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I express my usual appreciation to the Opposition for laying on the debate, which gives us another opportunity to compare and contrast the Government’s excellent penal policy with the shambles of what passes for an Opposition policy.

I have been in the House for a couple of years, and I have noticed that various devices can be used to avoid answering difficult interventions. [Interruption.] The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) asks whether this is an after-dinner speech. I wish it was. The answer from the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) to almost every difficult intervention was that we should have patience and wait till the end of the speech. We waited till the end of the speech and, sadly, did not get the answer to many of them.

John Mann: I do not know whether my right hon. Friend can provide the information that I was seeking: how many secure residential rehabilitation places would be provided by the Conservative party and what would the total cost be? I have studied the documents, but I cannot find a number, a definition or a cost. I wonder whether he can help.

Mr. Straw: Our Department has excellent researchers, but I am afraid that I have not got details of the costs. I suspect that developing examples of overseas comparisons will turn out to be difficult, but my staff will do their best. I shall then ensure that the information is placed in the Library for the better education of the Opposition and to provide my hon. Friend with the information.

The hon. Gentleman made an interesting speech to the Policy Exchange on Monday, and I am grateful to him for providing a just abridged version this afternoon. When I came to this post in June, I echoed Lord Falconer in saying that I hoped that there could be a vibrant public debate on prisons. He made his comments as he announced the establishment of a review of penal policy to be led by Lord Carter of Coles. Within the next few weeks I will be publishing that review to Parliament. I promise the hon. Gentleman and the House that there will be an oral statement in this House.

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Lord Carter’s report is likely to be comprehensive and far-reaching, but I am not sure that he will be quite as extravagant as the hon. Gentleman has been recently. For those who missed his speech, I shall quote from it. He said:

That is true, but in The Sunday Telegraph he said:

I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman’s speech would provide further and better particulars of this radical shake-up. I was not asleep during his speech, far from it —[Interruption.] I invite the Whip to remember that he gets his salary in order to remain silent. Almost nothing in the speech indicated that this would be the most radical shake-up for two days, still less for two centuries.

I also say to the hon. Gentleman that wrapping himself in the mantle of Elizabeth Fry is one thing, but to cite Jeremy Bentham is another. After all, he said:

I assume that that is now Conservative party policy. That Benthamite view of punishment might have informed the approach of the Conservative Front-Bench team, which, in Committee, signed a Liberal Democrat amendment proposing that the punishment of the offender should be removed from the criteria for determining sentences for under-18s. They then got cold feet about whether or not punishment ought to be one of those criteria and abstained during the vote.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I know that the Lord High Chancellor—the Secretary of State—even devoid of his robes, enjoys a good turn. He must apply his mind to the Hansard record of that particular Committee debate if he is to be taken seriously. We do our best to take him seriously but it is difficult to do so when he makes that type of point. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will confirm, the debate that we had was not the one that the Secretary of State would like to portray it as. It was a serious debate about the nature and purpose of sentencing. If he wishes to misdescribe it in the way that he does, he is abusing this House and the intelligence of its Members.

Mr. Straw: The hon. and learned Gentleman protests too much. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice will quote from Hansard when he sums up, so we shall see.

An effective policy on prisons must be part of a comprehensive approach to tackling crime, and our record on both has been good. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs scarcely mentioned the crime figures in his Policy Exchange speech or in his speech this afternoon. I am not surprised, because crime doubled under the Conservatives, whereas under our Government it has fallen by a third. We have the best record of any post-war Government.

The Conservatives also attack us for using a few hundred police cells to manage the prison population. The hon. Gentleman omitted to say, however, that the Conservative Administration used police cells year after year—and not a few hundred. In 1982, they used 3,500 police cells, and such was their incompetence that
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even 10 years later, in 1992, after numerous riots in prisons and indiscipline of a kind that we have not, thank God, had since 1997, they peaked again at 1,800.

As for early release, yes, we regret the fact that we have had to use end of custody licence releases to release short-term prisoners 18 days earlier than they would be otherwise, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that in 1987, 3,500 prisoners were released virtually overnight as a result of the then Home Secretary’s concern about the rising prison population—it was much lower than it is today—which the then Government had taken no steps whatever to deal with.

Why is there pressure on the prisons estate? It is principally because of the effectiveness of our investment in the criminal justice system, with an extra 14,000 police officers and a toughening up of criminal law and, crucially, court procedure, better to favour victims and their communities. That has led in turn to more serious and persistent offenders being convicted and then sentenced to prison for longer terms. We have not had that much help from Opposition Members, who have been absent from the Lobby to vote for these measures, as much as they have been in favour of them.

Mr. Devine: I asked how many prisons the Conservatives were going to build and at what cost. Does my right hon. Friend have any indicative cost of setting up a prison?

Mr. Straw: I do indeed. We have already announced plans and we have others under consideration. The average running cost per prisoner for one year is £37,000 and the average cost of building a prison place is £150,000.

