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25 Mar 2008 : Column 31WH

On the current issues, I make no apology for saying that I am not in favour of further privatisation. As I have said, however, I visited Ashfield, which is run by Securicor and found that it is a much better place now than it was when it first turned into a youth offender institution. However, that is largely because Securicor recruited top people from the public service to run the prison. It has stabilised the work force and introduced a proper regime for the prisoners, which is as it should be.

I am not in favour of the National Offender Management Service—I have made my views on that known in previous debates—because I have always supported the independence of the probation service. I am worried that lumping the probation service under NOMS and regional offender management schemes will have entirely the wrong impact. The Prison Service is less concerned about the changes, but, if it sees them as a front for privatisation, organisations such as the Prison Officers Association will be more likely to flex their muscles in opposition. I am wary of those developments.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on Titan prisons. I have been to Bristol prison—I have not been to Dartmoor but some of my constituents are resident there—and I worry about moving people further away from where they normally reside. There is a lot to be said for keeping people as locally as possible: their families can visit and, more importantly, proper provision can be made for them after they leave prison, so that they can re-enter their communities—hopefully with a job, somewhere to live and some purpose in life—rather than return to prison.

Another issue on which I wish to concentrate does not relate to prison policy per se, but it is very current. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Inquest are running a campaign on the use of restraint on young offenders. In the past week, we have had the Joint Committee on Human Rights report on the issue, which was a bit critical of the Minister’s performance before the Committee, but I want to give him an opportunity to say where he is going. Of course, restraint needs to be used when people are incarcerated, particularly where young people might damage themselves or others, but the issue for me is staff training and the need for clear rules, as well as the need to ensure that people get medical support if they are injured. The Adam Rickwood and Gareth Myatt cases are still highly pertinent, and I worry about secure training places. We were supposed to be getting one at Sharpness in my constituency, but policy has changed, and we have kept the number of secure training centres to an absolute minimum. However, I question how they are run, the nature of the regime and how we deal with those who are potentially at risk or who cause problems.

In my experience—this is purely anecdotal—the key to running any prison or young offenders institution is good leadership, and strong governors are vital. The regime must be transparent and clear to all concerned. We must ensure that the staff are as much a part of the decision-making process as the management. We must also ensure that the prisoners understand the regime and what they are expected to do.

On the question of why we have so many foreign prisoners, the reason is very simple: we live in a much
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more mobile world now, and many more people choose to get on a plane and come to our part of the world. One suggestion, which has been put to me on a couple of occasions—I would be grateful if the Minister were to respond to it—is that if we have a high prevalence of Jamaican, Nigerian and, to a lesser extent, Irish prisoners, we should look at paying to build jails in those countries and at investing properly in running them, so that we can return some people.

One of the saddest things about going to Eastwood Park is the number of drug mules who, for whatever reason, have come from Jamaica. They will spend a good deal of time away from their families and are almost certainly completely naive. I do not go along with the idea that they did not really understand that what they were doing was not right, but they were naive about what would happen to them if they were arrested. Often, they will have been put under duress by male partners or by others who have got to them, and it is desperately sad to see them serving a sentence miles away from their children.

We might be able to return such people to properly run prisons in Jamaica and Nigeria, and I hope that the Government will not see such expenditure as flippant, but as a serious suggestion. To put the issue in simple terms, it costs about £4,000 per person to keep someone locked up in Jamaica, compared with £50,000 to £60,000 in this country. We could do something of mutual benefit on that, and I hope that the Minister will respond and see such investment as a genuine solution to the problem of the growing number of foreign prisoners.

To conclude, I do not go along with simplistic remedies, because the situation in prisons is complex. Sadly, some people end up in prison, and we must treat them humanely, but we must also do much more to ensure that they do not return to prison, because of the cost to the public purse and, particularly, the cost to our communities, which have been ravaged by those problems.

11.44 am

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings, for what I think may be the first time. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who gave us a series of important points and some interesting ideas. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on his powerful and thoughtful speech. He leads on the issue of law and order in north Northamptonshire, where he has been courageous in his comments and where he has not been afraid to be outspoken when he has thought that necessary. I have learned again today of his interest in this issue, and he has posed a number of important questions, which I hope that the Minister will be able to answer. It is good to see such an able Minister with us, although, unfortunately, I will have to leave at 12, so I apologise that I will not be able to listen to his response.

In Wellingborough, I run the “Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden” campaign, part of which involves gauging the views of my constituents. To that end, a survey goes out to all parts of the constituency on a rotating basis, and the No. 1 issue is always law and order. The answers to the detailed questions also reflect on prison policy and show that many of my constituents
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are fed up with people being sentenced to five years, only to finish up serving two. They do not think that the sentence fits the crime.

