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Westminster Hall

Thursday 31 January 2008

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned—[Liz Blackman.]

2.30 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley, for what I hope will be a productive debate on how we can prevent reoffending by those who go through the criminal justice system—both those in custody and those undertaking a community-based sentence.

The Government are keen to have this debate, because we are in the process of consulting on a number of documents laying out our strategy for the prevention of reoffending. In November of last year, I launched a number of documents looking at how we can prevent reoffending. Today’s debate is apposite because, this very day, we produced the Ministry of Justice prison policy update briefing paper, which was announced in a written ministerial statement this morning by the Lord Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw).

I am grateful for the opportunity to outline current developments in reducing reoffending, which is an area about which many Members have very strong views. Reoffending is a critical concern of constituents and the communities that we serve—it is a crucial concern to the whole of society and, in particular, to those whose lives are broken by crime, either as victims or offenders. I am very concerned to ensure that we build on this Government’s successful record on crime reduction—crime has reduced by 37 per cent. over the past 10 years—by looking at who to deal with and how to deal with them. In my view, tackling reoffending is key to building safer communities and protecting the public from harm. We cannot react to crime by increasing police numbers only, although we have done that, nor can we look at crime in isolation. In the words of my former right hon. Friend, Tony Blair, we must tackle crime and its causes. We must support individuals who have committed crimes so that they do not commit further crimes after release from prison or a community sentence.

By providing a snapshot of the range of social problems afflicting offenders, it can be seen that we face many grave challenges. Opposition Members will share our concerns. For example, 48 per cent. of the prison population have a reading age below or at the level expected of an 11-year-old. Standards in literacy and numeracy are very low among the vast majority of prisoners—82 per cent. for writing. Furthermore, about two thirds of those with a job lose it while in custody. Raising literacy and numeracy levels among those with offending behaviour is key. Faced with such problems, building a new life is a big challenge and, unsurprisingly, many fail. We need to
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look at how we can tackle such social exclusion and raise literacy and numeracy levels. I hope that this debate will elicit some discussion on that point.

Equally, many prisoners enter prison with drug or alcohol problems that have driven them to crime in the first place. Our duty, as concerned individuals, in caring for those prisoners, is to work with the Prison Service to ensure that on release those drug and alcohol problems have either been invested in and solved or that care is continued.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): If I can catch your eye, Mr. Illsley, I hope to make a short contribution later detailing literacy and drug problems. Does the Minister agree that getting prisoners off drugs is one thing, but ensuring that they cannot access them while in prison is another? Will he say something about what the Government are doing to ensure drug-free prisons in this country?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I cannot guarantee that no drugs will ever enter prison, because there are a number of mechanisms by which they do. However, it is quite clear that we need to continue to take action, as we are doing, to tackle problems with, for example, mobile phone usage—mobile phones can be a link to individuals in the outside world—and to look at prison security measures for visitors, staff and others to ensure that drugs are not smuggled in. Furthermore, we must be very hard on those caught smuggling drugs into prison. There have been some recent very high profile cases involving visitors, prisoners and—sadly—staff in which that has happened. It is important that we take action to deal with it.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to today’s announcement, in which we take a very clear view that we need to tackle drug use in prisons and communities at large. We have had some great successes with the number of prisoners testing positive for drugs. Over the past 10 years, that number has reduced from 24 per cent. in 1996-97 to 8.8 per cent. in 2006-07. However, we need to go further. Today’s statement has taken forward the drive against drugs with the announcement of a new review reporting to me and the Secretary of State, which will be led by two senior figures to be announced shortly, looking at measures that can be taken to stop the supply of drugs into prisons and at what to do with prisoners needing drug treatment.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), I tabled a question the other day about mobile telephones and drugs in my local prison, Her Majesty’s prison Whitemoor. In December of last year, 30 mobile telephones were confiscated and there were nine incidents involving the confiscation of drugs, and that is a high-security prison. That reveals the scale of the problem. What more can the Government do to prevent drugs from getting in? They are not coming in with the prisoners, so they must be coming in with either the prison officers or visitors, or over the wire.

Mr. Hanson: I am very concerned about that and Ministers have had meetings with officials during the last couple of weeks to look at how we can improve and make a step change in performance. The hon.
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Gentleman points to some of the areas that need serious consideration. Mobile phone usage is a damaging problem in prisons. We need to look at how to prevent access to mobile phones, which means preventing phones and chips from being smuggled in to prison. Just before Christmas, I visited a prison in Milton Keynes which has instituted the new body orifice security scanner chair—the BOSS chair—which carries out a thorough body search of individuals arriving in prison to see whether mobile phones or mobile phone chips are hidden on them. They are very small items and I do not need to go into detail about the places that they can be stored. However, they can be stored very easily in various parts of the body. The scanners that we are introducing in high-security prisons are effective.

