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We look forward to the Conservatives’ proposals, because apparently they are now going to propose that the prison population should come down and not go up. We know that there are some serious arguments—Fraser Nelson of The Spectator introduced us to the arguments inside the Conservative party—and that must be one area.

Let us come to the issue of resources. The hon. Gentleman has gone on record as saying that he accepts that we do not end up in the same situation as the United States. I am glad about that. He then said in the House that no one was suggesting unlimited resources. That is also useful for him to have said and absorbed. The issue of resources must be taken into account. How resources should be best taken into account is one of the improvements in the system that Lord Carter is considering. Meanwhile, I do not believe that anyone will disagree with the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, who said:

Mr. Garnier: On the subject of Lord Carter, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that Lord Carter has completed his review, that it is on the Secretary of State’s desk, that it has been seen by the Lord Chief Justice and Sir Igor Judge, the deputy Lord Chief
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Justice, and that it is simply awaiting the Secretary of State’s signature for publication?

Mr. Straw: There have certainly been extensive discussions with Sir Igor Judge and the Lord Chief Justice, and with me. I have not yet received the final version of the review report. I have already told the House that there will be an oral statement, and of course I shall make myself available for questions on that statement, as I always do. The Select Committee on Justice has already asked to interrogate me once the report is made available and might even ask the business managers if we can have a debate on it, so there is no dubiety about that.

If I may return— [ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Could we have one debate please, rather than two or three?

Mr. Straw: To return to the point, I quoted Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice, and I do not think that anyone would disagree with what he said. Indeed, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, the shadow Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, said:

The backdrop to this debate is a country where crime is down a third since 1997, on the measures set out in the British crime survey, which was established by the Conservative party. Our penal policy is part of that success. This drop in crime represents 5 million fewer victims now than a decade ago.

Let me give the House two further sets of facts. First, as the House of Commons Library has shown, between 1945 and 1997, crime consistently rose faster under Conservative Administrations than ever it did under Labour Administrations. Secondly, it is under this Government since 1997, alone among any Administration since the war, that crime on all measures has fallen. That is our record. We stand by it, we are proud of it and I commend the amendment to the House.

5.35 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It must be a considerable relief to the Lord Chancellor, considering the events in other parts of his departmental responsibilities, to return to the chronic failure of the Prison Service. It is a safe haven of sorts for him. The decision to hold this debate today was timely, and I commend the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for having chosen this subject.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that our prison system is in crisis. The House needs to be aware of that and to look at the potential solutions. We should not be remotely proud, as a nation, of the fact that we appear to have the unique social conditions, unique criminality and unique culpability that result in our having a higher proportion of citizens in custody than any comparable country. That is a signifier of failure in the system, not of success. A good system would reduce crime, the number of criminals and the number of people in our prisons. The fact is, however, that we are seeing an ever-increasing number of people held in custody.

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Beyond that failure is the failure to have a prison estate that is capable of holding the prisoners who are sentenced. The overcrowding and conditions, and the nonsense of police cells being used and of prisoners who have been sentenced by the courts being carted around the country in an effort to try to find a place are all an indictment of how the system is working. The fact that it is beyond the scope of the prison system to house the present prison population presents a problem: it makes prisons more and more ineffective at performing anything other than the basic function of holding someone in custody to prevent them from committing a crime. It makes them ineffective at providing prisoners with any education, training and skills opportunities, or any other useful activity. It also results in a lack of effective rehabilitation. The consequence is a high rate of recidivism; people constantly reoffend on release from prison. That means that the enormous amount of money that we are investing in our penal system is having no effect. When people are released from prison, what do they do? They go out and commit another crime, and the public are once again put at risk.

We can add to the waste of money incurred by putting people into prisons that do not work the even higher cost of putting them into police cells. That also has a detrimental effect on police effectiveness and efficiency, while offering no possibility of any educational or rehabilitative work, even if people want it. That can have even more serious consequences.

There was a famous instance of people being sent around the great city of Liverpool in taxis delivering redundancy notices, but I think that it is nonsense that prisoners should be taken from one prison to another in taxis, simply to find a cell in which to hold them for the night. Yet we know that that is happening on a daily, and nightly, basis.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that prisons around the country should have surplus places just in case somebody needs to be moved into them, or does he disagree with the idea that prisons should be managed in a way that maximises their use? I am not quite sure where he is coming from when he talks about surplus places to accommodate people in prison.