My constituency includes Wellingborough prison, which is nearly always overcrowded. It has a large area of land but a relatively small amount of accommodation. Why is that accommodation not being expanded? The Government are interested in building very large prisons, but it would seem much more cost-effective just to expand prisons such as Wellingborough. I do not understand why that is not being done. I spoke to the governor, who said that only modest expansion is planned for the prison.

I should declare an interest at this point. At 9.35 on Saturday night, I was sitting in my house about to watch England lose some wickets in the test match, when there was a loud explosion. Someone had attacked my house. They had stuck a stake through my front door. There was an enormous mess. The sound was the result of the panes of glass exploding and the vacuum going between them. Somebody, or a number of people, had walked up my road with a stake—my house is very accessible and is just in a row of ordinary detached houses—and stuck it through the front door.

Do I want to see that person caught and put in prison? Well, the initial answer is yes. I believe that prison works, but would it work if that person was put there for six months? Probably not. The point that has been brought home to me by prison officers at Wellingborough prison, who have taken the time to come to see me in my surgery, is that they do not have enough time to deal with prisoners or to give them any sort of education or chance to get back into society in an improved situation. All that happens is that people go into prison, come out again and commit another crime.

Those prison officers have put a radical proposal to me. When I first heard it, I thought that it was not a very good idea, but when I reflected on it, I realised that it had a lot of merit. Let us say that the person who attacked my house was caught and that the judge had the option of putting them in prison for six months. The prison officers I spoke to suggested that instead of being sent to prison, that person should be told, “That’s your last chance. We’re not sending you to prison now. But if you reoffend, we will send you to prison for five years.” The reason why they argued that was that if someone is in prison for that length of time, staff really have a chance to give them the education and training that they need so that they are in a position not to reoffend when they go back into society. When there are reoffending rates of 70 per cent. or 49 per cent., something is going dreadfully wrong. The proposal was a radical one, and came from someone who had worked in the Prison Service for a considerable number of years. I think that a variation of it would have some merit, and I urge the Minister to take the idea on board.

An exciting thing that is happening in my constituency is the Rose project, which is based in Finedon and is, I believe, partly funded by the Home Office. It targets persistent offenders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering mentioned, if we took the 50 persistent offenders out of Kettering, there would be hardly any crime. The police run the project, and they say that if it were possible to get hold of those persistent offenders, get them off drugs and into employment, get them decent
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housing and monitor them, they would not reoffend, and an enormous amount of crime would be prevented. I think that the project has been very successful. I know that it is due for more funding, and I do not know whether the Minister can speak about it in particular, but it is such projects, targeting persistent offenders, that probably create the most benefit.

As there is a prison in my constituency, the final point that I should make is that when the prison officers went on strike, I went to talk to them on the picket line. They are a terrific bunch of men and women, who dedicate their lives to public service. To be on a picket line was unnatural for them—they did not want to be there. They could not wait to get back to the prison, but they had been driven into a situation in which they felt they had no alternative. The Government were wholly wrong to break an agreement with a group of people who do not have—

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): The Government did not break any agreement with the Prison Officers Association. Both it and the Government had signed up to a voluntary no-strike agreement until May, which still stands. The prison officers unilaterally withdrew from that agreement without any notice to the Government.

Mr. Bone: Forget the spin; I do not want to take the union’s or the Government’s point of view. Those men and women believed that they had a guarantee that they would get whatever their pay review body said they should have, and that in return they would not go on strike. That is what they felt; they may be wrong. However, the episode has done nothing for morale in the prisons. If what has happened is part of prison policy, something has gone fundamentally wrong. Even if the Government are right, the fact that the prison officers took that action shows that something has gone wrong. I hope that something is happening in the Prison Service to readjust the situation and to rebuild confidence for the people who have to run our prisons.

I conclude by expressing my appreciation for all the work that prison officers do at Wellingborough prison.

11.53 am

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on another excellent speech, which was, as ever, well researched. He is one of the politicians in this place whom I most admire, for his dedication and hard work.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend established a few facts that are not usually given much publicity, such as that the number of people in prison in this country as a proportion of crimes committed is low—a figure that is not usually quoted—and that prison works. As my hon. Friend said, the Government admit, in their quarterly report, “Reoffending of Adults”, that the longer people spend in prison the less likely they are to reoffend. Reoffending rates are highest among those people who spend the least time in prison.

