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Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister agree that the major announcements made by the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills on apprenticeships, and particularly adult apprenticeships, will be very welcome to my constituents in Blackpool, and particularly to women returning to work after 15 or 20 years? Does the Prime Minister believe, like me, that that marks a huge contrast with what the Conservative party did in its last five years in government, when it put money into neither apprenticeships nor further education?

The Prime Minister: The apprenticeship was dying under the Conservatives. There are now 250,000 young people in apprenticeships and that number is going to double to 500,000 over the next decade. People must face up to this big challenge for our future: either we can educate young people to the age of 18—in work, whether part-time or full-time, in training or in education—or we will fall behind our competitors. I am sorry that the Conservative party thinks that education to 18 is a stunt. It is the right way forward for the British people.

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Prisons (Carter Review)

12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, I should like to make a statement on the report of the prisons review carried out by my noble Friend Lord Carter of Coles. Copies of his report are available in the Vote Office and on my Department’s website. Lord Carter was asked in early June of this year to undertake his inquiry. He was asked jointly by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, as Chancellor, and my predecessor as Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Falconer. I am extremely grateful to Lord Carter, and his team, for all their time, expertise and professionalism.

Lord Carter’s report proposes a large increase in prison building. It says that there is an urgent need for an improved long-term mechanism for better balancing supply and demand for prison places. It puts forward far-reaching proposals for a judiciary-led sentencing commission, and for efficiency and organisational changes

Let me first give the context of the review. For more than half a century, from the end of the war, crime rose inexorably. As each successive Government left office, crime was higher than when they came in—significantly higher, in the case of the 1979 to 1997 Administration. In sharp contrast, we are the first Government since the war under whom crime has not risen, but fallen—and fallen by a third. Violent crime is down, burglary and vehicle crime are down, and the chance of being a victim of crime is lower than at any time since 1981.

Those improvements are due to many factors: the police, local communities, local authorities, industry, stronger powers to deal with disorder, substantial youth justice reform, and greatly increased investment in law enforcement, with 14,000 more police officers, bringing numbers to record levels. In turn, those improvements have led to many more serious, persistent and violent offenders being brought to justice, and being sentenced for longer.

The result has been a very rapid growth in the prison population, which is up by one third since 1997—from 60,000 to 81,500, last Friday’s figure. During the same period reoffending rates have improved, while the physical condition of prison has been transformed, as has security. I pay particular tribute to prison officers, probation officers and staff at all levels. They do a difficult job in difficult circumstances.

The whole House is agreed that, wherever appropriate, offenders should be punished in the community. Overall, investment in probation services has gone up by 72 per cent. in real terms over the last 10 years. We shall test intensive alternatives to custody, and provide sentences with more rigorous non-custodial regimes.

Of course, the House and the country are clear that prison has to be used for violent, serious persistent and dangerous offenders. With so many factors in play, forecasting future trends in the prison population has always been complex and uncertain. Predictions made over the previous seven years have put the prison population for this summer both at 20,000 above, and 12,000 below, its actual level of 80,600. However, there is no doubt that the prison population will continue to rise in the next few years, given the increasing effectiveness of the system in bringing more offenders to justice. To meet
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previously anticipated demand, a programme of 9,500 extra places is already under way. An extra 1,600 new places have come on stream in 2007, and a further 2,300 will do so next year.

In light of Lord Carter’s recommendations, I can now announce that to secure the long-term availability of prison places, I have agreed with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer additional funding of £1.2 billion, on top of the £1.5 billion already committed, to deliver a further and extended building programme that will bring an additional 10,500 places on stream by 2014. We will act on Lord Carter’s recommendation to build up to three large titan prisons, housing around 2,500 prisoners each. That extra capacity will help us to modernise the prison estate, close some of the older, inefficient prisons on a new-for-old basis, and reconfigure some of the smaller sites to accommodate female or juvenile offenders.

The building programme is aimed to bring overall net capacity to just over 96,000 places by 2014. To provide additional capacity within that total in the short to medium term, we intend to convert a former Ministry of Defence site at Coltishall in Norfolk into a category C prison, provide further places through expansion on existing prison sites, convert Her Majesty’s prison Wealstun, near Leeds, into a closed prison, and bring forward projects from the building reserve list. In addition, my Department is actively looking at securing a prison ship.

As for women in prison, the prisons Minister—the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson)—will tomorrow publish the Government’s detailed response to my noble Friend Baroness Corston’s report. Today I asked my noble Friend Lord Bradley to carry out a review, reporting jointly to the Department of Health and my Department, on diverting more offenders with severe mental health problems away from prison and into more appropriate facilities. Lord Carter has made important recommendations about the operation of the National Offender Management Service and the Prison Service, to improve the focus on service delivery and offender management. We will streamline corporate service costs in headquarters and regional offices in NOMS and the Prison Service, and we will establish a programme of performance testing.

