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31 Jan 2008 : Column 143WH—continued

We need to consider how to develop still further and make greater use of community-based sentences, particularly for people who have committed under-12-month offences. The natural reaction of us all is that people should go to prison and serve sentences for minor crimes, but on some occasions that leads to a revolving door, with individuals going back to prison regularly and not having time to undergo interventions in the community. The reoffending rate for the under-12-month group is much better—about 50 per cent.—after community-based sentences than after prison sentences, for which the percentage is in the high 70s. For that
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reason, we indicated in today’s statement that we want to develop the opportunity for intensive community-based sentences as alternatives to custody.

I was pleased today to announce with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the first six projects as alternatives to custody, in which new investment of more than £13.9 million will be made in the next three years. The first project will begin in Derbyshire in March and include a combination of unpaid work, electronic monitoring, behaviour programme mentoring and help with resettlement under intensive supervision. That will add to the 6 million hours of unpaid work and 55,000-plus completions of unpaid work each year and build confidence in community sentences.

I have been on my feet for nearly 30 minutes and outlined the Government’s commitment to tackle reoffending. There is a place for people being in prison. We have more than 80,000 people in prison, and there will be a vast building programme in the next five years, because the protection of the public is paramount for the Government. We need to ensure that dangerous, sexual and violent offenders serve long sentences and that the public are protected. Allied to that, we need to tackle crime by reducing reoffending. To do so, we need to consider the needs of people who will leave prison in the next six to nine months and how to build up their training capacity, help them to get off drugs, help them to get back into accommodation and ensure that they play a productive role in society. Our strategy is sound and will lead to a further reduction in reoffending. I commend it to the House and will welcome colleagues’ comments this afternoon.

2.59 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I am a little surprised that there is such a thin attendance in the Chamber today. I would have thought that the subject was both ideal and topical, and might have attracted a few more Members. I am grateful to the Minister for his comments.

My first comment relates directly to what the Minister said about the 80,000 prisoners that we have. I know that the Government are bringing forward extra places; I assume that they have not made up their mind about the titan prisons idea that seemed to be in the wind at one stage.

Mr. Hanson: Before the hon. Gentleman gets carried down an unfruitful route, I refer him to today’s statement, in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that we will be consulting in April and for the following few months on proposals for titan prisons.

Mr. Evans: I am surprised that we are having yet more consultation. We know that we need extra places; we should just get on with it. We have 80,000 places, and some people say that 80,000 people in prison is too many. I do not know what the Government’s thinking is, but the population of the UK is 60 million, with 5 million more within the past several years. One would expect that increase to prompt the need for extra prison places for a percentage of the extra 5 million. We do not want people to be released from prison early, or people who should go to prison not to be in prison, simply because there are not enough places. There is
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nothing worse than offenders not being caught or for them not to be sent to prison and then carrying on with a career in crime. We certainly want to get away from that.

The Minister is right about community-based sentences: we should use them where they are appropriate, but there seems to be an impression that either they are not being carried out with the necessary diligence or that some people who should go to prison are getting community-based sentences instead. Those sentences are seen as a soft touch and not as a proper punishment for the crime that has been committed. Sentences have to be credible to the public and should have the backing of the victims of the crime. That does not mean that there should be no community sentences—that would be nonsense—but I hope that the Government will look carefully at community sentences to ensure that they are appropriate and that they have the intended effect.

I have before me the figures on reoffending from the Home Office statistical bulletin. The overall reoffending rate in 2004 was 55.5 per cent. Within that, 64 per cent. of offenders aged between 18 and 20 and 43 per cent. of offenders aged over 35 reoffended.

The Minister mentioned some issues that I want to pursue, including jobs, illiteracy and drugs. The problems with illiteracy and drugs have to be tackled within the family and in schools as early as possible. We have to give our youngsters the best chances possible so that when they leave school they can read and write properly. The statistics that the Minister gave earlier are quite chilling. Why are the figures so high?

In July, I asked

The reply gave figures starting in 1997 and, for some strange reason, ending in 2003. The figures show that the percentage of prisoners whose reading skills are below level 1 is going up. We know that the number of prisoners has gone up, but it is worrying that the percentage with low reading skills has also increased. We must pick up that problem; if there are prisoners who cannot read or write, we must give them all the support we can while they are still in prison. However, the problem prompts the question, why did they leave school unable to read and write? Much more attention must be given to that problem.

The “Handbook for Professionals in the Criminal Justice System working with Offenders with Learning Disabilities”, produced by the Care Services Improvement Partnership, states that in some areas of prison there is

It also states:

If we want our communities to be safer, we need to reduce reoffending. It stands to reason that reoffending can be reduced if there are genuine opportunities for people when they leave prison. It comes down to ensuring that they can read and write. Let us also make
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sure that alongside reading and writing there is training that is appropriate for whatever job we want them to do when they leave prison.

