Previous Section Index Home Page

31 Jan 2008 : Column 156WH—continued

Actually, reoffending is going up year on year by the same small amount. It is pretty consistent, yet it has fallen against the predicted level. It is rather as though the Government have moved the goalposts. They make a prediction and set a predicted level that they obviously have a good chance of undercutting, and then they can say that the number of reoffenders has fallen. The headline is “Reoffending has fallen by 6.9 per cent.”, but it says in brackets that that is against the predicted level. We must be clear on that. Will the Minister tell the House how the Government arrive at the predicted figure, what type of analysis goes into it, and how detailed the research behind it is? Is it simply a question of the Government moving the goalposts as it suits them?

The other important paper from the Ministry of Justice is, “Working in partnership to reduce re-offending and make communities safer”. We agree with a lot of what the paper says, but I should say to the Minister that the Government have had 10 and a half years in government to address vital problems such as reoffending and to sort them out, but all we get is a consultation. We want more action. The paper gives the impression that because there is a new Ministry that has a year-zero strategy, the problems started only six months ago, so it does not have to take responsibility for what happened before. I am sorry, but the paper shows no sense of urgency.

On page 15 of Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons report, he states:

That is worrying. I agree with everything that the Minister says about reoffending, but it is vital that we sort it out, and that the progress that is being made continues.

The third sector—the voluntary sector—does an absolutely superb job. There is no doubt about that. However, the hon. Lady spoke about the third sector, and pointed out that we have a Friday lock-down policy, which involves locking prisoners down for the weekend from Friday onwards. That policy will mean that a large number of voluntary and charitable organisations that do excellent work in prisons will not be allowed to go in. On one hand, the Government
31 Jan 2008 : Column 157WH
make great play of the role of the voluntary sector—we welcome what they say about that in today’s report, and what it says in the consultation paper to which I referred—and they use warm, encouraging and positive words, but, on the other hand, the practicalities are different. The third sector will take a heavy body blow because of the lockdown policy. I shall give way to the hon. Lady because she first raised that point.

Jenny Willott: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the long period of lockdown—it will last from lunch time on Friday until Monday morning—will be particularly worrying for those with mental health problems and the most vulnerable prisoners, and about the impact that it might have on their mental health? Given the sharp increase in suicides, is he as concerned as me about the state of vulnerable people in prisons?

Mr. Bellingham: I am concerned about that. In HMP Whitemoor near my constituency, there has been an alarming increase in the number of suicides in the past year. I am concerned that the role of, and the excellent work carried out by, the third sector will be inhibited by the lockdown policy.

The Minister mentioned training, skills, and improving reading and writing, which is mentioned in today’s paper. I agree with the Minister—the official Opposition support everything that the Government are doing to encourage reskilling and retraining. We support what the Minister said about the corporate alliance and the many employers that have signed up to it. The Government are doing some good work, and I hope that the Minister will smile and accept that when things are going well, we will pat the Government on the back and hopefully work with them. However, will the Minister say whether he feels that more could still be done? There are a lot of small businesses out there—the hon. Lady made this point—that would like to play a part in helping the wider community by taking on more ex-prisoners. However, they find it difficult because there is a stigma attached to ex-prisoners. Often, they come out of prison after three or four years without training or skills rebuilding. There is a stigma attached to taking on ex-prisoners. How do we change those attitudes to address that problem? How do we get organisations such as the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the Engineering Employers Federation, and the Federation of Small Businesses to become more engaged with the problem? How do we persuade them to address the problem in a more dynamic and active fashion?

Does the Minister feel that there is any scope for, or possibility of, incentivising employers? In some states in America, employers are given a grant to take prisoners on when they are still in prison. Employers will identify someone who has IT, marketing or plumbing skills, for example, and they will take them on while they are still in prison, perhaps not as an apprentice, but as a potential employee. They will help with a training programme, for instance, and take them on afterwards, and the grant continues into employment. Alternatively, we could look at some form of tax incentive. Has the Minister considered that? A small tax incentive afforded to a business might well be tax neutral, because the prisoner would not claim
31 Jan 2008 : Column 158WH
benefits such as housing benefit. Will the Minister say something about that issue?

A paper on the structure of the Ministry of Justice came out this week. There is now a split: the director general will be in charge of policy and sentencing, and National Offender Management Service and the Prison Service will form the other strand. My reading of that is that the Prison Service is taking over NOMS. After four and a half years and £2.5 billion spent on the NOMS structure, the Government are tearing it up and starting again. They launched NOMS, but did not think it through carefully enough. It cost a huge amount of money—perhaps they did not take the right advice—and they are now unscrambling a lot of the work that was done on the project in response to the prison crisis.

Will the Minister say something about custody-national offender management information system, the IT programme? The official Opposition have asked various questions on C-NOMIS and I put it to the Minister that it has been a big disappointment. C-NOMIS was supposed to be an all-singing, all-dancing system that would make end-to-end offender management a reality, so that people in one part of the process would know what was happening in the other. The system was meant to enable the probation service and the Prison Service to talk to each other. Will the Minister confirm that C-NOMIS will now apply only to prisons? The whole raison d’ĂȘtre of the system was that it would cover the end-to-end management of offenders, so it would be a big disappointment if it applied only in prisons.

