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31 Jan 2008 : Column 149WH—continued

I want to flag up quickly the importance of resettlement programmes, which the Minister touched on. Somebody may have received training, education and a great deal of support in prison, but being released and trying to resettle in the community can be extremely difficult. They often have severe financial
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problems. Resettlement grants do not cover anywhere near the amount that they need before they have to access benefits. Some interesting work is being done on that crucial part of the process. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on the development of that work.

Parc prison has been congratulated on its resettlement programme. Its transitional support scheme uses ex-offenders to mentor prisoners who come out of prison. They provide a huge amount of support in helping people to access drug and alcohol treatment, they talk through any relationship problems, and they give advice and share their own experience of coming out of prison. It is quite a new scheme, but it has had an extremely high take-up since its introduction; it has had positive results in more than two thirds of cases. I hope that the Minister can take on board good examples such as that, and see what can be done to ensure that they are replicated in other prisons around the country, so that others have the opportunity to access those advantages when they leave.

Alternatives to prison, particularly community sentences, have been mentioned. They are often portrayed as the soft option, but people who have done community sentences do not agree with that at all. A recent ICM survey was quite surprising, showing that 80 per cent. of the public backed compulsory community work, particularly if drug treatment is available, for young offenders as a better alternative to prison. There is obviously a lot more support for community sentences than we are led to believe by tabloid headlines.

Mr. Evans: Does the hon. Lady agree that we must consider the victims of the crime, as well, and that we should listen to what they have to say? In some cases, the victim might say that a community sentence is appropriate, but I am sure that in many others, particularly those involving violent crime, the victim would want a custodial sentence meted out.

Jenny Willott: Absolutely—I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Before getting elected to this place, I ran Victim Support in south Wales, so I am well acquainted with this subject. However, it is interesting that many victims of crime agree with the findings to which I referred. Surveys of those people tend not to have very different results, particularly if communities can participate in deciding on community sentences.

My party is keen on promoting the idea that if communities can identify the work that needs to be done, and if offenders who have harmed the community undertake unpaid work to right the wrongs in a particular area—it might be removing graffiti, litter-picking or another activity that is visible in the community—that helps victims to feel that something good has come out of their experience. Moreover, if such an initiative is high profile, it can put other people off offending in the first place. Clearly, such an idea can be developed.

Mr. Evans: It can also make communities safer and more attractive places in which to live. Like me, I am sure that the hon. Lady can think of many examples of councils saying that they do not have money for certain projects that are desperately needed. Perhaps community
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sentences could not just improve communities but act as a small way for offenders to repay the communities that they have damaged.

Jenny Willott: Absolutely. Some interesting projects have been undertaken in my constituency. Graffiti removal, litter-picking, clearance of overgrown bushes and so on have been carried out by young offenders. As the hon. Gentleman said, it has an impact on the feel of the local community. Such activities can have a positive impact.

It is also clear that community sentences result in a lower reoffending rate than prison sentences. Yesterday’s National Audit Office report showed that the reconviction rates are even lower than expected, which is positive. However, it did raise some concerns: not all the conditions of community orders are being met, and there is a lack of proper record-keeping—it is not clear when people have completed their orders. I would be grateful if the Minister gave us some feedback and told us what might be done to improve record-keeping and reporting, so that community sentences are genuinely and properly monitored and enforced. People need to feel that community orders are not an easy option, and that offenders have to go through the whole of an order before they are released, as it were.

I also want to flag up restorative justice, which, again, is relatively new. There are some interesting pilots, including one in Cardiff prison. Obviously, it is early days, but I hope that the Minister will commit to taking on board the lessons learned from those pilots. Some of the early ones have been very successful in changing offenders’ behaviour and making them appreciate the impact of their actions on other people. That might be an important way to reduce reoffending in future.

The Government’s policy on prisons and reoffending has had a battering this week from Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons and the NAO. Some good things have come out of this morning’s statement, and I hope that we can all work together and share some of the good ideas. However, I have concerns about “titan” prisons. All the evidence shows that small is beautiful, and that larger prisons are less secure and less likely to reduce reoffending. There are some fantastic pilots and some good partnership work in prisons around the UK. I hope that the Government will take that on board and ensure that tackling reoffending, rather than just locking people up, is the key priority of their prisons strategy.

3.28 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): This certainly has been an interesting debate. My party welcomes it, but we regret to some extent that the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor has not made several oral statements this week. We had today’s written statement on prisons, and the briefing paper. We had publication of the report of Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, and we had a written statement on the reorganisation of the Ministry of Justice following the Brennan review. It is a great pity that the Secretary of State did not make a statement to the House at some
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stage this week so that many more colleagues could have been given the chance to comment on those important issues.

