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5.56 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I am also pleased that the debate has become more civilised in tone after we had high volume from the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), but not much sense. Having listened to his speech, I am still unclear about whether it is the Conservatives’ policy to have more people in prison or fewer.

Chris Ruane: Does my hon. Friend see a theme emerging? Yesterday, we asked about Conservative housing policy, and they said that they did not want any targets for house building. That has been repeated today, and they have not given any targets for prison places.

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Ian Lucas: If my hon. Friend will allow, and in view of the time constraints, I shall stick to the debate at hand.

I would like to see fewer people in prison, and that should be the aim of a civilised criminal justice system. The problem is that Governments do not send people to prison: courts do. One of the central difficulties of penal policy is a constant tension between Government and the courts. It is probably magistrates courts rather than Crown courts that send young and other offenders to prison for short sentences.

I am a former solicitor and I have practised in the criminal courts, albeit some time ago, and in my experience courts are reluctant to send people to prison, and Opposition Members who have more recent experience accept that. So why are more people going to prison?

Mr. Garnier: The Government’s policy on sentencing is to send more people to prison for longer. The Government have, for example, created some 3,500 new offences. That is why more people have ended up in prison.

Ian Lucas: With respect, I am talking about short sentences and individuals who are given short sentences and who may never have been in prison before. Some of those people must be in the category of offenders who have been brought to justice by this Government’s penal policy but might not have been brought to justice in the past. It is for that reason that those people have gone into prison for the first time.

Certainly, some individuals are in prison for longer and for more serious matters. I welcome that: such people are a danger to the public, and it is right and proper that they should be in prison for a considerable period. I welcome a policy that means that they are not released until they pose no threat.

However, given the constraints on time in the debate, I shall concentrate on the need to focus on those who are sent to prison for short sentences. I always like to see the good work that the probation service does with restorative justice in my constituency. Some excellent local projects have clearly imposed serious burdens on the people involved. The projects have been a real punishment and I welcome that, but it is clear that my constituents have no perception of restorative justice. They do not appreciate the burdens that it imposes on those who commit offences, and their perception is that criminals can be dealt with effectively only if they are sent to prison.

I have held meetings with my constituents to explore the nature of the sentences imposed for specific serious offences, and it has been made clear to me that people have no appreciation of how long such sentences can be. The fact that they believe that inmates serve shorter sentences than they really do shows that the criminal justice system is a lot tougher than most people think. If the Government are to deliver an effective criminal justice system, it is crucial that they focus attention on educating the public about it. People must be made aware that community sentences can be effective, and that they can impose substantial burdens on those punished by the courts.

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that Government policy should focus also on tackling the causes of crime, through initiatives such
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as Extended Schools, the Youth Opportunity Fund and the Youth Capital Fund? In my constituency, the Not Another Drop campaign has caused crime to fall by 12 per cent. Does he accept that we should adopt that approach more widely?

Ian Lucas: My hon. Friend mentions another crucial area. As I said, I worked in the criminal courts in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the vast majority of my clients were unemployed. Thankfully, unemployment has fallen over the past decade, and there is no doubt that that has had a substantial impact on the commission of crime. All the programmes to which she referred need to be continued and developed, and I especially welcome the commitment to youth services that the Government have evinced in the past few months. I know that my hon. Friend is very interested in such services, as they play a crucial role in our efforts to reduce crime and lower the prison population.

There is ongoing discussion in north Wales about having a prison there. At the moment, the prison population from the area is usually held at the Altcourse prison in Liverpool. That is a long way away from north-west Wales and Anglesey, for example, and I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that, if we are to have any sort of end-to-end criminal justice system, prisons must be located near the geographical areas in which prisoners live. They must also recognise the cultural distinctions in communities, and that is why I support the principle of a prison in north Wales.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that a small unit in north Wales for women prisoners would be much more effective, as Baroness Corston recommended in her report? Traditional women’s prisons or a women’s wing in a prison are a backwards step.

Ian Lucas: I was interested in the comments about small prisons made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, and I certainly agree that it would be sensible to take the line suggested by my hon. Friend. In principle, I would support a prison in north Wales, hosted in the community, and I hope that an announcement will be made in the Carter review, and that discussions will take place early in the new year.

In view of the time, I shall conclude my comments. We need to conduct a sensible and temperate debate on the subject. I hope that tone will continue.

6.6 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I shall try to be brief. As always, I begin by declaring an interest as a Crown Court recorder and a part-time district judge.