I mentioned that there is a huge dividend to be reaped from cutting back or reducing recidivism. A 10 per cent. reduction would lead to a figure north of £1.2 billion, so there is a huge prize out there. However, I believe that there is very little chance of winning that prize. There are warm words in the documents and consultation papers to which I have referred. In 10 and half years, we have had papers, directions of travel, consultations and taskforces, but we need real leadership, action, determination and imagination. I am impressed by the Minister, having seen him in action; his heart is in the right place, and he and his team are absolutely determined. When they come up with imaginative, well thought out, well costed and sensible measures, the Conservatives will give 100 per cent. support, but until the Government tackle the causes of the prison crisis, they will not make the progress that the Minister promises.

4.9 pm

Mr. Hanson: We have heard some helpful contributions to the debate. There is some common ground between the official Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, and the Government on some of the key issues that we face on the reoffending agenda. There is common ground on the need for employment opportunities, on help with drug treatment, on a co-ordinated approach between prison and the outside world, and on accommodation challenges and other issues. However, some valuable issues have been raised and I would like to respond positively to them.

31 Jan 2008 : Column 159WH

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) raised the question of prison building, a point mentioned also by the hon. Members for North-West Norfolk and for Cardiff, Central. Over the past 10 years the number of prison places has risen by some 20,000. Over the next period, until 2014, we will be looking to increase the number by a net 15,000 to 16,000, in a new modernised estate.

More than £1 billion of capital expenditure will be put in by the Government over the next three years, and we give a commitment to consider continuing that in the next comprehensive spending review. It is the biggest building programme for prisons that we have ever seen. However, I accept that there are discussions to be had and issues to be raised.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central touched on the question of titan prisons, a subject raised by Conservative Members, too. We have today indicated that in April and the following few months we will be consulting on the design of those prisons and on their modality—what they do, their usage and the efficiency savings that we believe can be made. It is an important building programme, and I hope that there will be a commitment to it from both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley touched on the important issues of literacy and employability—again, a common theme. We share some common ground. We need to make a step change in the work undertaken in prison, to attract employers into the service and to make links with employers outside to ensure employability. When I visit prisons—I have visited more than 20 over the last six months—I look at the skills needed outside in the job market, and the skills shortages. A tremendous amount of work is going on in prisons in terms of construction, decorating, retail and hospitality, but as “Prison policy update” indicates, we need to do more. We need to raise the game on vocational training and we need to encourage more employers, small businesses and large, to take on board our wish to create further employment.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of drugs. I share his aspiration. It is not acceptable for individuals to try to smuggle drugs into prison. We already have 440 passive and active search dogs. We have CCTV in social visiting areas, and low-level fixed furniture in category C prisons and above. There are comprehensive measures to deal with visitors who smuggle drugs, including closed visits, visit bans and police arrest. We will not rest in tackling staff corruption, although in fact there is very little because staff view corruption as unacceptable and below their professional standards.

As I said earlier, we have looked at measures on intelligence systems with regard to mobile phones, including blocking systems and access to BOSS chairs. Indeed, in Wales I recently visited Parc prison, where there was close co-operation with the police in undertaking regular random searches of visitors. Each prison now has access to a police liaison officer. We are to have a step change in targeting those involved in supply; there is a clearly defined strategy for that, and we want to build on it.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned cannabis and penalties. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be making an announcement in the spring,
31 Jan 2008 : Column 160WH
following the review of the classification of cannabis. The hon. Gentleman will know that the current classification is category C. That means in effect that anyone caught in possession of the drug can be sentenced to up to two years in prison; and anyone supplying it can be sentenced to as much as 14 years. In the event of its reclassification to category B, the 14 years for supplying would be retained but the tariff for possession would be increased to as much as five years. We take the matter seriously. My right hon. Friend is examining the matter and will be carrying out further work shortly.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley mentioned the need for psychiatric support and care. He was right to do so. Indeed, the point was also made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central. We have allocated funding to enable full and integrated drug treatment systems and to allow the introduction of clinical and psychological elements. The Department of Health will soon announce additional funding for the clinical elements of drug treatment, which will restore funding to past levels. It is important that we consider that issue.

The matter of mental health was also raised by the hon. Lady. She will be aware that Lord Bradley is undertaking a review. I am very open about it. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley said, too many people in prison have severe mental health problems and could be better treated outside. I do not want to prejudge Lord Bradley’s report, but we have given him clear guidelines to report by the summer on whether the right people are in prison, what level of treatment is right for those in prison and whether we need to make a step change in policy in those areas.

The hon. Members for Cardiff, Central and for North-West Norfolk both mentioned the pressures caused by prison overcrowding that can result in suicide. I am not content about any suicide in prison, because it represents the failure of an individual’s life. It is not something that I want to happen, and we are taking all possible steps to try to reduce the level and number of suicides in prison.

