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However, most people would agree that that is a fairly significant consideration. Surely a test of Government policy must be whether that number is large or small.

The chief inspector’s report highlights other problems, such as the fact that the roll-out of integrated drug treatment systems is not proceeding at the rate expected, and she raises concerns about the move to large-scale penal containment—I shall come to Titan prisons in a moment. The chief inspector has serious concerns about the Prison Service’s ability to act on her recommendations. She sees a deterioration in training prisons, which are doing significantly worse than last year in implementing her recommendations.

The chief inspector is also concerned about the number of young adults coming out of prison who do not think that anything has been done to prevent them from reoffending. About 48 per cent. feel that it has, but that means that 52 per cent. do not. Does the Minister have any benchmark by which to measure the prison system’s effectiveness in terms of offenders’ views about what is effective? What percentage of offenders does he feel should come out of prison thinking that their offending behaviour has been addressed in one way or another? I am sure that the Minister is familiar with the report, and the range of recommendations and areas of concern that it flags up. I hope that he can tell Members what action has been taken on them. A particular concern is immigration detention centres, which have not yet been mentioned. The report identifies 80 children who have spent more than a month in such centres, which is surely one of the most regrettable aspects of present prison policy.

One thing on which I hope we can all agree is that a prison building programme does not amount to a prisons policy. Can the Minister explain whether the Government will go full steam ahead with the Titan prison programme? I am sure that he saw the story in TheGuardian on 18 March. The governor of Europe’s largest jail advises the UK Government not to proceed with prisons on that scale. He believes that the appropriate number of inmates is about 600, and a senior governor at the same prison—Fleury-Mérogis, near Paris—feels that it has not been a success. I hope that Ministers are listening to what the people running such establishments say about their effectiveness.

I want to give the Minister suitable time to respond, so I shall just flag up briefly what a prison policy should consist of. Various statistics have rightly been deployed, and they highlight the need for a sound basis on which to make decisions. I have deployed some arguments with which Members may feel uncomfortable; equally, they have deployed arguments that are perhaps subject to statistical interpretation. We need a solid basis on which to make decisions. Other countries—Denmark is often quoted—have some similarities to the UK but seem to be much more effective at tackling reoffending, so will the Minister say something about what lessons we can learn from their approach?

We would like compulsory prison education to address concerns about the lack of education of prisoners. We want paid work in prison; much more secure mental health and drug treatment; aftercare for people leaving prison, so that when they return to the community they
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have back-up; a reduction in the number of very short custodial sentences, as I think there is some agreement that they do not seem to be effective at tackling crime; and much harder community sentences—twice the length of short-term custodial sentences.

Prisons policy is controversial, but this debate has highlighted that there is common ground between some of the parties on some of the key issues. I hope that when the Minister responds, he can explain how the Government intend to proceed with this critical area of policy.

12.8 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this debate and laying out his arguments so convincingly and powerfully. He was sufficiently candid to say that on 28 March last year, our hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) introduced a similar debate. If one reads the Hansard for that debate and tomorrow’s Hansard for today’s, one will see a delicious similarity not just in their thoughts but in the words that they use. However, that does not matter, because it would seem to demonstrate that the Government have done nothing in the intervening 12 months to make anything that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said today less true than what my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said this time last year, which is regrettable to say the least.

In the past 12 months, I and my colleagues in the shadow Justice team have worked very hard and produced a paper, “Prisons with a Purpose: our Sentencing and Rehabilitation Revolution to Break the Cycle of Crime”. As my hon. Friends mentioned, breaking the cycle of crime is key to a number of the problems that the Government have—I was going to say supervised, but perhaps that is not the right word—been in charge of over the past 10 years.

One of the things that always surprises me about the Secretary of State for Justice—I do not know why it still surprises me—is that he makes announcements or responds to criticism as if he had been in government for about four weeks, whereas, as we all know, he has been a senior member of the Government for the past 10 years and has twice been in charge of prison policy: once, during the first Parliament, as Home Secretary, and then, like an animal returning to its food, as Secretary of State for Justice—also known as the Lord High Chancellor of all England. Whichever guise, or dressing gown, he happens to be wearing, he has presided over a total farce in prisons policy. I wholly acquit the Minister, who has to work extremely hard under very difficult circumstances, being bundled from pillar to post, as some hare-brained scheme comes out of the Secretary of State’s office that he has to implement.