Perhaps the Minister can say more about the vocational education that will be available to prisoners while they are in prison so that they will at least have more skills and be more employable when they leave. I was delighted when he listed the firms in the UK that are working with the Government and the Home Office to give ex-convicts opportunities when they leave prison. That is good, but we must ensure that prisoners are employable and have the right skills when they are released.

The second issue I want to discuss is drugs. A lot of people who end up in prison have drug problems, and many of them committed crimes to feed their drug habit. The issue affects all our constituents. The 2006 Home Office statistics show that cannabis is the drug used by the largest proportion of prisoners—54 per cent. I know that the Prime Minister is reconsidering the decision that was taken by a previous Home Secretary to reclassify cannabis from class B to class C. I am a former chairman of the all-party group on drugs misuse, and I always thought that reclassification was wrong and would send the wrong message. From what I can read between the lines of the Prime Minister’s thinking, he seems to think the same. I hope that he will make an early statement, and that the matter will not drag on for another couple of years while yet more reports appear in the newspapers about young people’s psychiatric problems when they get hooked on cannabis and take it over a long period.

We need to ensure that youngsters have the education they need to make wiser decisions about their living habits. Some of that will include information about cannabis not being a soft drug. It is a gateway drug, but even if it does not lead people on to taking other drugs, it could give them psychiatric problems that will be with them for the rest of their lives. Let us ensure that people have a proper education at school, but let us also ensure that they definitely have that education in prison.

Other drugs are popular in prison. Heroin is used by 27 per cent. of prisoners and tranquillisers are used illicitly by 15 per cent. Crack is used by 7 per cent., cocaine by 5 per cent., ecstasy by 4 per cent. and amphetamines by 2 per cent.

I read on the BBC News website that the Government are thinking of banning visitors and relatives who take drugs into prison from visiting, so some prisoners would lose visiting rights. The Government need to consider that idea, but I hope that, in addition, the likelihood of such people being caught will increase. For example, what are the Government’s plans about the use of sniffer dogs? People need to know that if they take drugs to their relatives or friends in prison, they will be prosecuted themselves and could end up in the prison they were visiting. They need to know that their action is not cost-free—not that they can try it on and if they get caught taking drugs into prison the worst that can happen is that they will be asked not to come again. They should be prosecuted and face penalties, which, in the worst cases, should include custodial sentencing.

The way to give prisoners with a drug problem the best hope and opportunity is to ensure that they have the medical help they need to get them off drugs in the
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first place and that they have no access to drugs while they are in prison serving their sentence. That is important. Very few prison officers take drugs into prisons, thank goodness, but those who do will be prosecuted if they are caught. They will then lose their jobs, and some will end up with custodial sentences. That is really harsh, but it is right that we should have such sentences and such treatment for prison warders who take drugs into prison.

I hope that the Minister will say something about the help that prisoners can obtain from medical and psychiatric teams. He mentioned the fact that some prisoners have psychiatric and mental health problems, and it is right that they should have the help they need. However, some of those who are in prison today should not be there, because of their mental health problems. Such people need mental health care and should be in psychiatric units getting the treatment they need. The problem is that too many people in our communities need help with mental health problems or, indeed, drugs, but they simply cannot get it. I hope that the Government will look more closely at the issue.

The one way in which we can prevent reoffending is to prevent offending in the first place. That is the No. 1 priority and we must do all we can, as the Minister intimated, to ensure that people are properly educated, that they have good jobs to go to and that they are drug free. However, when people offend we must try to bring the reoffending rate down, and we can do that by ensuring that offenders have appropriate training and the proper education they deserve, that prisons are drug free and that people with drug problems have the medical and psychiatric help that they need.

What we are all talking about is opening doors for prisoners—I know that sounds a bit odd, but that is what this is all about. Doors have been slammed shut on these people for far too long, and many of them feel that they do not have the support they need. We need to give them that support and to open doors for them—preferably at the end of their sentences. When they go out into the community, they should have the support they desperately need. They will then be able to find a job because they will have had the necessary education and training. The chances of their reoffending in the community will thus be greatly reduced, which will lead to safer communities for all our constituents.

3.13 pm

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): As we all know, and as has been acknowledged today, we have a major problem with prison overcrowding. The Government figures that came out today show that there have been 16,000 early releases in just over six months. As has been said, the report released earlier this week by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, which covered a large number of Prison Service issues, was not, shall we say, very flattering.

