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How exactly does one reduce the demand for prison places? The Conservatives think that one does so by reducing crime; the Government believe that one does so by giving criminals a break.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): What about restorative justice? It is reducing reoffending rates in Toronto. Is the hon. Gentleman going to talk about that?

Nick Herbert: Yes. I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention and I will be happy to talk about restorative justice in a moment.

How exactly does one reduce the demand for prison places? The Government have shortened prison sentences by introducing automatic release at the halfway point. They have transferred unsuitable prisoners early to open prisons. They have released more than 4,000 prisoners on tags, who have committed more than 7,000 crimes, including more than 1,000 violent offences. On Friday, according to the current trend, we expect the 10,000th prisoner to be released early on to the streets. One prisoner is let out of jail early every 20 minutes.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): Another way to reduce the demand on prisons would be to focus much more heavily on getting young people—young criminals—off drugs and into residential rehabilitation.
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The more we reduce dependence on drugs, the less we will have drug-fuelled crime, which is so bad at the moment.

Nick Herbert: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, who, as a recorder, speaks with great personal knowledge and with a great interest in these matters. My right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary proposes that we move from drug treatment orders, which have a high failure rate, towards secure drug treatment centres and abstinence-based programmes. We have also proposed that there should be specialised, secure drugs treatment units so that we can get offenders off drugs when they are imprisoned. Unless we are able to do that, I do not believe that we will tackle the problem of drugs in our prisons, which is now endemic. The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), said last week that not only do drugs exist in prisons, but prisoners are ending up on drugs while they are in prison. Surely that cannot be acceptable in a secure environment.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Can the hon. Gentleman give an example of a country where the system that he proposes is in place and working?

Nick Herbert: If the hon. Gentleman reads the excellent report from the social justice commission, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), he will find lots of examples of extremely successful drugs treatment programmes. I agree: we should look at international experience.

John Mann: I suspect that I have read the document more thoroughly than most in the House and I cannot see a single example of anywhere in the world that uses the system that the hon. Gentleman proposes. I repeat my question: can he give a single example of any country in the world that uses the system he proposes?

Nick Herbert: As I said, the hon. Gentleman will find those examples in the report from the social justice commission of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. It is a counsel of despair to suggest that it is not possible to introduce specialised treatment centres that will get offenders off drugs—either as an alternative to failed drug treatment orders or when offenders are sentenced to custody. That is exactly the kind of issue that my party and the commission set up by my right hon. Friend seek to look at. Both of them will consider how we can improve treatment for offenders who are on drugs.

John Mann rose—

Nick Herbert: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman twice already, so I am not going to do so again.

Mr. Hanson: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that in 1996-97 spending on drug treatment in prisons was £7.2 million and that in 2007-08 it was £79 million? That represents a 997 per cent. increase during the 10 years of our Government.

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Nick Herbert: That is a typical response from the Government, who think that quoting a spending figure makes everything all right. The Minister of State admitted in a written answer published this week that offenders are getting on drugs while in prison. He should know as well as anyone else that prisons are awash with drugs, and that the current systems are simply inadequate to deal with that, both in terms of security and in terms of the treatment programmes being offered to offenders. One of the reasons for that is serious prison overcrowding. As I pointed out in a speech on Monday, spending on such programmes is a tiny proportion of the overall prisons budget. It is simply no answer to say, “We have increased spending, so the Government are entirely happy with everything that is going on.” Frankly, that is a complacent response.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman not think that there might be a contradiction in saying that more people should be put in prison, but that people get on to drugs in prison? Surely the example that he was looking for when he failed to answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is that of the community court in Brooklyn, New York, where the whole object is to get people off drugs without putting them in prison.

Nick Herbert: First, there are successful examples of drugs courts in this country—[Hon. Members: “Where?”] Hon. Members should know about the drugs court run by Judge Philips; it is a successful pilot, and it could be extended. I do not think that there is a contradiction in what I said. First, we argue for earlier intervention before offenders get into prison, with a treatment centre alternative to the drug treatment order programmes, which are failing. Secondly, if people are imprisoned, the most serious drugs offenders should be treated in units that are separate from conventional prisons. I do not believe that there is a contradiction, contrary to what the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) says. I will go on to argue that it is simply not acceptable to suggest that because prisons are overcrowded we should empty the prisons. That is what concerns me about the Government’s position.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most unacceptable statistics underpinning the overcrowding debate is that 15 per cent. of the prison population are foreign nationals who have abused the hospitality of this country and exhausted their right to its future hospitality?

Nick Herbert: Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. When the Government talk about prison overcrowding, one of the issues to which they should attend is the growth in the population of foreign national prisoners, whom the Prime Minister said he would remove. Nevertheless, only 4,000 will be removed this year—a small proportion of the total population. That places enormous additional pressure on our system, and it is now resulting in the creation of dedicated prisons for foreign national prisoners. If there is a group of prisoners that we could all agree should be removed from prison, it is surely foreign national prisoners, who could be returned to their country of origin, as the Prime Minister promised.