A few years ago, I visited a young offender institution where I spoke to a young man aged 20. I asked, “What are you doing here?” He replied, “I’m in for four months for driving while disqualified. It’s the second time I’ve been disqualified.” “My goodness”, I said, “Are you a terrible driver?” “No”, he said, “I’m a brilliant driver—I’ve never had an accident.” “Then why are you in here for driving while disqualified?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “ I haven’t got a licence. I’ve never had a licence.” “Why?” I asked; and he replied, “I’ve never passed the theory test, because I can’t read or write.” In a debate such as this, we have no real opportunity for the thoughtful discussions
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that most Members want about prisons. That is a pity, because there are good ideas on both sides of the House about penal reform, but these debates are set-piece occasions when—perhaps—we do not think quite enough.

I want to say a few words about the subject of education in prisons, on which I have concentrated for several years. My young man could not read or write, so he was in prison. That is a crying shame. I have visited many young offender institutions over the past few years and I try to work out what the young men and women—mostly young men—are doing with their lives. How much time do they spend locked up in their cells? How much time is spent on serious education, and how much time do they have for playing sport? Those are good things in the young offender estate. I am sorry to say that for many years the situation in young offender institutions has been worrying, which is a criticism of us all, in all parties.

I asked in a written question about the steps taken to increase the time spent by young offenders in the youth prison estate outside their cells and on playing team sports and educational activity. The answer was interesting:

We might think that that was clear, but a careful study of what happens in practice illustrates that far too much time is spent locked up.

In July, I asked about the amount of time per day that young offenders spend locked up in their cells. In Reading young offender institution, the average time spent in cells is 17.1 hours a day. The figure for Rochester is 15.7 hours. In many of the young offender institutions, including Castington, people spend more than 15 hours a day locked up in a cell, and in Deerbolt it is 17 hours. That is not good news at all.

What about education? I told the House about the young man who was in prison because he could not pass his theory test. How many hours of education are people getting? They are not getting the 25 hours that they are meant to receive. I asked a question some time ago about the average number of hours spent on education per week. In Aylesbury and Glen Parva, it is only six hours a week. In Reading, it is eight hours a week. That is not long for a young person to spend on proper education at a young persons institution.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): There is an additional concern: even people who do start a course in prison find it virtually impossible when they leave prison to complete that course and get the qualification.

Mr. Malins: That is absolutely right. The hon. Gentleman is interested in these matters and I respect his expertise, because we have been debating against each other for some years. He rightly points to the need for people to be able to continue with their education and get the qualification. Somebody who has a job—somebody who is educated—is less likely to go back to prison or a young offender institution than somebody who does not.

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Let us concentrate on spending more time on education in young offender institutions. More time should be spent out of the cells. More time should also be spent on playing sport—team sport. I am old-fashioned. In the young offender institutions where there are plenty of team sports, there is a better chance of the young men being constructive when they come out.

What about drugs? The other day I asked what percentage of persons in young offender institutions are drug addicts. The answer is 76 per cent. Three quarters are drug addicts. That is a terrible state of affairs. The country is awash with drugs. I do not blame the Government for that. There is Afghanistan, Colombia and the rest of the world. The world is changing. Drugs are a terrible problem among young people. Believe me, while sentencing in the courts, it is pathetic to see nice young boys and girls, aged nine, 10, 11 or 12, who have started on skunk, and moved on through solvents to heroin and crack cocaine. Their lives are ruined by it and they end up in a young offender institution.

My final plea is this: all of us in politics must focus on trying to help young people—who are victims as often as not—off hard drugs. We must focus on ways of doing that. Residential rehab is cheaper and more effective than prison. We are talking about one of the worst problems facing young people today. If today’s debate has any result, I hope that it is that all of us in the House will try to use our brains as best we can to come up with better ideas and policies to look after young men in young offender institutions, both in terms of their education, their future and their propensity for drugs, which is so deeply damaging.

6.13 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): In the short time available, I shall concentrate on the issue of women in prison, which has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), and on how we might create a better system for women offenders. It is important that we both decrease instances of reoffending among women and make sure that women in prison, and their families, do not suffer unnecessarily.

The first thing to do is to look at the profile of the women who are imprisoned. It is fair to say that of the 4,000-plus women who are in prison, most are classified as very vulnerable and the majority are there for non-violent offences. The most common offences are theft and the handling of stolen goods. It is important to remember that eight in 10 are there for non-violent crimes. Some 70 per cent. of women in prison have mental health problems, 37 per cent. have attempted suicide, nearly two thirds have drug problems, one in three has been sexually abused, and more than half have suffered domestic violence. Some 20 per cent. were in the care system as children, compared to 2 per cent. of the general population. That is a grim picture.

