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To develop a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), the prison was established to hold 660 prisoners. Its operational capacity is 747, but it is increasing by 10 a day as the new block is filled. There are 98 men living in triple cells who should be in double cells. There is a
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proposal to put bunks into the single cells in the new block, which were designed to take ligature points out of the cell and reduce the risk to prisoners, and an assessment is under way of whether the new cells can be turned into double cells. That is the scale of the crisis in that prison in my constituency.

The crisis that has engulfed prisons is cruel not only to prisoners but stupid, because of the consequences for the rest of us. The overcrowding crisis is a fundamental problem and a consequence of the wider malaise in the criminal justice system.

Three aspects have contributed to the systemic failure, one of which is sentencing. It is clear that the Government’s obsession with sentences has been damaging. A custodial sentence has two elements—a prison sentence, the primary purpose of which is punishment and the protection of society, and a period of probation on licence, which should primarily provide prisoners with the opportunity for rehabilitation. That is not to say that rehabilitation should not start in prison—it should. However, the increase in sentence length under the Government, forcing judges to pass longer sentences, and the creation of thousands of new criminal offences, must have contributed to the overcrowding and the collapse of much serious rehabilitation work inside.

The failure properly to focus on rehabilitation means that far too many offenders are re-imprisoned while on probation. We already have some of the longest sentences in Europe, and more and more judges are handing out indeterminate sentences. The new system of imprisonment for public protection has exacerbated the situation. Britain is home to more prisoners on indeterminate sentences than the whole of the rest of Europe put together. I do not regard that as a mark of success.

Sadly, the probation service has been consistently undermined by the Government. On 11 June this year the service celebrated its 100th anniversary in a special service in Westminster Abbey. The Bishop of Selby, Bishop to HM Prisons, acknowledged

It was for some a eulogy on the end of the national probation service as we know it.

Many prisoners now see the function of the probation service not as rehabilitation, but as re-imprisonment. Those sent back to prison include individuals arriving moments late for employment or carrying items that cannot reasonably be prohibited. In a case personally known to me, an offender was accused of using his electronic diary to access the internet, despite the fact that the machine had no such function. On that basis, he was re-imprisoned. We are told of people being re-imprisoned without being told why. The appeal process through the Parole Board is lengthy, and the Parole Board is itself a subsidiary of the Home Office.

The failure to rehabilitate and the propensity for punishment provoke anger and frustration among the prisoner population. Those emotions are prominent likely causes of re-offending. A prisoner in Belmarsh recently wrote:

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That is a common view in prison and a damning indictment of a failed policy. The solution is straightforward: support those keen to rehabilitate, and address re-imprisonment for ridiculous reasons that have much more to do with risk avoidance than with justice. With 10,000 prisoners being recalled the situation needs to be addressed urgently.

Finally, let us consider the role of the Parole Board in prison overcrowding. According to the High Court, the reason lies in the lack of independence for the Parole Board. Many who should be released to probation for rehabilitation are not released, and the Parole Board’s recommendations, such as proposals to move those serving life sentences into more open conditions, are ignored. It is perhaps typical of the controlling tendency of the Government that instead of granting the Parole Board the independence that it needs to function, they are instead launching an appeal against the High Court’s judgment.

Allowing our judges to judge, focusing probation on rehabilitation and curbing the Home Office’s draconian powers, and ensuring a truly independent Parole Board would help address the current crisis. Meanwhile, our prison service is swamped, unable to do its job of rehabilitation, and morale is at an all-time low. The Government say that their policy is focused on public protection, but all they are doing is putting the public at risk through overcrowded prisons and a failure to rehabilitate thousands of offenders, nurturing one of the highest re-offending rates in the world and breeding thousands of angry, bitter prisoners who have been unjustly and inhumanely treated.

6.28 pm

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): I was a little disappointed when the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) opened the debate and started talking about the prison population. One thing that he left out of his speech was the contribution made by our police force to ensuring that more people are taken in for investigation, arrested, taken to court and sentenced. A huge investment has been made by our Government in the police force and community support officers. In my constituency, Perry Barr in Birmingham, Handsworth, Lozells and Aston, which had record levels of crime, now have one of the lowest crime rates in Birmingham and across the midlands.

The hon. Gentleman refused to take interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who has huge knowledge and understanding —[Interruption.] I say to hon. Members who wish to intervene on me that I have only a little time available to me, and I want to make a couple of points and then allow other hon. Members to speak. The work done by my hon. Friend has given him a huge understanding about drug rehabilitation.