We need to look at other measures, however, and we are examining whether we can block mobile phone signals in prison areas, which is a very difficult thing to do, because, as hon. Members will know, prisons are sometimes located in city centres and other populated areas. We need to ensure that such changes do not impact on the law-abiding public. However, I can assure hon. Members that we are committed to doing all that we can to prevent mobile phone usage, to apply extra pressure to prevent drugs from going into prison and to work with the police, my colleagues in the Prison Service, prison officers committed to this task and others to ensure that we stop the flow of drugs into prison.

In the general scheme of things, Government investment over the past 10 years has been significant in reducing reoffending and social exclusion. Without going through the list of achievements, it is important to point to some key issues. We have invested in offender skills and offender behaviour programmes and provided supported accommodation to help the rehabilitation of offenders. Last year, 40,000 offenders entered education, training or employment following their release from prison, and I say that with some pride, because it is important that we extend that further. It is important also because employment on release from prison is the key to preventing reoffending.

Today’s announcement refers to our examination of how we can build better links with employers, and better training and vocational support in prisons, to increase the employability of people who leave prison. There were more than 32,000 people in offender behaviour programmes last year, and more than 71,000 prisoners went into accommodation on release in 2006-07. That has meant putting significant resources into the prison system, and spending on offender learning has trebled since 2001, standing now at £164 million. Even the report by the chief inspector of prisons this week, which did not—dare I say it—universally welcome Government policy, highlighted the heartening success of prison learning and skills.

Drug treatment is the key to tackling offending and crime, and investment in drug treatment in prisons has gone up by more than 1,000 per cent. since 1996-97, with record numbers of people engaged in it. In March 2008, full, integrated drug treatment systems will be available in 29 prisons, with enhanced clinical services
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available in a further 24. We expect about 24,500 drug users to benefit this year from advanced clinical services.

Employment is important in preventing reoffending, and we are considering work with the Corporate Alliance for Reducing Re-offending, a group of interested and supportive business people and companies, to show that we can get employers to take on offenders and put people back into work. More than 700 employers work with the Prison Service in the open and resettlement estate, and more than 70 major employers have signed up to the Corporate Alliance for Reducing Re-offending.

In the document that we produced today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice asks me to produce further work on the issue over the next three to four months. I intend to commence shortly a forum with the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), to bring together more leading figures from the private and third sectors to consider how we can make a step change in the provision of prison training workshops. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice this morning visited Wandsworth prison with the companies Cisco, Bovis Lend Lease and Panduit to look at an innovative scheme installing voice and data cabling for enhanced vocational training. My right hon. Friend was highlighting the step change that we hope to achieve. That step change is done for a purpose, because, as I have said, employment opportunities are the key to preventing reoffending.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): Has the Minister had dealings with the Federation of Small Businesses? I have talked to representatives of prisons in south Wales near my constituency, and they say that small rather than large businesses are most likely to be open-minded about employing former offenders. It is an area of great potential, particularly in Wales, where there are many small businesses.

Mr. Hanson: It is important that we engage all sectors of the community, because small businesses can and do provide employment for former offenders. The key point is that it is good business practice for the businesses, too, because in many areas, there are skills shortages. I was at a conference in Nottingham yesterday with a range of employers to consider how we can increase the involvement of employers in hospitality, construction, retail and areas where vacancies are hard to fill, with individuals who might fill them. In the Corporate Alliance for Reducing Re-offending, we have, for example, the Camden Garden Centre, a single business in north London, which does sterling work linking up with prisons in London to provide employment for ex-offenders. That is important, because, simplistically, employment, accommodation and help for people to come off drugs and alcohol, together with support from families, are the key factors in preventing reoffending.

I mention families because they are a key part of the solution to reoffending—and not just through maintaining contact with, and support of, people when they are in prison. We must consider how we can improve and develop further programmes on that issue.
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Mr. Bellingham: I agree with the Minister that it is vital for prisoners to stay in touch with their families, particularly when trying to secure housing post-release, but does he agree that one problem that prisoners face when trying to keep in touch with their families is when they are moved around the country? I have constituents who would obviously like to be in a prison in East Anglia, or in Norfolk preferably, but they are at the other end of the country—perhaps in Scotland or in the south-west. How can we get around that problem? It is surely the biggest barrier to proper family contact.

Mr. Hanson: In the spirit of co-operation, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who makes a valid point. He is fully aware of the prison overcrowding pressures that lead to prisoners, on occasions, being placed further from home than is desirable for short-term sentences. We must examine the issue, and the prison building programme is designed to try to increase capacity in areas where there is pressure for local places. It is not satisfactory to have prisoners moved far from home, because the important point about employment opportunities is that we are trying to build links with employers in local communities, to work with local prisons, and to provide training in prison for opportunities when people leave prison. Evidently, if someone were in Manchester—formerly Strangeways —prison and resided in Cardiff in south Wales, they would have less opportunity to reintegrate with society than if they were based in a local training prison. That is one key issue that we must consider.

In south Wales, for example, I am advised that Wiltan, a very small employer, is involved in the Corporate Alliance for Reducing Re-offending. I ask all hon. Members to consider how we can encourage other companies to do such work. The conference that I attended yesterday in Nottingham was designed to do just that: sign up employers in the east midlands to help with employment opportunities by offering training, and, for ourselves, to gear vocational training in prison to the employment needs of individuals outside prison.