Contrary to myth, there have been fewer criminal justice Bills in the last 10 years than in the preceding decade. [Interruption.] Well, I shall be happy to give the figures in due course. In the criminal justice field, it is inevitable that measures have to be kept under constant review. Indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection—IPPs—introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, have proved an effective way of dealing with the most serious and dangerous offenders. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the then Home Secretary, has confirmed to me, those sentences were never intended to target those who would have received tariffs of less than two years. Notwithstanding that, the drafting of the legislation has meant that they have been used for very short tariffs—in one case, for a tariff as short as 28 days. As recommended by Lord Carter and by the chairman of the Parole Board, Sir Duncan Nichol, we will introduce amendments to the Criminal Justice and
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Immigration Bill to establish a minimum tariff of two years, below which IPPs and extended sentences cannot be given.

I want to make a particular point about sentences for rape. It is very rare indeed for rape offences to receive less than a two-year tariff, which is well below the recommended guideline. Any sentence for a serious offence that is effectively below a two-year tariff will be open to appeal by the Attorney-General on grounds of undue leniency. All that will ensure that IPPs are focused on the most serious and dangerous offenders.

In addition, we are accepting Lord Carter’s other recommendations to align release mechanisms for offenders sentenced under the Criminal Justice Act 1991 with those sentenced under the 2003 Act. Offenders sentenced for non-sexual, non-violent offences committed since 2005 are now eligible for release at the halfway point of their sentence and remain on licence to the end of that sentence, rather than being eligible for parole at the halfway point, automatic release at two thirds, and being on licence until three quarters only. We propose to introduce a similar regime for prisoners sentenced for non-sexual, non-violent offences under previous legislation.

Decisions about the sentence to be handed down in a particular case must be a matter of judgment for the trial judge or magistrates. Respecting the independence of sentencers to pass the sentence that they believe is appropriate in the individual case is fundamental to the integrity of the judiciary in a free society. But Parliament has a critical role to play in setting the framework for sentencing and in deciding on the level of taxpayers’ money to pay for the prison places and probation services that arise from that sentencing framework.

Over the past decade much progress has been made to develop a more coherent and transparent sentencing framework, with the Sentencing Advisory Panel in 1999, and the Sentencing Guidelines Council in 2004. But Lord Carter now highlights the need for a mechanism—a sentencing commission—that will allow for the drivers behind the prison population to be addressed and managed in a transparent, consistent and predictable manner through the provision of an indicative set of sentencing ranges.

Such a commission would have an ongoing role in monitoring the prison population and reporting on the impacts on the prison population and penal resources of all national policy proposals and system changes. I wish to emphasise that the proposal has nothing to do with linking individual sentences to the availability of correctional resources. The debate relates to the linking of resources to the overall sentencing framework. I am pleased to accept Lord Carter’s recommendation to establish a working group to consider the advantages, disadvantages and feasibility of such a sentencing commission, which in our judgment will lead and inform the public debate on these issues.

Prison is, and will remain, the right place for the most serious offenders. Custodial sentences, and therefore prison places, must also be available for less serious offenders when other measures have failed or are inappropriate. And we must have in place a rigorous and effective framework of community penalties where they are the right course.

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The measures that I have announced today will fulfil our aims in this important area. They will bring many more prison places on stream with agreed funding and a delivery programme. They will allow for a rational debate on sentencing that recognises that, as with any other public service, resources are finite. Above all, they will fulfil our commitment to provide a modernised prisons system that protects the public from the most serious offenders. I commend this statement to the House.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for sight of the report and his statement, just over an hour ago. All of us agree that the situation in our overcrowded prisons cannot continue. In calling for urgent action, is not the latest Carter report a devastating indictment of the Government’s failure to manage the prisons system? We have consistently called for an expansion of prison capacity to meet demand, so the Government’s announcement of additional prison places is welcome, but long overdue. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the additional 10,500 places that he announced today are in addition to the 9,500 places already promised?

At present 17,000 prisoners are doubling up in cells—twice as many as when the Government came to power. Will the Government’s proposals reduce that overcrowding, and will the Secretary of State reject Carter’s recommendation that there is scope for increasing levels of overcrowding? The Secretary of State says that he is actively looking at securing a prison ship. Why did the Government sell off their prison ship at a loss, if a new one is to be purchased?

We have called for more appropriate security provision for prisoners with severe mental illness, so we welcome a review in this area. Should not serious drugs offenders also be treated in separate secure units? In two previous reports Lord Carter proposed replacing unsuitable prisons. That is long overdue. Can the Secretary of State say how many of those prisons will be closed? Is he sure that Lord Carter’s recommendation to build large titan prisons is right? Would it not be better to build smaller, local prisons where offenders could be closer to their families to aid rehabilitation? Is it not clear that although there will be some increase in capacity, the Government are choosing to release more prisoners early and water down sentences to moderate demand?

