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25 Mar 2008 : Column 25WH—continued

It is worth repeating that: with sentences of up to one year, the reoffending rate was 70 per cent., while in cases involving a sentence of more than two years, the reoffending rate dropped to 49 per cent. The report went on to show that for people who had spent more than four years in prison the reoffending rate was merely 35 per cent.

That suggests that when prisoners serve their sentence in full, they are less likely to reoffend, and when they serve more time in prison, they are also less likely to reoffend, whereas in the current system prisoners are increasingly not serving their sentences in full, and in far too many cases the Government are trying to ensure that people who should be going to prison do not go to prison at all but serve some kind of community sentence.

It would be wrong to have a debate on prison policy without examining in some detail the sort of people who go to prison, because there are some extremely sad stories about why people drift into a life of crime and there are startling statistics about what makes someone an offender. I want to draw Members’ attention to some of those characteristics.

Almost half of prisoners, male and female, ran away from home as a child. More than 25 per cent. were taken into care as a child, compared with just 2 per cent.
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of the population. Forty-three per cent. of prisoners had a family member who had been convicted of a criminal offence, and 35 per cent. had a family member who had been in prison. Eighty-one per cent. of prisoners were unmarried.

Half of male and one third of female sentenced prisoners were excluded from school. Half of male and 70 per cent. of female prisoners have no qualifications whatever. Two thirds of prisoners have numeracy skills at or below the level expected of an 11-year-old. Half have a reading ability and 82 per cent. a writing ability at or below that level. About 70 per cent. of prisoners suffer from two or more mental disorders; in the general population, the figure is 5 per cent. for men and 2 per cent. for women. We all know that prisoners are more likely to be abusers of illegal drugs and alcohol than other sectors of the community. Nearly three quarters of prisoners were in receipt of benefits. Almost one third were not living in permanent accommodation immediately before imprisonment.

Those are very sad statistics. I am all for putting people in prison when they commit criminal acts, but it is important to remember the backgrounds of many of those people. That is why we need to get rehabilitation right—to help to prevent them from reoffending.

A disgraceful statistic is the number of foreign prisoners held in British jails, which has increased alarmingly in the past 10 years. While the British prisoner population has increased from just under 57,000 in 1997 to just over 67,000 today, the number of foreign national prisoners in British jails has increased from just under 5,000 to just over 11,000—a staggering 142 per cent. increase. Now, more than 14 per cent. of our prison population is made up of foreign national prisoners.

Constituents in Kettering and people throughout the country are simply staggered as to why we are imprisoning so many foreign nationals when we should be negotiating with their countries of origin to ensure that they are sent back to the countries from which they came, to appropriate incarceration there. It must be possible to sort out a system whereby that could be arranged, because 11,000 places are taken up by people who are nationals of another country. There are British prisoners serving time in foreign jails, but I dare to suggest that their number is far smaller than the number of foreign nationals serving time in British jails.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Can he think of even one reason why any of those foreign nationals should not be sent home? They have committed a crime in our country—send them home.

Mr. Hollobone: I absolutely agree. I am very much looking forward to what the Minister has to say on that aspect of the debate today, because my understanding is that, as the law stands, foreign national prisoners can be sent back only with their agreement. The Minister is shaking his head; I would welcome clarification of that point later. If that is not the case, I agree with my hon. Friend—why should those people not be returned at the earliest opportunity? If they are returned, they must be returned to suitable incarceration in their own countries; they should not be returned just so that they can be at large. Many people in this country regard that aspect of our penal system with dismay and simply do not understand why the situation has become so bad and why the increase has been so great in the past 10 years.

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My understanding is that the three countries with the biggest populations in British jails are Jamaica, Nigeria and the Republic of Ireland. If I am wrong about that, I would welcome clarification from the Minister, but surely we could have an agreement with those countries—two of them are members of the Commonwealth and we share many close links with the other one—to provide a far more suitable arrangement.

