Previous Section Index Home Page

5 Dec 2007 : Column 833

The hon. Gentleman made some less serious points about community penalties. We have increased the use of community penalties, and their effectiveness has increased too. That is one of the reasons for the increase in the prison population, as is brought out in Lord Carter’s report. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of probation offenders who have breached their sentence and are therefore taken back to court, and often sentenced to prison.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab): I commend Lord Carter for his second report on this matter, and my right hon. Friend for his response. Given the substantial additional resources, will the budget of the Youth Justice Board also be protected? Will innovative schemes to keep young people out of prison but in secure and structured frameworks be put forward in the consultation, particularly in light of the suggested sentencing commission? The commission might then be able to deal with the situation alluded to by my right hon. Friend relating to indeterminate sentences—that what the House thinks that it is doing does not always come to fruition when the Sentencing Guidelines Council or the courts take a different view of how it can be applied.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support, and for all the work that he did in developing a more coherent framework in this field. The sentencing commission builds on the excellent work that he did, if I may say so, in setting up the Sentencing Guidelines Council. This money is new money; it will not touch the Youth Justice Board budget. I agree with him about sentences of imprisonment for public protection. The framework was set out and, as I understand it, Members on both sides of the House agreed its purpose, which is that such sentences were for much more serious offenders who would typically get a tariff of two years or much longer. However, it has not quite worked out like that. It is entirely appropriate that we should accept that the system has not operated as intended, and amend it.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I thank the Lord Chancellor for early sight of the statement, and I echo his tribute to prison officers and probation officers. I also thank Lord Carter, that most prolific of reviewers, for a thorough report.

I welcome the recommendations on improved efficiency in the service, on stronger alternatives to custody, and on modernisation of the prison estate. However, in the latter case, why cannot the Lord Chancellor put forward, after, presumably, due consideration over some years, concrete proposals to dispose of antiquated prisons—I almost said Victorian prisons, but we now know that some of them date back to 1500—which would enable those prisons to release capital that could then be reinvested? Do not the plans for emergency places smack more of desperation and panic than proper forward planning?

The Lord Chancellor announced yet another review, under Lord Bradley, on diverting those with mental illness from prison. That is welcome. However, why is there no commitment in his proposals to build more
5 Dec 2007 : Column 834
secure mental health provision, as well as drug centres, within the estate, to ensure that those who should not be in prison are not held in standard prisons but in alternative accommodation?

I note that Lord Carter agrees with the recommendations of the Corston review on women prisoners, but there appears to be no incorporation of those recommendations into his recommendations. Is not that an omission, and will the Lord Chancellor rectify it in the statement that he is to make in response to the Corston review?

Does the Lord Chancellor agree that, as is demonstrably the case, short-term sentences are almost completely ineffective in reducing reoffending? Would it not be sensible instead to impose more tougher community sentences, which are proven to be more effective?

As I think that the Lord Chancellor has said, no judge should be constrained by lack of capacity from imposing custodial sentences that are necessary to protect the public. Will he extend that principle to rehabilitative sentences such as drug treatment or probation?

Lastly, does the Lord Chancellor agree that the test of any penal policy is what works in protecting the public and reducing reoffending, and that the current system fails both those tests?

Mr. Straw: I agree that one test of sentencing policy is what works. I also agree that short-term sentences have often proved not very effective in terms of reducing reoffending. Offenders who get those shorter sentences are often those who have been convicted of what would be regarded as medium or lower-level offences but are persistent offenders, and the courts simply run out of patience with them. As I have often said, prison is often the sentence of last resort. We should do everything we can with such offenders, but it is for the courts to decide for how long they should go to prison. If it is just so that they can be locked up, at least that is a respite for their communities. That is the dilemma that we face.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the proposals. Let me run through his other points. In respect of closing some of the less efficient prisons, it should not be assumed that antiquity is of itself grounds for closure. Otherwise, a large number of Oxford and Cambridge colleges would be closed, as would many schools, which gave some of us a half-decent education, and even this place. The issue with buildings is whether they are efficient and providing a decent service. Some 1960s buildings should come down a lot sooner than some of those of greater antiquity.

On mental health, I am not personally in favour of putting within prison estates secure mental health provision where prisoners have been sectioned, because it will lead to a problem with the regime. I am happy, however, to pass on the hon. Gentleman’s support, along with mine, to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health in saying that we need more money for secure mental health provision outside prisons.

The Corston report will be published tomorrow in a written ministerial statement by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), and I hope that that will be welcomed.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I have to say that I found my right hon. Friend’s statement rather depressing in its assumption that we are going to carry
5 Dec 2007 : Column 835
on sending more and more people to prison when we already send more there than virtually any other European country. Although I welcome what he said about Lord Bradley’s review, surely we ought be putting far more money into keeping out of prison people who do not need to be there—those with serious mental health problems, fine defaulters and those in for minor breaches of orders. Does his statement on expansion and more resources imply a reversal in the budget cuts in place for the next year, which will affect the probation service and the Prison Service?