We Conservatives believe that sentences should fit the crime, not jail capacity. Will not any proposal to fetter the discretion of judges and magistrates to hand down sentences as they see fit cause the gravest concern? The Government already propose to remove magistrates’ right to suspend sentences; now they want to link sentences to the resources available. The Secretary of State claimed that that had nothing to do with linking individual sentences to resources, but is it not the case that sentences as a whole could be shortened if Ministers failed to provide enough capacity?

The Secretary of State proposes greater use of community sentences as an alternative to prison, but prison is already largely reserved for serious, violent and persistent offenders. Is it not the case that 70 per cent. of prisoners released have 10 previous convictions? Prison is already the last resort, when community sentences have failed. Some 40 per cent. of unpaid work requirements for
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male offenders are not even completed. How can the public have confidence in community penalties as an alternative to prison when the sanctions are so weak and unenforced?

For the past five years, the Government have paraded as a badge of honour their indeterminate sentences for public protection. Why, then, do they now propose to limit those sentences for criminals who, by definition, pose a significant risk of causing death or serious injury by reoffending? The Secretary of State proposes a minimum tariff of two years for indeterminate and extended sentences. Can he confirm that in the first year of operation, 26 indeterminate sentences for public protection with a tariff of less than two years were given for sexual offences against children?

The Secretary of State’s statement said almost nothing about improving the rehabilitation of offenders. What do the Government plan to do about the fact that prisoners still spend fewer than four hours a day engaged in purposeful activity? Any Government’s first duty is to protect the public. How can the Government claim to have done so, given that they have released 11,000 offenders early on to our streets in just four months? The Carter report assumes that the end-of-custody licence will continue indefinitely. Will the Secretary of State now confirm that that measure is to become permanent?

The Prime Minister took office promising to punish offenders, but is it not the case that we now have overdue additional places for prison, but no serious action to reform our jails? We have weak community penalties for offenders who should be sent to prison and early release for criminals who should have served their sentences. Far from honouring their promise to punish offenders, the Government’s agenda is to give thousands of criminals a break.

Mr. Straw: That was nonsense from beginning to end. I note that the hon. Gentleman did not dispute the fact that crime had risen inexorably for 50 years under one Government after another. Recorded crime doubled under the previous Conservative Administration. The Labour Government have been the first since the war under whom crime has gone down—and it has gone down by one third. One of the reasons for that has been provided by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), the shadow prisons Minister, who said just last week:

That happens to be the truth, but it is totally inconsistent with what the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) has said, which is that we are somehow letting more prisoners out.

I am sorry to shoot the hon. Gentleman’s fox so comprehensively, but last week, anticipating the review, he said:

I have just announced £1.2 billion extra for prisons, on top of the £1.5 billion already announced. [Interruption.] I will come to the detailed points in a moment. The hon. Gentleman has repeatedly said that he accepts that resources are finite; if we are talking about a journey,
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that at least is a start—although his arm may have been twisted by the shadow Chancellor.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs recently told the media:

I agree. I cannot for the life of me understand why he has come up with his synthetic criticism of a sensible proposal for a sentencing commission that will do exactly that.

Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. He asked whether the additional 10,500 prison places would be on top of the 9,500 that are already on the way. The answer is yes. That will provide a gross increase of 20,000 additional places. Our aim is that part of that increase should be taken up by closing some older, inefficient prisons so that the net figure is 15,000—provided, of course, that the prison population reaches the median target, which is 96,000, not the high target of 101,000. Those decisions will have to be made in due course, but that is the current position, as I spelled out in my statement.

The hon. Gentleman referred to 17,000 prisoners doubling up. Doubling up in cells intended for one person is not something that we wish to happen, but under this Government it has not, at any level, ever reached the 47 per cent. of prisoners who were doubled up in the 1980s—and that was with insanitary chamber pots, not internal sanitation. He should pay attention to what his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said about prison policy—that we have to look, if need be, at doubling up in some prisons. That is just a little bit behind the times.

HMP Weir was indeed sold off. It was intended to serve for three years but was used for eight years, and was not at the time regarded as fit for purpose.

The hon. Gentleman made a serious point about mental health provision in asking whether that should also be available for serious drug offenders. Yes, of course it should. Many, if not most of the mental health patients in prison—this is, in a sense, a semantic point—are also serious drug offenders, so we are in effect talking about the same population. Some drug offenders, particularly egregious drug dealers, do not have mental health problems; they are just straightforward serious criminals who, in my judgment, should stay in prison for a very long time.

As for how many prisons will be closed, the proposal is that some provision will be closed on a new-for-old basis. However, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a list, and I have no intention of compiling a list until we are clear about the development of the programme and capacity.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned having smaller local prisons rather than titans. There is a debate to be had about that, and I am not saying that there is a perfect answer. Our judgment, based on Lord Carter’s recommendations, is that a small number of large prisons sited in London and the south-east, where there is an urgent need for prison accommodation, will meet the needs of efficiency, better management of offenders, and reasonable closeness to their homes. However, we are happy to have that debate in due course.

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