I take on board entirely the point that the Minister may make that the Government proposed this debate this afternoon, and that many more colleagues could have turned up, but I think he will agree that prime time in the Chamber is obviously worth more than an afternoon debate in Westminster Hall, with great respect to you, Mr. Illsley. I do not want to hurt your feelings—these debates are important.

I certainly welcome the Government’s emphasis on trying to prevent reoffending, because the cost is huge. In 2002, the social exclusion unit brought out a report called, “Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners”. It put the cost of recidivism at £11 billion. Today’s figure is likely to be more than that, probably north of £12 billion. If we could save even half of that, there would be a huge dividend to reap and to spread around the Department wisely. That is certainly badly needed, because we have a crisis in prisons. I do not think that the Minister would deny that we have a serious problem.

Prisons have been designed not just to punish, but to rehabilitate, to re-educate, and to enable prisoners to have a fresh start in life on their release, but for that to happen, we must remove the overcrowding problem, we must stamp out the drugs problem, and we must reduce churn in the system. The point that I made when I intervened on the Minister was that prisoners may be sent initially to a prison near their home, but because of overcrowding they are often moved elsewhere, and there is no continuity. That presents challenges if they hope to stay in touch with their family, and if they have a serious drugs problem or mental health problem, there is no continuity in their treatment programme. There are also important implications for housing. If the family have broken up, and lost their council house, being moved around the country means that the chances of them being able to secure a firm connection with an area will be greatly diminished.

Jenny Willott: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is worrying in areas such as Wales, where there is no women’s prison? Women in Wales who are sent to prison are often sent quite a distance from home, which puts additional strains on their families and makes it difficult to maintain family relationships. That highlights one of the reasons why Baroness Corston’s review recommended smaller units closer to home, which would be a positive way forward and would tackle many of the problems that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Mr. Bellingham: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I was not aware that there are no women’s prisons in Wales, so I have learned something from her today. If we can ensure that prisoners have much closer contact with their families, the chances of them being properly resettled and going back into work after release will be greatly increased. I take on board the hon. Lady’s point about smaller prisons, but the Minister will say that the cost would be huge.

I have looked at the report of Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons for 2006-07. The Minister made an understatement when he said that it was not entirely complimentary, and it is not. It is tough, it is hard-hitting,
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and it makes awkward reading for the Minister, so no wonder the Government did not want to publish it alongside an oral statement. Anne Owers says in her introduction that

3.33 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.38 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Bellingham: I shall try to regain my thread after that short break. We were looking at the 2006-07 annual report of the HM chief inspector of prisons. On page 7, the report states:

On suicides, which have gone up 40 per cent. from 66 to 88, the report states:

There has been a significant increase.

Under Operation Safeguard, the report states:

We have been talking today about the issue of work in prison and training. When it comes to training and outside activity, the report states:

A number of important observations have been made today about drugs. The chief inspector of prisons states:

In respect of resettlement pathways, the chief inspector states:

To say that this was unhelpful is the understatement of the year. It must rank as one of the hugest understatements ever made, because it is a very damning report.

There are some positive observations in the report, particularly what the chief inspector said about training and skills, but no one can doubt that we probably have the worst prison crisis in our history and certainly the worst of any developed nation. That has a huge impact on reoffending, because all the evidence points to the fact that if people can sort out and improve their prison regime, stamp out the drugs and improve education and training, they can reduce recidivism substantially.

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I am very concerned about drugs and I have been going on at the Minister about the issue for quite a long time. Drugs and mental health problems are often linked, but why are there so many drugs in prisons? As I mentioned, they are coming in not on the prisoners, but on prison officers, on visitors or over the wire. I tabled a written question about a prison just outside my constituency, HM prison Whitemoor. I asked for a breakdown of the number of mobile phone confiscations and drug confiscations over the past year. I found it staggering that the total from January to December 2007 was 60 mobile phone confiscations and 58 drug confiscations. I find that very depressing. Whitemoor is a high-security, state-of-the-art, newish prison. The security is very tough. Presumably there is screening of visitors and there is a highly professional prison officer staff, yet more drugs are still getting in. That was an increase on the previous year. There was a worrying increase towards the end of last year: there were 10 incidents in October, six in November and nine in December, up from lower levels earlier in the year.