Mr. Straw: None of us wants to send people to prison just for the sake of it, but prison is there to deal with offenders who are sentenced properly by the courts. The increase in the prison population is one factor—we cannot say exactly what weight to give to it—that has contributed to the significant reduction in crime. We all agree that more should be done to move into the health service prisoners who suffer from serious mental health problems. A great deal has been done; we have abolished the prison health service and we now have NHS staff working on the issue. We hope that more work will be done in future.

On fine defaulters, I say to my hon. Friend that prison has to be available as a sentence of last resort if people refuse to pay fines. Other disposals are available, but if people go on refusing, they need to be locked up. There are no cuts in the Prison Service or the probation budget.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does the Lord Chancellor recognise that short periods of custody are notoriously ineffective for dealing with fine defaulters, breaches of bail conditions or antisocial behaviour order breaches? All those things could probably be more effectively handled by community courts that had a consistent engagement with the offender and were able to keep the offender up to the mark. Will he deal with the tendency in our system to spend the vast resources that go into criminal justice on the most expensive measures, rather than the ones most likely to work?

Mr. Straw: If we can deal with offenders outside the prison system, we should, but I repeat that it is not for us to second-guess magistrates or judges when they are making a decision about what to do with a particular offender. Almost always, when they deal with an ASBO breach or a serious fine defaulter, they have been through a range of community sentences and then said, “We’ve had enough. We’re going to take you off the streets for a period.” It may or may not be that the person in question decides to get away from criminal habits, but the period for which they are locked up is at least a respite for those whom they have been penalising through their criminal behaviour.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and particularly the implicit recognition that offenders cannot carry on reoffending in the community while they are in prison. I also welcome Lord Carter’s proposal for a sentencing commission, which is a good way forward. However, may I ask my right hon. Friend to go a little further still? Does he agree that courts should be
5 Dec 2007 : Column 836
determining an appropriate sentence on the basis of the offence itself, and not how many prison places are available on any given day?

Mr. Straw: I welcome my right hon. Friend’s approval of the recommendations; he comes to the matter with a great deal of expertise, having worked with me as Minister with responsibility for prisons in the 1997 to 2001 Parliament of this Administration.

It is a matter for the courts to determine the appropriate sentence. There has been no guidance, and nor would there be, to vary sentences according to variations in the prison population. We have responded to rises in the prison population, and we shall continue to do so, hence the increase of 10,500 places on top of the 9,500 already announced, for which the Government are now finding funds.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): Surely the proposal by Lord Carter of a sentencing commission is based on the rather extraordinary proposition that, from time to time, sentencing guidelines should be raised or lowered in line with the current state of the prison population and of overcrowding. Will the Lord Chancellor make it clear whether he is commending and adopting this proposal, as he seemed to be in replying to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), or whether he will refer it to a working party that will give much more consideration to the advantages and disadvantages, and to whether or not it is a good idea? Surely there cannot be any substitute for a situation in which civilised prison accommodation is available for all those whom the courts think it is appropriate and necessary to send to prison. We cannot start having variations over the years according to the state of prison overcrowding—a state that we should not have got into, although we have done so during the past 10 years.

Mr. Straw: I try to be ecumenical, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman was Home Secretary during a period when police cells were used very extensively, and more extensively than today. He was also Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I know for certain that when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) came to ask for more money for the police, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) did not say, “Oh yes. Would you like to write out the cheque?” One of the consequences of his penury was that police numbers were going down at the end of that period, not up.

However, let me reassure the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He asks whether this is a done deal or whether a working party will further examine the matter. I think that the idea is a good one, on the basis of what I have read, but it is not a done deal. There is a working party, which will be chaired by a senior member of the judiciary, to examine it properly. The right hon. and learned Gentleman takes a serious interest in these matters, and I hope that when he has looked at what Lord Carter says—and also, I may say, a passage in the speech made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs on 26 November that came to similar conclusions—he will support what is proposed.

5 Dec 2007 : Column 837

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and in particular the changes to indeterminate sentences—the IPP sentences. Will he tell me what he plans to do to reduce the number of young people in prison? In March this year, there were nearly 2,500 15 to 17-year-olds in prison.