If hon. Members want to examine these serious issues, they should visit Winson Green prison in Birmingham, where significant work has been done on getting prisoners off drugs and on to substitute drugs. Approaches such as rehousing them, reintegrating them into the community and getting Jobcentre Plus
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teams into prisons to speak to them about work opportunities when they come out of prison have been examined. All that work has been done in places such as Winson Green, and the Government have put huge resources into it. The venture taken by Winson Green is wholly positive, and much interesting work has been done.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs also refused to mention anything about restorative justice. A huge amount of work has been done on that, particularly in Liverpool. I believe that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned the Red Hook project, which is a fine example. I have had the opportunity to visit Liverpool, where work has been done and restorative justice has paid off. A full-time district judge is in charge of that system, and keeping people away from prison has worked quite effectively. A community court has also been secured in Lozells and Handsworth for my constituency. It started only this month and it has been a huge success. I have been campaigning for such a court in my area for the past two years. A huge amount of work has been done.

Many hon. Members have mentioned education. I shall limit my remarks because of the shortage of time, but I should mention Matthew Boulton college in Birmingham, which has won a contract for Prison Service education. It has done a huge amount of work to get prisoners back into education.

People must recognise the considerable work that has been done in all the fields that I have mentioned. Hon. Members sometimes come here to make speeches purely to knock the Government, but that is not a positive approach. We need to examine all the positive things that are being done and then continue the work. The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who is not in his place, made sensible arguments on this point. We should address such arguments rather than just listen to point-scoring from the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs.

6.32 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): In essence, the prison system is in crisis. As each prisoner costs the taxpayer £49,000 per annum, it is proving to be a rather expensive crisis. Given that the Prime Minister’s speech to the Labour party conference, which itemised his priorities, did not mention prisons or prisoners, it is clear that the trend of neglect will continue.

With a record number of prisoners, it is no good the Government boasting that they have provided an additional 20,000 prison places when some of that has been achieved by doubling and trebling the usage of cells. Nor is it any good their boasting that they propose to build 9,500 more places by 2012, when they have guaranteed funding for only 500 of those places.

The Government need seriously to consider the consequences of their decade of failure. There was a 64 per cent. rise in attacks on prison staff between 2000 and 2006, which was due in part to overcrowding. There has been a substantial increase in the number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults—444 per cent. between 1997 and 2006. The number of self-harm incidents has also increased by a staggering 1,500 per cent. in the
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same period. It is no wonder that the chief inspector of prisons, Ann Owers, drew a link between overcrowding and violence in prisons.

As well as punishment, one of the aims and objectives of prison is to rehabilitate prisoners, but that is becoming increasingly difficult. For example, in Belmarsh prison just under 15 hours a week is spent in productive activity. That sort of environment certainly does not assist rehabilitation.

As we have heard, prisons are rife with drugs—a fact that was aptly confirmed in a written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) confirming that one in five prisoners admitted that their first experience of drugs was in prison.

I am mindful that one other Member wishes to speak, so I will conclude by saying that the Government need to get their head out of the sand. So far, they have tried temporary measures such as the early release of 10,000 prisoners. Perhaps the Minister would like to enlighten us about what “temporary” really means. The tagging system has failed and there have been failures in all other measures. My advice to the Minister is that he should take on board the views of some of his colleagues in other Departments, who have been open to Conservative suggestions.

6.36 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): In the four minutes that I have, I would like to make a couple of brief points.

We have had prison overcrowding in every year since 1994. Part of the reason for the current crisis is the 50 per cent. breach rate of antisocial behaviour orders. Stringent breach rules have resulted in a rise in the number of breaches of more than 400 per cent. in four years, up to a monthly level of 1,200. Other reasons include increases in magistrates’ sentencing powers and the use of public protection sentences. If I had time, I would have referred to the Carter report of 2003, which concluded:

In other words, crime is not dealt with by imprisonment, which does nothing for the average offender, for various reasons. Rehabilitation is not good, and there are overwhelming drug problems. Similarly, the previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) said:

So why do we continue to send people to prison?