The figures relating to the type of offences that were committed by sentenced prisoners in jails are revealing and rather put to bed the myth that lots of people who have committed non-violent, minor offences are serving time in prison. In fact, most prisoners are in prison because they have committed some very nasty crimes indeed. In the top five categories of crime committed by sentenced prisoners, who account for two-thirds of the prison population, 23 per cent. are serving time for violence against the person, 13 per cent. for drugs offences, 11 per cent. for robbery, just under 10 per cent. for burglary and 9 per cent. for sexual offences.

Another myth is that lots of people are serving only short periods of time in prison. However, that is not the case. More than half the total sentenced prison population are serving sentences of more than four years. More than 87 per cent. are serving sentences of more than one year, and only 8 per cent. are serving sentences of less than six months.

It may not be understood that prison is largely reserved for repeat offenders. Of those receiving an immediate custodial sentence, only one in 10 is a first-time offender. Most will have previously committed serious offences. Only 12 per cent. of those sentenced to prison have no previous convictions. Over half of those sentenced have five or more previous convictions. Since 2000, the proportion of people coming before magistrates for the first time has fallen by 10 per cent., while the number with more than 10 previous convictions has increased by 36 per cent. Given those realities, how are courts meant to deal with persistent offenders other than by using custody?

We have a huge revolving door for people who are sentenced to prison. They almost never serve their time in full; they are let out only to commit more crimes before they are put back into the system, appearing before the courts and then resentenced. That was the concern of police officers in Kettering when I spent time on the police parliamentary scheme. On the walls of Kettering police station are pictures of all the persistent and prolific offenders in and around the area. Their photographs, dates of birth and addresses are known to every police officer in the force. The question I asked every police officer was: if those 50 people were in prison what would happen to crime rates in Kettering? The answer every time—whether from a junior or a high-ranking officer—was that crime would almost disappear, leaving officers time to concentrate on the minor offences that cause such concern in the local community.

The police and judicial system is all about chasing a relatively small number of persistent and prolific offenders, which costs millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, when it should be about imprisoning for a long time the people who we know are committing the crimes. That
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would cause a dramatic fall in crime in our country and an improvement in the quality of life for many people in our community.

The Conservative party has released some exciting proposals in the last month or so.

Philip Davies: As always.

Mr. Hollobone: Indeed. This time, the proposals are about reforming prisons. Prison reform was one of the remarkable aspects of the Victorian period. For the first time, it was identified that if appropriate penal institutions existed, there would be no need simply to punish offenders; one could reform their behaviour and attitude and rehabilitate them. Over the past 100 years, since the end of the Victorian period, we have increasingly lost sight of that aspect of our penal system.

The Conservative party proposals would go a long way towards improving our prison system and reducing crime levels. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough will explain the proposals far better than I can, but to summarise, they will

At the moment,

My hon. and learned Friend proposes fundamental reform

The trusts will be run by a single, accountable governor,

Instead of prisons being overcrowded buildings with little scope for effective rehabilitation, they will become places of education, hard work, rehabilitation and restoration. The proposals include plans to encourage social enterprises to expand prison industries in which prisoners can do proper work, learn skills and be paid.

There will be an acceleration of the deportation of foreign national prisoners before the end of their sentences. Automatic deportation for non-EU prisoners serving less than a year will also be extended. Old prisons will be sold off and the prison estate rejuvenated to include smaller, local prisons instead of the Government’s Titan prison proposals. The plans would increase prison capacity by more than 5,000 places over and above the Government’s
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present proposals. In the long term, we will see the prison population stabilising rather than growing exponentially.

[John Cummings in the Chair.]

Now is the time for radical reform of our prison system. If we just carry on as we are, our prisons will be even more overcrowded, the reoffending rate will go up and more crimes will be committed.

I end my remarks by focusing on young criminals in prison. I have been contacted by Mr. Gordon Raku of Burton Latimer in Kettering, who is a retired Royal Signals captain. He said that he would very much like to see the introduction of some sort of military component in the reform of the attitude and behaviour of young and juvenile prisoners. I raise that point because I agree.