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The Government want to reduce demand by preventing the courts from sending people to jail. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill proposes removing the right of magistrates to impose suspended sentences, even though suspended sentences are usually given out by magistrates to those who have received every other possible disposal. As one magistrate said,

The same Bill also plans to restrict to 28 days, without exception or discretion, the time that an offender has to serve in prison after being recalled for breach of his conditions. The Magistrates Association has described that proposal as “a licence to re-offend.” The Government want to restrict the open-ended indeterminate sentences for public protection that Tony Blair paraded as a badge of honour. We know what the Government are up to. Legislation has already been prepared for Northern Ireland to implement the new rules on indeterminate sentences, whereby judges may give an indeterminate sentence only where the offence would have carried a fixed-term sentence of four or more years. As the Lord Chancellor confirmed this week, they want to reduce demand by

If, by that, the Government mean preventing the courts from passing sentences if there is insufficient prison capacity, it would represent a profound shift in criminal justice policy, and it would be profoundly wrong. An offender could be sent to jail one month, but someone committing precisely the same offence a month later could escape a custodial sentence, simply because the Government had failed to provide enough prison cells. It would result in great inequity in the operation of the criminal justice system. The effect of Parliament’s decisions on the sentencing framework must be understood, because there are resource implications. The Government should be given a formal, independent warning before they pass ever more criminal justice legislation. They should be required to ensure that there is prison capacity to deal with the new offences that they have created—something that has not happened under the successive criminal justice Bills that they have introduced.

That is entirely different from proposing that sentences should be limited by the resources made available by the Government after the framework is set. That is the fundamental difference in approach between the Government and the Opposition. They believe that sentences should be watered down to fit a limited number of prison places; we believe that sentences should fit the crime, not prison capacity.

Mr. Straw: I have followed the hon. Gentleman’s argument carefully. Does he therefore propose that the resources for prison places should be unlimited?

Nick Herbert: There is no need for resources for prison places to be unlimited. The Lord Chancellor knows the prison projections perfectly well, and the issue is whether he will meet the projected demand. He is 4,000 places short. No one has suggested that there should be unlimited resources to meet unlimited demand other than the Lord Chancellor, who produces
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ever more fanciful suggestions that somehow we will move to US-levels of incarceration, with 400,000 offenders being locked up. That is simply nonsense. The Government’s own projection shows that by 2012 prison numbers will be 4,000 higher on the median projection than the number of prison places that they have provided. The question is whether they will meet that demand or not, and whether they will adjust the sentencing framework to try to shift prisoners out of the jails to which they would otherwise be sent.

The Government have effectively accepted the latter option: they will weaken sentencing rather than send to jail people whom we would prefer to sentence to jail. That is the choice they will offer the country at the next election, and it is a choice on which we are happy to fight that election. The Government believe that sentences should be watered down to fit a limited number of prison places. We believe that sentences should fit the crime, not prison capacity.

The Lord Chancellor has another idea to reduce the demand on prisons. Last week, he said that for people serving prison sentences of less than 12 months,

That is an interesting proposal, because last summer, he told “The Andrew Marr Show”:

Prison is largely reserved for serious, violent and persistent offenders. Contrary to popular myth, our jails simply do not contain vast numbers of non-violent, first-time offenders doing time for licence fee evasion or summary motoring offences. The Lord Chancellor himself said last month that the

in jail over the past decade were

The majority of offenders serve sentences of six months or less. Reducing further the number of short-term prisoners—those serving less than six months—would mean weakening 23,000 sentences, or nearly two thirds of all custodial sentences.

John Mann: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Nick Herbert: No, I will not.

Community sentences cannot be used as an alternative to prison if they are not robust. The Government's latest wheeze is “community payback”—unpaid work for offenders. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) said that it was a

However, four out of 10 unpaid work requirements for male offenders are not completed. The attendance rate is no better than 60 per cent. In other words, this so-called tough punishment is optional for offenders. That is no punishment at all—it is a farce, and it cannot be a substitute for a custodial sentence in any criminal justice system that has the interests of victims at its heart. At least in prison offenders have to be there 24/7 as part of their sentence unless, of course, they have been moved to an open prison. Attendance there is optional, too. They could just abscond, as they do
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from open prisons in my constituency. They could even do so in their own car, which the Government allow them to have while in an open prison serving their sentence.

The previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), promised “high visibility” community payback, with offenders wearing fluorescent jackets. What happened to that idea? One report claimed that the scheme had foundered after probation staff warned that it might compromise the health and safety of offenders. So much for high visibility, tough community sentences.

The Government’s flagship intensive supervision and surveillance programme is officially described as


yet the programme has a failure rate of almost 90 per cent.

A leaked memo revealed that in May, the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts

So that is what it is all about—no money for prisons, just spin to persuade the public that community sentences will do as an alternative. No money, yet Government incompetence has wasted billions of pounds on national programmes when the money could have been invested in prison accommodation and rehabilitation.

Since last October at least £29 million has been spent on Operation Safeguard to use police cells for emergency prison accommodation—enough to build a jail for more than 250 prisoners. The use of every court cell is more expensive than a superior room at the Ritz. The prison ship Weare was bought by the Home Office for £3.7 million and sold off at a loss, and another one is expected to be purchased. Perhaps the Government will confirm that. If the Government want to reduce demand for prisons, why do they not focus on the 11,000 foreign nationals who are in custody and make up almost one in seven of the entire prison population?

We desperately need a new start to get offenders off drugs, to get them on work and education programmes, to help the mentally ill in prison, to unlock the development potential of our oldest and worst Victorian jails so that we can build new, smaller units, and to drive down reoffending, which costs the criminal justice system alone £11 billion a year. The Government’s approach to prisons is bankrupt. Their big idea this year was to let 25,000 prisoners out of jail early. Their next big idea is to give even more criminals a break by watering down sentencing.

The Government’s first duty is to protect the public, and that requires them to provide adequate prison capacity. They have failed in that duty, and they should step aside for a Government who have the vision and competence to manage the prison estate properly.

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5.8 pm

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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