It is disturbing that the number of women in prison has almost tripled in the past 10 years, even though the kinds of offences for which they are sentenced have not changed, on the whole. Due to the efforts of successive Prison Ministers to keep the women’s prison population down as much as possible, the population has stabilised in the past three years at between 4,000 and 4,500 people. What happens to women when they are released? Prison does not work for women: 65 per cent. of them
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reoffend. Nearly a third who lived in rented accommodation lost their homes. That is clearly not good for the women, and not good for society, because the root causes of women’s offending are not being addressed in prison.

Of course, prison does not just affect the women who are imprisoned. About two thirds of women in prison have dependent children. More than 17,000 children are separated from their mothers because of imprisonment. When a mother is sent to prison, only 5 per cent. of children remain in the family home. It is important to remember the misery caused to many children as a result of women going to prison. By way of contrast, when men go to prison, the majority of children stay in the family home. We cannot minimise the distress that is caused to the children in that case, but they do remain in the family home.

Women are frequently held more than 50 miles from their home, so it is often difficult to visit and to keep in contact, which is vital. So much more needs to be done for women prisoners who have not committed violent crimes, and who are not a risk to society, and that is why I particularly welcome the Corston report, published earlier this year. It is important that we try to do something radical with women prisoners, because although they are only a small number of those in the prison population as a whole, we can tackle that number. I think that we can actually make a difference.

I strongly support Baroness Corston’s recommendation that we move from traditional-style prisons for women to smaller units—some of them secure—much nearer women’s families and communities. Those units can address all the issues related to women’s offending, including the crime. They have offended against society, so we have to address the offending and there must be an element of punishment, but we also need to think of the other, wider issues and try to deal with them. We have models for such an approach in the Asha centre in Worcester, and the 218 centre in Glasgow, which address the punishment of women offenders for the crimes that they commit, but also look at the other factors. We also need programmes that consider women’s mental health—a subject that has been mentioned a lot today—drug and alcohol abuse services, and support for victims of domestic abuse. The aim should be to get women out of the cycle of offending, to try to keep families together, and to provide services that will help us to gain those ends.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) mentioned prisons in Wales. There is no women’s prison in Wales, and that causes the additional problem of women’s families having to travel outside Wales. In south Wales, that generally means going to Bristol. In north Wales, too, it means going over the border to England. I feel strongly that we need a facility in Wales, particularly in south Wales, but we do not want a traditional prison for women. There are not enough women offenders in Wales to fill such a unit. We want the sort of unit recommended in Baroness Corston’s report. I strongly hope that that will be considered for my area of south Wales.

I am delighted that the National Offender Management Service is setting up a demonstrator project to service Wales in Cardiff. It aims to turn around the lives of women offenders and women who are at risk of reoffending. NOMS reckons that there are about 779 women offenders in Cardiff and the surrounding areas. It is setting up the skeleton of a service that could address women’s offending,
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and all the problems affecting their lives. Work on a core unit in south Wales, which is similar to the units proposed in Baroness Corston’s report, has already begun. I hope that we can continue to develop such a unit in Wales and address the issue of women’s offending.

An encouraging ICM survey on Monday showed that the vast majority of people do not think that women should be sent to prison for non-violent offences. Some 86 per cent. of those surveyed said that they would prefer women to be given a community alternative to prison, so there is no public support for the view that women should be in prison for non-violent offences. The public are compassionate, and they understand the huge problems that prison sentences create for families and communities. They understand that prison is not effective for women, so I hope that the Government’s policy, informed by the Corston report and the response to it, will be a positive one.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): According to my hon. Friend’s figures, a third of women prisoners do not have a child dependant with them in prison, so why should they be treated differently from men who have committed non-violent offences? Opinion polls and surveys would not be as sympathetic to men, but are there not men in prison who would benefit from a similar approach?

Julie Morgan: I agree that some men would benefit from a similar approach, but the evidence on women is clear and much stronger, and we should start with women.

6.21 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I represent a constituency that includes two prisons—High Down and Downview—which over the past 10 years have provided repeated examples of the failure of Government policies to be other than reactive to predictable wider trends. They have enjoyed, if that is the right word, the consequences of an inept and ill-thought-out policy.

I have already put on record the shambles of the reroling of Downview some years ago from a men’s to a women’s prison at two weeks’ notice to the staff. High Down prison will contribute 360 extra places to the prison estate by mid-February, and a new wing means that 178 places are coming online now. Given the difficulty of recruiting prison staff, nearly 30 per cent. of the required prison officers will be detached from duty elsewhere, with a consequent risk for prisoner-prison officer relationships.

Another example of the inept way in which those matters are planned—that is not necessarily the right word—is the new educational facility, which will come on-stream after the new blocks are built. For an indefinite period, the facilities required to enable the rehabilitation and training of offenders in prison will not be available, even though there will be a 50 per cent. increase in the prison population.

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