The Minister talks today about some action. He talks about bringing in sniffer dogs. We welcome that. The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor talks in today’s prison policy update, the briefing paper, about the integrated drug treatment system. He says that, by April, 29 prisons will have that, but why cannot more prisons have it? Surely we need a complete roll-out of that system. Continuity of care is also needed. As I mentioned, if prisoners are for ever being churned round the system, how can there be continuity of care?

Mr. Hanson: I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman gave a costing for that commitment to roll out the system to all 141 prisons that we have.

Mr. Bellingham: I am delighted to hear that. It proves—

Mr. Hanson: No, I am asking whether the hon. Gentleman has a cost for rolling out the programme to 141 prisons as he requested.

Mr. Bellingham: We are not in government; we are the Opposition and it is our job to question the Minister and hold the Government to account. The Government said a while back that they would roll the programme out to more prisons, yet we see that the target is only 29 prisons by April. The Government are keen on the programme and we say that it has a number of very good aspects, so let us see it rolled out further and let us see the commitments that the Government have made being honoured. I support much of what the Government are trying to do on the drugs front, but more must be done.

Another consequence of the prisons crisis is the impact on bail. Opposition Members believe that public safety must be the key consideration in all bail cases, but the jails are full and judges and magistrates are being repeatedly pressed by Her Majesty’s Government to keep suspects out of jail. There have been tragic consequences. We heard the other day about the case of Gary Weddell, the policeman who was given bail by the judge, largely because the judge felt that, first, Weddell was someone who would not
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commit an offence while on bail, and secondly he had little alternative because of the crisis in prison places. The attitude of judges and magistrates now is that, where possible, they will not keep someone in custody even though they could well commit an offence.

In 2006, 5,500 suspects—one in 10 of all those bailed on charges of violence—failed to appear in court. We believe that there are serious constraints in the Bail Act 1976. There is a need for judicial discretion. We believe above all that the presumption of innocence needs to be balanced against public safety. We have to consider public safety. That is why the Opposition have launched a consultation on bail. We want to examine carefully whether public safety should be made an explicit component of bail decisions. We want to consider removing the right to or reversing the presumption of bail in respect of certain serious offences. We will consider exempting those previously convicted of certain crimes from a right to bail and perhaps removing the presumption of bail for some categories of convicted but unsentenced offenders. We also want to consider making greater use of conditional bail. We will consult on those issues widely and when we have completed our consultation, we will make an announcement, but I can tell the Minister that the Opposition are taking that very seriously.

Mr. Hanson: Again, has the hon. Gentleman made any assessment in his initial thoughts on this matter of the impact on prison places of any changes that he is proposing? If so, can he tell hon. Members how many extra places we will need in response to that policy?

Mr. Bellingham: We have launched a consultation and obviously consideration of the impact on prison places will be a key ingredient in that. I repeat that it is our job as an Opposition to hold the Government to account. We believe that the Government are making a large number of mistakes. We understand the problems and the constraints that they are under and of course we will enter into a dialogue with them. With regard to bail, we want to have constructive engagement with the Government and we want to come up with some ideas. When we have, obviously we will ensure that they are properly costed and we will put them to HMG.

How have the Government reacted to the crisis in our prisons? One of the things that I regret—I am quite angry about this—is that part of today’s statement on prisons was leaked to The Sun newspaper. I find it reprehensible that a very important ministerial announcement, particularly the part of it that relates to titan prisons, has been leaked. The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor said something on Tuesday about titan prisons; he said that he did not think that there would be an announcement in the immediate future. The Prime Minister said yesterday that he thought that there would be an announcement in the near future. We had conflicting reports of what the two were thinking and saying. In today’s statement, it is announced that we will see three titan prisons.

Those of us who came in early and looked at the newspapers saw that that was in The Sun. Why was that leaked to a national newspaper? Perhaps it was leaked in that way because, as the hon. Member for Cardiff,
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Central (Jenny Willott) pointed out, the figures on the early release scheme are not very good. Of the 16,000 people who have now been released on the early release scheme, 300 have committed violent offences, and among those crimes has been one murder. That is appalling. Perhaps it was to take away from that announcement that the Government decided to leak this announcement in advance. I do not know.

I have had a good look at today’s briefing paper and there are some positive ideas in it. There is talk about prison ships, allowing prisoners to carry out more work and more community sentences, but much of it is simply recycling old ideas. Is there anything really new in what the Government are saying?

Then we come to the issue of reducing reoffending. I am concerned that the on page 8 of the prison policy update briefing paper, in the chapter on reoffending, the Government say:

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