In preparing for the debate I found that, as of 31 January, there were 2,243 juvenile prisoners aged between 15 and 17 in our prison system and 9,420 young adult prisoners aged between 18 and 20—the figures were provided by the House of Commons Library—so a total of 11,663 young people, or 14 per cent. of the prison population, were aged 20 or under. Almost 50 per cent. of male juvenile offenders are serving sentences for either robbery or violence against the person.

Mr. Raku, my constituent, is keen for a system to be devised whereby those young offenders are exposed to military discipline for a set length of time to correct their inappropriate attitude and behaviour. It would be a version of national service. He makes the point that in the 1950s and 1960s, lots of people who served time in national service did not particularly look forward to the experience but, looking back, time and again they say that those were the best years of their lives—all hon. Members will know of similar people from their constituencies. They say that they learned a lot about themselves; they gained self-respect and learned how far they could push themselves. As Mr. Raku asks, is it not possible to expose young prisoners, who are relatively few in number, to some sort of military discipline? I believe that if such a measure could be effectively applied at a young age, it would help to lower reoffending rates.

There are already a number of Ministry of Defence initiatives for young offenders, including the Army Cadet Force’s outreach programme, and the young offenders initiative by the Youth Justice Board and the MOD, which started in October 2004 and focuses on youths aged between eight and 17. I urge the Minister and his counterparts in the MOD to look at whether there is some way of making greater use of the MOD’s resources to get some of the very young offenders who find themselves in prison back on the straight and narrow at a relatively early stage.

11.32 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on obtaining the debate, even if I do not agree with all that he has said.

I have no specific knowledge or background on the issue, inasmuch as I do not have a prison in my constituency, but I have made it my responsibility to visit prisons in the area around my constituency on a regular basis in the past 11 or so years. I am indebted to my friend Tony Howarth, who was, for a long time, the chairman of the board of visitors at Gloucester prison. I have visited
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Gloucester Leyhill category D prison, Eastwood Park, the women’s prison, and, on Good Friday, Ashfield young offenders institution to meet its new governor. In a previous incarnation, I taught the new governor business studies in a university department that taught people how to teach. I am not quite sure how she became a prison governor, but she was at Kilmarnock before arriving in Ashfield, so I may have done some good.

Although I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said about causes, I do not go along with the remedies that he has proposed, because they would take the evolution of prison policy backwards rather than forwards. In my experience, prison is not a pleasant place. The prisoners to whom I have spoken over the years do not want to be there; rather, they are there through circumstance. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s categorisation of why people end up in prison, and I do not believe that it was a parody.

Some years ago, Gloucester prison conducted an anonymous snapshot poll of its population. It found that if it eliminated prisoners who had experienced more than three of mental illness, abuse as a child, learning disabilities allied to exclusion from school, drug and alcohol problems, and serious broken homes, including time in care, it would be left with only six prisoners out of a population of 350. I do not believe that all things are predetermined, but some people end up in prison because of their life experiences, which is why it is important to do things with them while they are in prison and in rehabilitation, and why we should spend money on resettlement and invest in people after prison.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that too many people become part of the revolving door syndrome, but that is no reason not to do as much as we can to keep people out of prison. Prison is expensive, and it ruins lives. We must bear in mind that people are there because they have committed a crime, and the victims need to know that the perpetrators are serving time, but we must do as much as possible to prevent people from going back into prison.

I want to concentrate on a small number of issues. People make generalisations and talk about the norm, but I have found anything but in prisons. Instead, I have found lots of good working and investment in education, for example. I am aware that a recent report was heavily critical of drugs policy, including counselling, assessment, referral, advice and through-care schemes, but the prisons that I have visited have worked incredibly hard on such matters as getting people to detox and to move on. There is a view that the best way for people to detox is to go to prison. I do not follow that logic, but we criticise the work done in prison medical and hospital services at our peril, because it is important.

Despite the fact that there is underinvestment, I support moving prison medical responsibility to the NHS, although that has had the bizarre counter-productive effect of some people not knowing what medical conditions prisoners have. Of course, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS puts prison officers at risk. More particularly, I have heard of cases in which people who have epilepsy and diabetes have been difficult to treat, because such information is confidential unless the prisoner makes it known. Difficulties can result from such circumstances, at least in the short run.

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