It is a surprise that prison is so successful in reducing reoffending, given the points that I made earlier about how cushy it can be. I am all for rehabilitation, and I certainly take the points that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made, but I should like the Minister
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to explain how giving 1,500 prisoners Sky TV in their cells, not in communal areas, helps their rehabilitation. There are lots of hard-working, decent people in my constituency who would love Sky TV and cannot afford it. They think, as I do, that it is outrageous that although they—decent, law-abiding people—cannot afford it, 1,500 people who have either persistently committed crimes or committed serious crimes have Sky TV in their cells.

There is a crisis of confidence about the criminal justice system in this country. I guarantee that if someone were to commit a serious crime, and I were to go to my local pub and tell someone there, “Did you know that that chap got five years in prison?” the first reply from one of my constituents would be, “Well, he’ll be out in five minutes anyway. It doesn’t make any difference.” That is the level of people’s confidence in the criminal justice system, and it is why I think it important, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, that prisoners should serve in full the sentence handed down by the court. We must have honesty in sentencing, and someone who is given five years in prison should serve five years. People should be kept in longer for bad behaviour, not let out early for good behaviour. When I went to school, if I behaved properly I was allowed to leave on time; if I misbehaved, I was given detention. I have no idea why the same principle cannot apply to prisons.

I want to touch on the question of short prison sentences. I shall gloss over some of the more cushy prison arrangements that irritate me, such as the one announced by the governor of Wakefield prison, near my constituency, just before Christmas: that the prison officers would go round the prison at night in slippers, so as not to wake the inmates. I cannot really relate to that kind of approach. I want to talk particularly about prison sentences given by magistrates. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, when I took part in the parliamentary police scheme I asked police officers what would happen if the top 10 or 20 persistent offenders were sent to prison, and I was told that the crime rate locally would be reduced by 50 per cent. or even up to 90 per cent. It is clear that the police are for ever chasing the same people.

The majority of people who are sent to prison by magistrates have a drug addiction, and addiction fuels a lot of crime. People commit crimes to pay for their addiction, and a few people commit tens or even hundreds of crimes a week to do that. As hon. Members know, the maximum sentence that a magistrate can give for one offence is six months in prison. If someone pleads guilty, a discount will be given for that; probably a third will be knocked off, leaving a sentence of four months. We know that probably no more than half the sentence will be spent in prison, so magistrates really give maximum sentences of two months in prison. Someone who is a drug addict and who goes to prison will come out two months later still a drug addict, to return to where they lived before, meet the same groups of people they mixed with, and keep committing the same crimes. I do not see who benefits from the practice of continually letting drug addicts out of prison while they are still addicts. It is a pointless exercise that does nothing for them, their community or their families, who are usually tearing their hair out at the prospect. We must keep such people
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in prison for longer, until they demonstrate that they are off drugs. Otherwise, they will keep on committing crimes.

It might be argued that drug treatment and testing orders are the way forward, but I am led to believe from Home Office reports that the reoffending rates are far higher than those associated with prison. I think that the reoffending rate for people given drug treatment and testing orders was 88 per cent., which is virtually 100 per cent., as it represents the ones who got caught. That is not the solution. Prison is the solution. My contention is that some of the people in question should be sent to prison for longer, which would do more than anything else to reduce the crime rate and would restore some confidence in the criminal justice system.

[Mr. John Cummings in the Chair.]

11.59 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this important debate. Before the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) leaves the Chamber, I should like to say how sorry I was to hear about the incident that he suffered. I was the victim of a similar incident some years ago when a brick came through my window, but it was helpfully wrapped in a National Front leaflet, so I knew who was responsible.

What I have enjoyed about this debate so far is that, on the whole, we have not argued about who is tough and who is soft. Often, such debates are bedevilled by those arguments instead of considering what works and what does not, which is what people want. They want prisons that are effective and deliver results. We could argue about whether prison works; it clearly works more or less efficiently in some respects. The hon. Member for Kettering said that 12 per cent. of people in prison are there for their first offence, so 88 per cent. of them have committed an offence before. Whether prison works to keep people out of prison is a moot point; the statistics suggest otherwise.

However, there is a case for some offenders, particularly violent offenders, spending an appropriate period in prison, one that people can recognise as an honest sentence. I think that there is broad agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats about the need for honest sentencing. Our policy paper last year referred to the need for honesty in sentencing, a phrase that I see has been recycled or reinvented for the purposes of the recent announcement, in March, of Conservative party policy.

We need to know that what is proposed will work effectively. In some respects, the Government’s policy does not. We know, for instance, that the Government have had to secure an extra £35 million for Operation Safeguard to ensure that funding is available to use court and police cells, and that the British Medical Association has raised concerns about the risks of temporary prison accommodation. That some aspects of prisons policy are not working is also borne out by the recent report of the chief inspector of prisons. She highlights that

The Secretary of State for Justice has said that he thinks that

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