Let me pose this question to the Minister. Will the Government consider a new community penalty—a period of supervision where the conditions of the order were not all imposed at the same time? That has been put to me by a serious panel of senior probation officers. The major problems are, first, drug and alcohol misuse, secondly, literacy and numeracy deficiencies, and thirdly, lack of a path to employment. It is not possible to deal with all three at the same time, because people who are in the depths of drug or alcohol misuse cannot deal rationally with the second and third problems. The sentence could be for 18 months, with six months in the
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first phase and phased-in second and third phases. That would ultimately be cost-effective, although it presupposes investment in the probation service. I have always believed in the probation service. Far too many people in prison—I would venture to suggest up to 25 per cent.—should, strictly speaking, not be there. We could do without sending people to prison if we were to look creatively at community penalties. If I may, I would like to meet the Minister to discuss the idea of the phased community penalty, which is a good idea that might well work. Perhaps he will agree to that when he winds up.

I am pleased to have been able to speak for these few minutes. Often, the best fish that a fisherman would ever have caught is the one that got away. Likewise, alas, the speech that I had prepared would probably have been my best speech, which is why I was unable to deliver it.

6.39 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I begin by commiserating with the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). He always has interesting things to say about criminal justice issues, and if he had more time, he would have had more of value to say. I particularly want to commend him for his idea—it is one I have thought of myself, if I may say so—concerning the sequential requirements under community sentencing. As he rightly says, many of the people on community sentences are not always able to organise their lives in a sensible way, and we end up with too many breaches as a consequence. I think that the Minister would be sensible to consider that idea further.

I do not have long, so I probably will not faithfully reproduce the contributions made by right hon. and hon. Members from all parties. I notice that the Secretary of State is not here; he did not rise to the occasion, which is a pity because those who spoke after him have done so. I have no doubt that the Minister of State will produce a better speech than his political master. He has done his best to make some interesting contributions to the question of prison overcrowding; I have listened to him with interest in the Committee considering the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which we have been toiling through during the past six weeks or so. I look forward to what the Minister has to say having real purpose. It seems to me that prisons should be prisons with a purpose. If we cannot provide purposeful prisons, we are wasting our time and the public’s money, we are abusing victims and we are not doing offenders any good.

A number of broad themes came out of the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) highlighted those in our motion. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), I must confess to being a recorder. I send people to prison and give them community sentences. I watch the carousel of offenders coming before the criminal court in London and wonder why this Government do what they do. They seem to have little understanding about why what is happening. As the shadow Minister dealing with prison matters since my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) appointed me to the post in December 2005, I have visited 30 adult prisons—those accommodating men and women—and
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I have visited young offender institutions and secure training centres. In each of those establishments I have met some dedicated and wonderful people, but all of them are working in dreadful, overcrowded prisons. Overcrowding is the crux. It is impossible to deliver sensible, humane and decent conditions in prison, for the inmates or for those who work there as officers and staff, in such grossly overcrowded conditions.

As our motion says, there are now 81,547 in prison. We are simply warehousing those people; we are not giving them the effective rehabilitation that they need if they are to come out of prison as responsible, law-abiding citizens. It is one thing to incarcerate people to keep them off the streets, and to prevent them from reoffending—that is a perfectly legitimate aim of sentencing. However, if that is all we do, and we release them through the back door so that they go back on to the streets, as illiterate and affected by substance abuse as when they went in, it is hardly surprising that they reoffend in the industrial quantities that they do. Of all adult prisoners released, 66 per cent. reoffend within two years, and the figure for young offenders is worse—about 75 per cent. If the Government think that spending £50,000 a year on accommodating every adult prisoner, between £70,000 and £90,000 a year on every young offender and about £150,000 a year on every teenage prisoners under 18, is good for the prisoners and the public when reoffending takes place at such a vast rate, we inhabit different planets. The reoffending rate is far too high and will not be tackled until the Government get to grips with overcrowding.

The Government claim—the Secretary of State did so again this evening—that they have built and provided many additional prison places. It’s the way he tells ’em. The prison population has increased from 60,000 to 81,500, but the accommodation has not increased to meet that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said when he referred to the new block in one of the prisons in his constituency, it is already planned to put bunks into single cells so that two people can go into one-person cells. One of the unintended consequences of getting rid of slopping out over the past 20 years is that we are now in the revolting position whereby two or three men are in one cell, essentially living in a lavatory. They cannot go to the lavatory in privacy. That is a fact of the hidden world of the modern prison system. Not only do they have to go to the lavatory in front of their cell mates, but they have to eat their meals in those lavatories. Those appalling conditions prevail under the Government’s management of our prison system. That does not lead to better rehabilitation and inculcation of responsibility into offenders whom we release on to the streets.

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