More offences than ever before are being brought to justice—1.4 million last year, up 41 per cent. from even five years ago. Sixty per cent. more violent and dangerous offenders are in prison now than when we came to office, and they are staying there for considerably longer. Meanwhile, the enforcement of sentences has improved considerably, with the number of people being sent back to prison for breach of their licence up from a measly 300 in 1997 to 5,200 today.

Jeremy Wright: Many of the offenders the Lord Chancellor is describing will have received indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection. Does he accept that in many ways those sentences contribute to the prison overcrowding problem? As he knows, it is necessary for offenders serving them to complete courses to demonstrate their suitability for release. As he also knows, those courses are not available in every prison, and transfers to prisons where they are available sometimes take a very long time. That means that people are incarcerated for longer than expected and longer even than the court that sentenced them intended. Does he accept that that is a problem? If so, did the Government consider it when instituting those sentences, and what is to be done about it now?

Mr. Straw: I acknowledge that there is an issue. When I gave evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Committee in early October, I discussed openly the question of IPP prisoners who are sentenced to short or very short tariffs. The whole House agreed that the indefinite preventive sentence should be available for
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medium and long-term prisoners who meet the appropriate categories. Having looked at the Hansard reports of the debates on the Criminal Justice Act 2003, it is clear that that was what was anticipated by all Members. As it has turned out, the sentence has not only been used for that category of prisoner but for some prisoners who have been sentenced for very short determinate tariffs, the shortest being 28 days but several being for a period of less than a year. That must be taken into consideration. I readily acknowledge that the problems that the hon. Gentleman mentions have been exacerbated by the pressure on numbers, but that would exist in any event because of the effect of sentences on very short-term prisoners.

Let me come to the centrepiece of the speech by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs—his claim that we have not taken into account forecasts of increases in prison population. We have. Any forecasts are inevitably just that, and vulnerable to predictions of sentencing and custody rates or, for example, unforeseen events such as prison flooding, which happened in Gloucester.

Let us consider the prison population for the summer of this year, which was 80,600, and look back at the projections of it over the previous seven years. The hon. Gentleman quoted very selectively on this. We see that there were predictions in 2002 and 2003 of a high end—and, in two cases, a low end—showing that the prison population would exceed the current level. The range of projections for this year during that seven-year period was 30,000. The projections produced in January 2005 gave a range of 76,000 to 82,000; in July 2005 it was 76,000 to 84,000; and in July 2006 it ranged from 78,000 to where we were in the summer. Projections cannot be decisions, as the hon. Gentleman would discover in the unlikely event of him ever being in my place. They have to be a basis for judgment and then Ministers have to decide.

It is palpably incorrect to suggest that there has not been an increase in the prison population. There has been a year-by-year increase. It was 65,000 in 1998. Then it stabilised, and went up to 66,000 in 2001. It was 71,000 in 2002, 74,000 in 2003, 76,000 in 2005 and 81,000 this year. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, ensured that money was provided for that. He has also ensured an additional 9,500 places, which are currently in the programme or being built. Under this comprehensive spending review there will be 8,500 places, of which 1,600 are being provided in the current calendar year.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): In an earlier intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) referred to the number of foreign prisoners, which currently stands at 15 per cent. of the total. Does the Secretary of State agree that if we dealt with that issue more efficiently and effectively, several thousand prison places would be released in a very short period? That would assist him in delivering what he says he is trying to deliver.

Mr. Straw: Of course we wish to see the number of foreign national prisoners reduced. We are seeking to do that. However, if we are going to have a serious debate about prison policy, with the best will in the
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world—and the procedures and back-up for dealing with this matter have significantly improved—it is difficult to secure transfers in some cases. We have a large number of foreign national prisoners from Jamaica. We are working with the Jamaican Government to transfer those people back to Jamaica, but it is a relatively small country, which has been perfectly open about the fact that it is worried about having those nationals back. They ought to go back, but we cannot put them on a plane if it does not have landing rights at the other end.

We have another large tranche of such prisoners from China. When I was Home Secretary, I had constant negotiations with the Chinese Government. We believe that they should meet their obligations to take those prisoners back, but they are often rather less ready to do so in practice than they may be in principle. We have another problem with Nigeria. I love that country, but anyone who has ever dealt with it—it has a federal Government, 36 states and is slightly challenging in terms of its administrative standards—will know that it is extremely difficult to do so. Even if one can get the federal Government to agree to matters, it is then necessary to have them translated down to state level.