Mr. Straw: We all wish to see the number of young people in prison reduced if that is consistent with what the courts decide. As it happens, pressure on prisoner status has come from adult offenders in recent months, not from young people. What we have done, as announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the end of June, is ensure that joint responsibility for the Youth Justice Board and youth provision as a whole for young offenders is held by myself and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. A joint unit is being established in our Departments to ensure better management of the policy and its operation.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The report proposes a large increase in prison building. When considering any prison estate review, such as the one currently under way in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State confirm that significant emphasis will be given to two things? The first is a unanimous recommendation by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs regarding the location of an existing prison in my constituency. Secondly, there is the fact that not to do as suggested in that recommendation could cost the public purse an additional £60 million through land acquisition.

Mr. Straw: As I am also Lord Chancellor of Northern Ireland, I discussed those matters when I visited the courts in Belfast at the start of the judicial year, but this is directly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I will ensure that he is made fully aware of the hon. Gentleman’s opinions.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): At Armley prison in my constituency, 50 people a day go in and 50 a day come out. Nationally, one in seven children have a father who has been or is in prison. It is also well understood that if prisoners have visits from their children, the reoffending rate drops drastically. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend support and perhaps visit the independent charity The Jigsaw Project, which is in a new building outside Armley prison? It is doing excellent work with prisoners and their families, getting results in practice and reducing reoffending. We need to support projects outside as the key to preventing people from going around in circles, in and out of prison.

Mr. Straw: I commend my right hon. Friend for his work, and yes is the answer to his question about whether I would be interested in a visit.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): The Lord Chancellor announced the establishment of a category C prison in the former RAF base at Coltishall, part of which lies in my constituency. In 18 months, the local community has experienced moves from no Department being interested to the Home Office being interested a
5 Dec 2007 : Column 838
year ago and definitely intending to establish an immigration and asylum centre there, to the current prospect of a category C prison. The local community is, to say the least, bewildered. What does he mean by providing additional capacity in the short to medium term? What is the time line on that? Will he or one of his Ministers be able to brief local Members of Parliament and the local community fully about all the details associated with the announcement?

Mr. Straw: I understand that there has been some uncertainty for the local community. I hope that it may be relatively relieved that the site will be used for a category C prison rather than the potential earlier use, which always causes some excitement in local communities. The prisoners will be locked up and our record on cutting escapes from closed prisons is good. Of course, we will ensure that local Members of Parliament, including the hon. Gentleman, and the local council and community are fully briefed. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn, says that he is happy to visit the area.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): It is a sad day for our society when we have to announce extra prison places. However, I welcome the re-emphasis on prisoners with mental health problems. My right hon. Friend knows that, last year, we processed 700 people out of prison, and we probably took more people with mental health problems into prisons than we processed out of them. Has he considered creating a special prison—a special unit—that could probably process such people more quickly? It could assess them and pass them on to more appropriate locations, thus releasing prison places, but more importantly, leading to treatment for those suffering from mental illness.

Mr. Straw: Many health care centres, for example in Preston, which is an old prison but has transformed its health care provision in recent years, perform the function that my hon. Friend describes. We want to examine greater and more flexible arrangements for health care in prison. Some of the committed NHS staff who work in Preston put proposals to me when I was there with my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) in September. Of course, we will examine those matters. The aim is to keep serious, long-term mental health patients out of the prison system.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): Like the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), my interest is based on the location of former RAF Coltishall in my constituency, where it is largely situated, although it overlaps into his. Does not the announcement about it smack of chaos, confusion and crisis management? When the site was first offered to the Home Office two years ago, it showed no interest. Last year, we were told that an assessment had concluded that it was not an appropriate site for a prison. For a year, its potential as an immigration centre was considered, while it decayed. Now we are told that it is appropriate for a prison. What has changed since the assessment last year? We have known about the trends in prison numbers for some time. There is concern in the local
5 Dec 2007 : Column 839
community. Will the Minister with responsibility for prisons agree to meet the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk and me?

Mr. Straw: If you do not mind my saying so, Mr. Speaker, the hon. Gentleman could take some lessons from his Conservative neighbour in seriously representing his constituents.

We all understand that there will be a period of uncertainty about the use of redundant military land. Indeed, that applies to all large areas of land that become available. Of course, if it is Government land, several possible uses will be considered. We can either conduct that consideration in secret—in my judgment, there is no case for doing so in areas such as the one that we are discussing—or as ideas come through, we can share them with the local community. If the hon. Gentleman objects to the latter, and believes that we should go back to the old days before the Freedom of Information Act 2000, let him put that on the record. Sometimes we say that we are considering an idea and we then take account of the local community’s views and, as in the case of candidates for asylum and immigration centres, of whether the numbers are decreasing—and they have decreased dramatically.

In our judgment, the proposal is a sensible use of the camp. We all understand that proposals for prisons cause some nervousness in the local community. However, all the evidence shows that there is no adverse effect on house prices—we have data to prove that. Once prisons are established, they prove popular with the local community, and it will be difficult to close those that become candidates for closure in future.

Next Section Index Home Page