Mr. Heath: That is a novel idea—that we should have a just-in-time prison delivery system in which there is no spare capacity anywhere and wait for one person to be pushed out the back door before we put the next prisoner in through the front door. The hon. Gentleman really needs to think through the implications of his comments, as it is very difficult to understand exactly what he is suggesting.

One of the effects of the kaleidoscopic movement of prisoners around the country is that there is no continuity of care and effective rehabilitative prison work. That has all sorts of consequences, including the prison system’s inability not only properly to discourage reoffending, but to provide basic continuity of health care, particularly mental health care, to which I shall return in a few moments.

We all acknowledge—at least I hope we all do—the problem of the prison estate’s capacity to deal with prisoner numbers. Where I part company with the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, however, is on
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the competition of incompetence involved in saying that the answer is to build more and more places for more and more prisoners, so that failure begets failure and we spend more and more money on a system that does not provide effective rehabilitation. I simply do not believe that building more and more conventional prison spaces is the answer to the problem. That approach is simplistic and ineffective, and in the long term it can only exacerbate the problem.

Does that mean that I would refuse to build any new prisons at all? No, because I share the view of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs that we could manage the prison estate more effectively. There is far too much real estate in the form of old Victorian prison blocks, taking us back to the panopticon, Jeremy Bentham’s great invention in prison design. We do not have the right prisons in the right places, and if we were to dispose of some of that prison estate, we could reinvest in smaller units more suited to task and in the right places. One of the objectives of the Prison Service, particularly for lower-risk prisoners, should be to provide prisons where the prisoners come from.

One of the objectives of planning policy in guidance and elsewhere should be for the services provided to a community to include sufficient prison capacity to deal with the offenders likely to originate from that community, particularly in respect of large-scale developments. People should reflect on that point more, particularly in the south-east, which is currently underprovided for its prison population.

Mrs. Cryer: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that there should be a prison in every constituency, which is what his line of argument would amount to?

Mr. Heath: I do not think that we need to go that far. There is a prison on the fringe of my constituency, so perhaps I have done my bit. No, we do not need 639 prisons; what we do need are enough regional prisons in each part of the country to deal with the prison population likely to derive from each region. If the hon. Lady looked at the present disposal of prisons across the country, she would find that there is a mismatch. There are far too many inner-city hulks of prisons that are often at too long a distance from the people using them. That applies particularly to prisoners with relatively short sentences for whom visiting and maintaining contact with families needs to be a very high priority if we are to secure a proper rehabilitative effect. The distance makes visiting that more difficult and it is ineffective in terms of simple unit costs. I think that we could do a better job, which is my answer to her intervention.

Women’s prisons are one particular aspect, and we hope that the Government will respond positively to the Corston review, as one of the main issues is the patchy provision of women’s prisons and the fact that they are often in the wrong places. Many women are serving relatively short sentences, and many have family commitments. Imprisonment away from their families can be extremely deleterious to those families, and according to all the evidence, to those women’s mental health. I think that they would be much better served by smaller units scattered around the country and closer to where they live. There are other issues in
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connection with the number of women in prison who do not pose a risk to the community, but I will not go into them now.

Ian Lucas: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest. I understand the logic of the proposal for more prisons spread over different areas, but has he assessed the cost of such units in comparison with that of slightly larger regional prisons? It seems to me that the staffing implications of requirements for specialist care would be very major.

Mr. Heath: The honest answer is that the cost would vary according to the class of prison. The cost might well be greater in the highest security prisons, with a high staff-to-prisoner ratio, while the smaller, low-dependency units might be more cost-effective. An enormous amount of capital is tied up in some of our older prisons, however. Once it was released, the prison estate would benefit from a substantial capital receipt and the capacity would be available. The building of new prisons costs much less than the capital value of the estate.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: A good many people want to speak in the debate, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman briefly.

Chris Ruane: Given the high price of land in the south of England, would the prisons that the hon. Gentleman would like to locate there be at the more expensive end of the spectrum?

Mr. Heath: The south-east has higher land values than the north-east. That is a fact, and I cannot get away from it. However, we have some inner-city properties on the prison estate that would be worth many millions of pounds if their value could be realised, and on the outer fringes there are a number of greenfield sites that could be used for new prison build. [Interruption.] Please let us not be—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Can the normal rules of debate be applied, please?

Mr. Heath: I certainly hope that we do not descend into the futility of the argument of the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane).

