention. If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will come to the answer in my speech, but my premise will be that the demand for prison places has to be met. We will take no lectures from the Government about spending on such matters when they have wasted billions of pounds in their management of the criminal justice system.

The cost of reoffending, estimated by the Government, is £11 billion a year—simply to the criminal justice system, let alone to wider society. The cost of accommodating prisoners in police cells could have provided prison accommodation for 250 people. The Government have wasted hundreds of millions of pounds in the management of the criminal justice system that could have been better spent on providing sufficient accommodation.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con) rose—

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw) rose—

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Nick Herbert: I give way to the Lord Chancellor.

Mr. Straw: I shall let the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) go first—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. If Members cannot agree, I will decide.

Miss Widdecombe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to the Lord Chancellor. My hon. Friend has just heard scorn poured on the proposition that we should both build more prisons and control public spending. Will he confirm that under the previous Conservative Administration we had the biggest capital prison building programme since Victorian times at the same time as we cut taxes?

Nick Herbert: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s intervention. If we incapacitate offenders and improve rehabilitation we will be able to drive down reoffending rates and in that way deal with the problem of crime. The Government are in the worst of all worlds, with a seriously overcrowded prison population and extraordinarily high reconviction rates. As a consequence, prisoners are cycling back into the system and adding to the costs.

Mr. Straw: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not keep us on tenterhooks about the answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine). The hon. Gentleman is obviously familiar with other expenditure issues, so perhaps he can answer the simple questions: how many prisons does he propose to build and at what cost?

Nick Herbert: I will do a deal with the Lord Chancellor. When he has published the Carter review, which is an attempt to answer those questions, we will publish our proposals. However, as the Government will not answer any of those questions, how can we reasonably be expected to do so?

What is clear is that the current situation is untenable, as the Lord Chancellor knows. We cannot go on with a system in which prisons are full to the gunwales. That places strains on prison staff and does not allow the proper rehabilitation of prisoners. It results in all the movements of prisoners around the country to which I have referred, and in prisons that are awash with drugs. We have two choices. Either we can accommodate the demand for prison places that the Government’s projections have identified, or we can work to reduce that demand. I shall deal with that second option in a moment.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) is that we will build the extra prison places that we need, using the money for ID cards that we do not need?

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend is right. We have said already that we would scrap the ID card scheme and use the proceeds to fund emergency accommodation. In that way, we can then scrap the emergency release scheme, which we consider to be entirely wrong.

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What is the Government’s excuse for the problems that I have identified? First, they say that they did not expect the increase in the number of prisoners. Last week, a spokesman said that

However, it is simply not true that the rise was unanticipated. In 2000, when the current Lord Chancellor was Home Secretary, his officials predicted that the prison population would be at current levels by this year. Two years later, the lowest Home Office projection for today’s prison population was 5,000 above current capacity. So let us nail the canard that the Government were not able to anticipate the current demand for prison places: they did know; they were told that greater capacity was needed, and they simply ignored the projections.

We all know why too few prison places were provided. It was because the current Prime Minister did his level best to prevent that happening. As Anthony Seldon states in his new biography of Tony Blair:

that is, between the then Prime Minister and Chancellor—

Seldon says that Blair’s

What happy days those were. The Lord Chancellor must be relieved that everything is back on such an even keel.

The Government claim to have provided an extra 20,000 prison places, but 3,000 of those places arise from doubling-up in cells. In 2005, the number of new prison places provided by the Government was just one fifth of the number provided in the year that they came to power. During the Lord Chancellor’s previous watch, prison building capacity fell by 86 per cent. over three years. Only three of the new prisons built in the past 10 years were commissioned by the Labour Government; the rest were commissioned by the previous Conservative Administration.

The Government now say that they will build 9,500 new prison spaces in the next five years, and they claim that that is the largest prison-building programme ever in the UK, but that would be news to the Victorian social reformers. Under the premiership of Lord John Russell, eight new prisons were opened in just five years, and they are the ones that remain in use. The claim is looking distinctly shaky: the Government have admitted that 1,000 of the 9,500 promised places are currently unfunded. They have also said that 2,500 new places would be delivered this year, but that was downgraded yesterday to 1,400.

We have to hand it to the Lord Chancellor—he is right back on form. As Home Secretary, it took him two years to cut prison building by 65 per cent., but as Lord Chancellor, it has taken him just four months to scale back the number of places by half. Now we know the Government’s strategy for dealing with prison overcrowding: release criminals more quickly and build prison places more slowly. The Government will not
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face up to the fact that even if they deliver the promised extra places, total prison capacity will still be 4,000 places short of their medium-term projection for the prison population. That is assuming that prisons are still full to the gunwales with doubling-up in cells.

Ministers tell us to wait for the Carter review. We shall not be holding our breath. We have already had two Carter reviews. The first, six years ago, called on the Government to look at radical reform of the prison estate to create conditions better suited to delivering effective rehabilitation. Lord Carter said that the prison estate

That was six years ago. Nothing happened. Lord Carter tried again. In his second report, he said the Government should replace “old and unsuitable prisons”. Again nothing happened.

Every time the Government get into a hole on prisons, the message goes out—“Get Carter”. Then they ignore him. The one time they paid attention was to Lord Carter’s disastrous proposal to create the National Offender Management Service, which has since wasted hundreds of billions of pounds. As the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), now Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, said:

Perhaps the Lord Chancellor will tell us when the next great Carter review is to be published.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of an article in Inside Time, a national newspaper for prisoners, which tells us that NOMS is to be scrapped after three years at a cost of £2.6 billion? Is there any prospect of getting an update from the Lord Chancellor when he makes his speech?

Nick Herbert: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Perhaps the Lord Chancellor will answer that question when he replies to our motion. It is widely believed that NOMS, having been set up at a cost of billions of pounds, is to be scrapped. The effective shelving of CNOMIS—the IT system that underpins NOMS—which the Government said was essential to secure end-to-end offender management, means that NOMS cannot operate properly.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson) rose—

Nick Herbert: If the Minister is about to confirm that NOMS will remain in place, I shall be grateful.

Mr. Hanson: I shall be grateful if the hon. Gentleman will tell us on what basis he asserts that CNOMIS is to be scrapped— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman has just mentioned CNOMIS—the computer system. On what basis did he make his allegation?

Nick Herbert: The Minister misheard me. I said that CNOMIS was shelved and that is the case.

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Mr. Hanson: On what basis does the hon. Gentleman make that allegation? Can he give me evidence? The system is not being shelved, as he should know if he is a responsible Front-Bench spokesman.

Nick Herbert: I am astonished by the Minister’s intervention. Back in August, although the Government did not condescend to update the House on the matter, the Minister announced a moratorium because there had been a serious cost overrun and it was felt that CNOMIS would not deliver. An internal memo in the probation service made it clear that CNOMIS had effectively been shelved. What is more, an internal memo on the reconfiguration of the Ministry of Justice conceded that one of the options—the preferred option—for internally splitting the Ministry will, in effect, mean the demise of NOMS. If none of those things is the case, the Government have an opportunity properly to update the House, but they have signally failed to do so.

I agree that we need a debate on these matters; both inside and outside the prison and probation services there is much concern about the NOMS system and its inadequacies. There is huge concern that the Government are failing to deliver the key objective of end-to-end offender management. If the Minister wants to update us, I hope he will do so, but so far all we have heard is that these matters will be attended to in the Carter review. I hope there will be no attempt to smuggle out the review over Christmas, and I should be grateful if the Lord Chancellor gave us an indication of when he intends to publish the report.

Last week, the Minister said:

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