We have good relations with Vietnam, for example, as we have with those other countries, but those four countries account for a significant proportion of foreign national prisoners. We are working very hard to reduce the number, but it is no good just pressing the button, “They’re foreigners—we should get rid of them.” [ Interruption. ] I do not think that that is the hon. Gentleman’s approach. It is no good the Opposition saying that unless they can introduce serious proposals that can speed up the transfer of such prisoners faster than we are moving them at the moment. If there were a magic wand, I promise that I would use it. We all would. This is not a party issue. I promise the hon. Gentleman that all of us, from the Prime Minister downwards, are very anxious to see the maximum transfer of FNPs. The transfers have increased, but the numbers are still too high.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I agree with the Secretary of State about foreigners held in prison. Is not the problem that many people confuse deporting foreign prisoners at the end of their sentence—at which the Government have been notably incompetent—with holding foreign prisoners till the completion of their sentence, for which, as the right hon. Gentleman says, few options are available?

Mr. Straw: As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, the hon. Gentleman slightly spoiled his point with his remarks about foreign national prisoners whose sentence has expired. There are similar problems—they are not the same—with both. With great respect, the hon. Gentleman should not pretend otherwise.

None of us underestimates the pressure on the prison estate. Given that, we have done more than ever to tackle prisoners’ needs for effective rehabilitation—not to do them a favour but to get reoffending rates down. We have increased spending on probation by 72 per cent. in real terms and made a reality of end-to-end offender management.

We have increased investment in drug programmes tenfold, so that there has been a 64 per cent. reduction in drug abuse in prison. If the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs claims that the Conservative party
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will promise at the next election that there will be no drugs in prison, I wish it luck because nobody will believe that.

Mr. Garnier: That is an Aunt Sally argument.

Mr. Straw: That was the whole burden of the contribution of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs on the subject. He suggested that drugs in prison were somehow our fault and that a Conservative Government would sort that out. When I became Home Secretary, the regime for checking and searching prison visitors was shambolic. We were left with that. The ingress of drugs into prisons was dreadful. It is almost impossible wholly to eliminate that, but we have significantly reduced the amount of drugs in prisons and greatly expanded the number of drug-free wings. We have also put experts in charge of providing health care, education and training in prisons, establishing more than 100 mental health teams and employing more than 350 mental health professionals who are now NHS professionals, not Prison Service health workers, to work directly with prisoners.

Despite everything, the Prison Service has met its targets. There has never been greater investment or more done to improve the nature of the prison regime so that it can be a constructive force for change and provide genuine rehabilitation. Today, conditions are far more decent and humane. Prisoners are treated with dignity, better to ensure that they treat others with respect.

Of course, there are concerns. One is prisoner suicides. Last year, suicide rates were at their lowest since 1996. However, this year, there has regrettably been an increase. In 2000, I set a target, as Home Secretary, to reduce self-inflicted deaths in the context of a national suicide prevention strategy. Most years, that target, which is based not on total numbers but on the number of deaths per 100,000 offenders, has been met. I do not believe that this year’s increase is a direct result of overcrowding. Frankly, the matter is far more complicated. The sheer volume of people sent to prison, many of whom are among the most vulnerable in society, has greatly increased in the past decade. Although we have greatly improved the care available—and sharing cells reduces the suicide risk—we are conscious, as are all prison staff, of the need to improve the way in which we continually check on potential suicide and do everything that we can to avoid it.

The way in which we have transformed prison has contributed to our central aim in penal policy: to cut reoffending thus cutting crime. We heard again the Opposition claim that reoffending rates have soared. That is not the case. I am happy to lay on a short seminar for the hon. Gentleman about reoffending rates. However, when considering reoffending, one has to examine the nature of the prison population, which has become more serious because we are locking up more serious and persistent offenders. Evidence from 2004 shows that the two-year reconviction data for prisoners released from custody in that year provides an indication of a significant positive treatment impact on actual rather than predicted reconviction rates. For prisoners serving more than four years, the improvement is 13.4 per cent.; for those serving two to four years, the improvement is 10 per cent., and for those serving one to two years, the improvement is 6.3 per cent. We have
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to do more, but that is an indication of how our overall effort is working. One thing that the hon. Gentleman cannot gainsay—indeed, he failed even to mention it—is the fact that crime has gone down, on the Conservatives’ measure, by at least a third.

I was in opposition for 18 years and sat on the Bench opposite for most of that time. I have therefore become something of a world expert on the issue. I fully understand the pressures on Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen to produce yet another initiative to impress their colleagues and get a line in the media, but there is always a danger with that rather breathless approach, which is that the Opposition may be playing catch-up, simply recycling what the Government have already done. So, a review of prison policy was announced last summer by the hon. Gentleman with bells and whistles, two or three months after we had announced a review of prison policy. He is now talking about new prisons for old, which is in fact a key part of Lord Carter’s review.

May I also offer a comradely warning to the hon. Gentleman about that part of the review being conducted by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)? If what the hon. and learned Gentleman has already said is anything to go by, the review could lead to embarrassing proposals under which prisons are emptied, rather than expanded. We all enjoyed the part in a previous speech by the hon. and learned Gentleman when he said that he had been to prison, saying that it was a “voyage of discovery”, and adding that prison— [ Interruption. ] It was not a joke; it was a speech by the hon. and learned Gentleman. He should not mock his own speeches. He added that prisons do not work and said that many inmates

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