Once we have divested ourselves of some of the assets and rebuilt some conventional prisons, we shall be in desperate need of more secure mental health provision. We know that that is a major problem in our prison system: 90 per cent. of prisoners show some symptoms of mental illness. I do not suppose that all those prisoners require secure mental health provision, but I note that one in 10 is functionally psychotic. It strikes me as extraordinary that when the prison population contains so many people who need mental health provision in our conventional prisons there are only 1,150 secure mental health places in Ashworth, Broadmoor and Rampton. Surely a sane way of dealing with that issue is to build more secure mental health provision rather than more conventional prisons. The same applies to drugs rehabilitation centres.

John Mann: On that point—

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Mr. Heath: I thought it inevitable that the hon. Gentleman would intervene on that point.

John Mann: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. The Conservative party earlier today changed its policy from one of residential rehabilitation to secure residential rehabilitation, which would probably double the cost per centre. Will he confirm his policy of drugs rehabilitation centres? Will they be secure or not? Has he costed them? Can he give an example of any other country in the world where such a policy works?

Mr. Heath: On the latter point, the United Kingdom is one; we have 2,500 secure drug rehabilitation places. Unfortunately, they are very often not filled because of resourcing issues, but that is part of the disposal at the moment. There are many people within our prison system who have a serious drugs problem. We know that drugs are a major motor of acquisitive crime. I am not talking about the three quarters of male prisoners who have used drugs in the 12 months or so before they enter the prison estate, and neither am I talking about the 10,000 drug offenders. I am talking about serious drug users who need rehabilitation within the prisons estate, but are at the moment held in conventional prisons. Those prisons are not the right places for such people.

Mr. Malins: I always listen to the hon. Gentleman with great care, but I think that he may be mistaken in saying that there are 2,500 secure residential rehab places in the country. I think there are 119 English residential drug rehab units with a total of 2,530 beds; that is in my pamphlet, “Crackpot.” But those beds are not secure, which is the problem; anyone can come in and out when they want.

Mr. Heath: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for correcting something I said that was misinterpreted. Certainly that was the point I was trying to make.

The third category of people in our prison system who should not be are those serving short-term sentences. I make this point strongly. There is very clear evidence that recidivism among those serving sentences of three months or less is almost 100 per cent; there is more than 90 per cent. recidivism among young males in that category. We are using prison spaces for a system that is almost completely and utterly useless in preventing crime. My belief is that there are better disposals, and here I must differ from the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, who appears to think that community sentencing could never do anything positive and should be shunned at every opportunity in place of real punishment in prison. Prison does not work for short-term sentences. It does not deter, rehabilitate or stop people reoffending. What on earth is the point of using expensive prison places when there are more effective disposals elsewhere in effective community sentences?

This is my last point. If we want effective community sentencing—I do and I think the Government do—that can and will reduce the number of people in custody, we have to have an effective probation service. At the moment we have a probation service that is being brought to its knees by the demands put on it and the funding that it is not being given. That is why the National
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Association of Probation Officers is lobbying us and holding a rally in this House and why its members are so concerned about what is being done to the probation service.

Mr. Hanson: The NAPO lobby is organising its approach on the basis of a flat cash settlement. I am proposing—I have written to chief probation offers to make this offer—between 2 and 3 per cent. for next year. The figures on which NAPO is lobbying are not correct.

Mr. Heath: I have seen the letter from the right hon. Gentleman and I accept that he has written in those terms. The resource that he is putting into the probation service is not adequate, however, to meet the demands that we are placing on the service. The reality is that probation offices throughout the country are facing increased work load, reduced staff numbers, unfilled vacancies and training places that are not being filled. We cannot deliver effective community sentencing without the people who are expert in providing probation services.

I say plainly that one cannot both cut costs in the probation service and deliver community sentencing as an alternative to prison. Community sentencing costs money to be effective. I think that it works, and I have evidence to support that view. However, it is a scandalous waste of human resource and energy to send a young lad into prison to watch television all day every day, perhaps acquire a drug habit and come out as a confirmed criminal, instead of setting him the task of clearing up graffiti in his community or doing other work that restores what he has broken or destroyed. That is also an ineffective way to deal with offenders.

It is easy to talk tough about prison, but it is much more difficult to be effective. I have argued, and will continue to argue, for a penal policy that is effective in cutting crime and reducing reoffending. The prison system is failing on those scores, and one of the reasons is that we simply have too many people in our prisons.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. We have limited time left for the debate, so I suggest that hon. Members limit their contribution to six or seven minutes so that they more may be successful in catching my eye.

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