Although the number of suicides in prison is rising, the rate per 100,000 of the prison population is falling. Over the last four years, the suicide rate has fallen. The number has increased because the prison population has increased. Overall, the rate per 100,000 is falling, but sadly the number is increasing as more prisoners enter the system. We have a suicide prevention group, and we are looking closely at what more can be done to reduce the number of suicides. I am confident that we can do so.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central mentioned mentoring at Parc prison. I have visited the prison and seen the mentoring operation. Again, I am open to suggestions—indeed, I am grateful to all hon. Members for their suggestions—as to what can be done to reduce the reoffending rate by building on good practice. I have indicated that we want to work further with the voluntary and third sectors. Today’s report indicates that we want to consider new and imaginative ways to reduce reoffending, and I am happy to do so.

The hon. Lady mentioned community sentences. As she knows, I believe that community sentences can be an effective way to reduce reoffending. The predictive rate of offending is much lower in many cases for which
31 Jan 2008 : Column 161WH
a community sentence is imposed than it is for custodial sentences. As we say in today’s document, we are funding at least six intensive alternatives to custody projects with new investment over the next three years. Last year, 55,000 unpaid work sentences were successfully completed. The number of community and unpaid work sentences increased by 26 per cent. between 2002 and 2006.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk raised concerns about the completion of community sentences. The National Audit Office report indicates that more work needs to be done. I am not satisfied that individuals who do not complete their sentences have a valid reason for not doing so. We need to up the compliance rate and I ordered a report on the subject in December 2007. Increasing compliance with community sentences is a serious matter. It is important for public confidence that community sentences are completed.

Jenny Willott: Will the Minister confirm that when the Government look at community sentences, they will ensure that public and community involvement is a key part of designing the type of unpaid work that offenders will undertake in their local community, so that the local community feels that it has a stake in what is going on?

Mr. Hanson: I certainly will. I refer the hon. Lady to page 20 of the “Prison policy update” briefing paper. In the first paragraph, we indicate that we want to consider

I can hear a sliver of interest being expressed by Opposition Members. In essence, that scheme would allow the local community to determine what projects offenders would undertake in their area as part of paying back the community. There is already some good practice going on locally. There are mechanisms for considering such community involvement, and we want to embed that involvement still further and examine how we can take it forward.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk made some very kind comments about the Government, but as ever, he also raised a number of issues that demand answers. I will start with his remark that prisons are “in crisis” and that the reports by the chief inspector and others show that to be the case. I will not deny that we have had a very challenging year in the prison system, and we have had to take some very difficult decisions on the end of custody licence, prison building and a range of other issues since the Ministry of Justice came into being. The report to which Anne Owers refers is for 2006-07. The Ministry of Justice came into being on 9 May 2007, so the vast majority of that report refers to a previous incarnation or a previous part of the Government—I accept that the Government are the same—with different Ministers in place. Since May last year, and particularly since June last year when the new Prime Minister took office, we have tried to make a step change in some of these issues.

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that the cost of reoffending is £11 billion and that we face serious challenges within the prison system. I am not happy with the fact that we are using police cells to house prisoners because of overcrowding in prisons. There is
31 Jan 2008 : Column 162WH
a cost to the taxpayer, and there are difficulties in the administration and logistics of that use of cells. That is why we have put in more than £1 billion to build new prison places; why I am going to Merseyside tomorrow to open HMP Kennett, a brand new prison that was commissioned last year by my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), the former Home Secretary; and why, on Monday, I am going to Norfolk—the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world—with the hon. Members for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), to look at turning RAF Coltishall from a redundant RAF base into an active prison by the end of this year, in the light of such investment in new prison places. That is also why we have a major programme for such new prisons in future.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk mentioned safeguards against suicide, in respect of which there are a range of issues. However, I am confident that, as Anne Owers said, we are at a crossroads. We are putting forward positive ideas not just on preventing reoffending, but on prison policy. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned drugs and mobile phones. As I said to the hon. Members for Cardiff, Central and for Ribble Valley, a tremendous amount of work is already going on on those issues, but today we have announced that we want to do even more. We want a review of drug policy urgently for the next three months, to examine how we can help to prevent people from staying on drugs; accordingly, we also want to look at security issues.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned in passing the reorganisation of NOMS. There was a hint of criticism from him regarding the Government’s not responding to and referring the matter to Parliament, but he will know that we have made a written statement on today’s announcement, and on Tuesday we made a written statement on the announcement about reorganisation. We made that statement on Tuesday so that Opposition Members could question the Secretary of State for Justice during questions on Tuesday afternoon. We also made a statement before Christmas on prison population and we are content, as today’s debate has proved, to offer time to discuss the issue of reoffending. Indeed, I hope to offer other opportunities to discuss prison policy, including women’s prison policy, as discussed in the Corston report. On this very day and again next week, we are having debates on that subject in another place to help Members to reach conclusions about it.

I must say that the reorganisation is not a prison takeover; it is a commitment to NOMS, and it is about removing needless bureaucracy and being able to put the resources that are freed up into the front line. I am confident that the review, which will allow both London and Wales to become one unit from April, and the rest of the regions of England and Wales to be rolled out as units over the next two years, will be a success.

Next Section Index Home Page