When I was preparing for the debate, I was struck by one statistic: the number of convictions has remained fairly constant over the past 10 years, but the number of prison sentences handed down by magistrates courts has more than doubled, and the figure has also significantly increased in the Crown courts. The problem, therefore,
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is not that more people are being convicted, but that more are being sent to prison for offences for which they would not have been sent to prison 10 years ago.

We have no evidence that prison works. Some 65 per cent. of adult ex-offenders are reconvicted within two years, and the figure rises to 75 per cent. for young adults and juveniles. Nine out of 10 young men who have been sentenced for less than three months end up reoffending within two years. It is clear, therefore, that the idea of a short, sharp shock, which is often promoted in the prison system, simply does not work—in fact, it can have the reverse effect.

To borrow an expression from Anne Owers, we are now at a crossroads; we need to look at what we want the criminal justice system to do and how we will achieve it, and then refocus our resources. That means that we will need to look at the complex roots of crime, rather than just tackling the surface issues. As has been said, we need to look at mental health, drug and alcohol treatment and the obstacles that people face when they try to rehabilitate and resettle in the community. The issue breaks down into three different areas: what we can do while people are in prison, what we can do when they leave prison to ensure that they resettle, and what the alternatives to prison are. It is the last of those that is the most important.

As has been said, some people in prison simply should not be there, and that includes those with serious mental health problems. As I am sure the Minister is aware, a high proportion of people in prison have mental health problems. According to one estimate, four out of 10 people who are being held in prison health care centres should be in secure NHS accommodation instead, but there are simply not enough mental health beds in the system. Between them, the secure hospitals have about 1,200 beds, and a lot of the court diversion schemes are being held back by a lack of beds for people to take up.

The same issues arise in relation to drug and alcohol treatment. The proportion of prisoners who have been convicted of drug offences has risen considerably over the past 10 years, and Home Office research a couple of years ago showed that half of all the offences for which people were in prison were drug related. Again, however, there are only 2,500 residential drug treatment places. Such places cost £6,000 a year less than sending someone to prison. If the underlying causes are tackled, people are much less likely to reoffend and impose a cost on the state. It is therefore a wasted opportunity and a waste of money to put people in prison, rather than tackling the underlying problems. We should therefore invest in drug treatment facilities, rather than new prison places.

Mr. Evans: Will the hon. Lady congratulate Life Education on the work that it does throughout schools? It deals with problems such as drugs and the other harmful things that we put into our bodies. Getting that message across to youngsters at a very young age is what we should be about, and we should have more Life Education centres throughout the UK.

Jenny Willott: I thank the hon. Gentleman. There are some interesting pilots and programmes across the UK, and I shall pick up later on some of the good ideas coming up in different parts of the country. We
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should replicate such things and learn from the best practice that has been introduced in different parts of the country.

If we sent one in 10 offenders for residential drug treatment rather than to prison, that would save about £40 million a year. That is a significant sum, which could be much better spent. The Minister mentioned the announcements about improving treatment for drug and alcohol problems, which I obviously welcome, but if they had been made a little earlier we might not have the overcrowding crisis. Some of the results of that overcrowding—particularly the problems with mental health and drug treatment—were worryingly highlighted in this week’s report by the chief inspector, which showed that there had been a 40 per cent. increase in suicides in prison. Clearly, these issues have a high cost, and we need to deal seriously with that.

It is clear, however, that some people do need to be in prison, and we all agree that those who are violent and dangerous need to be taken off the streets. As the Minister and the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) have said, education and training are critical to tackling reoffending rates. Once people are part of a captive audience in prison, it should be compulsory for them to undertake education and training. We have the opportunity to help them to sort out their lives, so that they do not reoffend when they leave. Clearly, that is crucial to tackling reoffending.

The Minister said that a lot has been invested in education and training, and there are some extremely good programmes around the country, but the recent announcement regarding lockdowns across the estate from Friday lunchtimes because of funding problems is worrying. That takes away 10 per cent. of the time available to people to participate in education and training. Given the massive waiting lists and high demand in a lot of prisons for the training programmes that are available, such a move would seem counter-productive. I hope that the Government will look again at ensuring that funding is available.

I want to mention a couple of good programmes that I have seen recently. I visited Parc prison near Bridgend a couple of weeks ago. It has a couple of interesting programmes in partnership with non-governmental organisations in the local area. One involves working with the YMCA to help the prisoners to get qualifications in physical education and gym management, which enables them to improve their own health but also gives them opportunities to work afterwards. Such schemes are very welcome.

The prison is also running an interesting programme with the Army that trains offenders, so that they have the qualifications and fitness levels they need if they want to apply to the Army on being released. That has been popular among offenders. I would like good programmes and good partnership working such as that to be rolled out, if they are successful, to other prisons so that we can give more people the opportunity to participate in them.

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