Families are important, as the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed, and this year we have spent £5 million supporting children and family pathways to maintain family ties. Most prisoners have a visitors’ centre outside the gate, providing information and support to families, and we are working with the social exclusion unit on family initiatives to ensure that we can link up with local services.

The investment in tackling social exclusion has been underpinned by the introduction of offender management. We are considering how to introduce a single sentence plan that covers the entire sentence, and an offender manager, who is based in the community and draws in services to help to meet the needs of the offender. We are considering also how to ensure that risks are managed for the protection of the public. Offender management, which was introduced in April 2006, now covers more than 176,000 offenders, and a further 16,000 offenders in prison. There have been real outcomes. We have exceeded our target, which was set in 2000, to reduce adult reoffending by 5 per cent. A reduction in reoffending of more than 5.8 per cent. was achieved between 2000 and 2004, but we can do more, and the purpose of today’s debate is to discuss what else we can do.

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We have published the strategic plan for reducing reoffending, which will help us to build a strategy to meet the challenges for the next three years, to deliver public service agreements, to reduce reoffending and to make communities safer. The plan examines how we can work with other Departments to deliver a common agenda. I chair, with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, an inter-ministerial group on the prevention of reoffending. Ministers from around the table are considering what needs there are regarding employment, drugs, alcohol, health and other issues, and by examining the causes of crime and by trying to tackle them to prevent reoffending, that work is helping us to commit ourselves to reduce reoffending further by 2011.

Allied to the reducing reoffending consultation, we have produced a consultation document called “Improving Health, Supporting Justice”. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), has supported it, and the consultation is in the process of considering how we can improve health and social care services for people in the criminal justice system. The document sets out the significant contribution that we are making through the national health service, alongside the contributions of social care and third sector organisations. The House will recognise that that is the key element in preventing reoffending.

Allied to that, my noble Friend Lord Bradley, whom many hon. Members will remember as Keith Bradley, the Member of Parliament for Manchester, Withington, was tasked just before Christmas by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to undertake a review of mental health problems in prison. Many people in prison have such problems and could be provided with better services outside prison. We and Lord Bradley need to consider how to improve those services, and recommendations will be made in the summer.

We have launched a further consultation on how we can involve the voluntary and faith sectors in helping us to prevent reoffending. The third sector action plan is available for consultation and considers how we can work with prisoners in the community to help them with third sector and voluntary involvement, which will help the prevention of reoffending strategy. Third sector organisations are innovative and can offer flexible and holistic services such as volunteering opportunities for offenders who have left prison, help with motivation and skills, mentoring, peer groups and maximising opportunities to help people to keep away from crime.

I recently announced new investment of more than £2.2 million in the next three years to support the third sector action plan, including a national infrastructure grant programme to enable organisations better to support and advise voluntary organisations. We are examining demonstration projects to consider what we can do. As the Minister with responsibility for youth justice, I am particularly concerned to consider how we can tackle youth reoffending. We have just made a key development—the Department for Children, Schools and Families being jointly responsible with the Ministry of Justice, for the first time, for managing and engaging with young people and operating secure training centres and other facilities.

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We have youth offending teams in place and operating effectively throughout the country, co-operating locally with the police and councils to tackle offending. Those teams are becoming particularly effective through the additional training and support that we are giving them. A reducing reoffending delivery plan is in place, setting out the milestones to reducing youth reoffending by 2010. I am confident that, with my colleagues from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, such as my colleagues the Under-Secretary, and with my hon. Friends the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, and the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, we can deal with the causes of crime on the ground and put in place effective solutions.

We are working closely with the National Assembly for Wales, which is of particular interest to me, being an MP from the north of the great Principality of Wales. I am keen to work with all colleagues to co-ordinate Government resources. It is not just about money, it is about how we use services in a much more focused way. Accommodation providers, primary care trusts, local authorities and crime and disorder partnerships are all involved in considering how to prevent reoffending. We have every opportunity to make a real difference.

I refer colleagues to the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made today, which is apposite to the debate. The Ministry of Justice has produced today the prison policy update briefing paper, which sets out a further direction of travel on preventing reoffending, including considering how to rehabilitate offenders, tackling drug misuse and learning new skills that help to lead to a life away from crime outside prison.

The key idea in the document, on which I will welcome comments and developments in the next few months, is offender contracts. It is important that we take steps to prevent reoffending; we must help with employment, health, drugs and accommodation. It is also important that the offender, in prison and outside, signs up to a contract to state that they will also contribute to changing their behaviour. It is particularly important for the people whom I represent—the decent people who work hard and pay taxes—that when we invest in prison services, training and support, the offender shows commitment by signing up to a contract to show that they will work with us to change their offending behaviour. That idea is part of the context of today’s report, and we will need to consider what sanctions to use and how to develop the system. It will be essential to bring the offender together with Government support.

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