My criticism of the Government is this: we have an overcrowded prison estate that is not achieving what it should as a matter of justice, humanity or sensible economics. It is not surprising that my hon. Friends were able to advance arguments with such power, and which completely filleted the Government’s competence in this public policy area.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said, prisons are overcrowded. I rang the Ministry of Justice on Thursday, when I hoped that the weekly population
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figures would come out; Friday being Good Friday, we were promised that they would come out early. However, they had not been published before I arrived here, so I hope that the first thing that the Minister will do will be to provide us with the current prison population figure. I hope that it has gone down, rather than up, which it has done quite a lot, not because I think it a good idea to release people early from prison sentences, but because an overcrowded prison estate is an inefficient prison estate. We simply cannot mend prisoners—that is to say, reform them—and release them as better, law-abiding citizens with an overcrowded estate.

All of my and my hon. Friends’ arguments over the past several years in this area of public policy will not be responded to satisfactorily until the Government address the prison estate’s incapacity to deal with the huge numbers of people that it has to accommodate. That is why our paper, “Prisons with a Purpose”, produces a hopeful prescription: by 2016, we will have dealt with the imbalance between prisoner numbers and prison capacity so that we can begin to reduce crime and, therefore, the need for people to be recycled back into the prison estate. That will prevent them from returning to our streets and villages and their life of crime—a life identified correctly by some of my hon. Friends as one fuelled largely by drug addiction. Until we deal with that and get those people off drugs and living cleanly, we will find it extremely difficult to prevent them from committing further crimes in order to fund their habit.

Surely it is uncontroversial to say that our prisons are in crisis: the prison population has soared, jails are seriously overcrowded and reoffending rates have risen. Emergency measures, such as the end of custody licence, which was announced last June, have done nothing to manage the prison population sensibly or to restore or create public confidence in our criminal justice system. Now that we are nine months into the scheme, what effect has the introduction of ECL had on the prison population? The evidence suggests that despite the fact that the Government will release, over the 12-month period from last June, approximately 25,000 people, the prison population has gone up and, worse still, those released have gone on to commit, in the 18 days between early release and the end of their official sentence, many more crimes. One, I think, committed a homicide, but many others have committed other serious and violent crimes. It is no good the Government’s managing the prison population by releasing early those not suitable to be so released. They should be planning and providing the prison estate with the capacity to deal with those deemed—at the discretion of the courts and in line with sentencing policy, as set out in statute—necessarily imprisonable.

It seems clear that the prison system is not working. Building new prisons to accommodate those sentenced by the courts and to reduce overcrowding is essential, but it is not an end in itself. As has been identified, half of all crime is committed by previous offenders and one in five recorded crimes is committed by ex-prisoners. The right way to reduce the prison population is to break the cycle of reoffending and to reduce crime, which is why we need to invest much more political will and leadership and intellectual energy in the rehabilitation revolution. Those who enter prison should not simply
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be warehoused, left there and invited to come out again, but helped off drugs and taught to read and write, add up and to become employable, so that when they return to society, they can get a job, look after their families and dependents and, in doing so, get away from crime.

We want a restoration of confidence in the criminal justice system, a re-design of our prisons for the 21st century and, as I said, a major effort to rehabilitate those who commit crimes to prevent them from doing so again. The fundamental reform required is based on the concepts of decentralisation, clear accountability, greater use of the voluntary and private sectors and the introduction of incentives through payment by results, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering touched on. I shall not recite the contents of our document, “Prisons with a Purpose”, which we produced earlier this month, but I recommend it to you, Mr. Cummings—I shall hold it up so that the Minister can see it. I hope that the shelves of the Ministry of Justice library are full of copies.

People, including my hon. Friends, have complained about the lack of confidence in both community and custodial sentences. We must ensure that they are based on four pillars: punishment, of course; rehabilitation; work for offenders—real work inside prisons to get prisoners used to proper work, not the awful time-wasting occupations with which so many contend at the moment—and reparation for victims. Too often in the political debate about law and order and other such public policy issues, we forget about the victims. If criminals earn money in prison and put it into a fund to compensate their victims, the public and, in particular, victims will benefit greatly. My hon. Friends have talked about our sentencing reforms. I shall not outline them—time does not allow me—but again, they are well set out in our document, “Prisons with a Purpose”. I urge the Minister, his advisers and colleagues to read it and to study them.

The short period available to me is at an end, but the debate will run and run. I hope that the Government, even after 10 years of messing around and failure, will get to grips with the issue and do something to improve the lives of our constituents, to improve our prisons and to reduce heavily the reoffending levels with which we must currently contend.

12.20 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I thank the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) for initiating this debate. I have been in my post as Minister with responsibility for prisons for about 10 months, and this is one of our first opportunities in Westminster Hall to debate prison policy, so I welcome it. I thank also the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) for his care and compassion for my welfare and my responsibilities in the Department. I share those concerns—for him and his Opposition Front-Bench team.

In answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s first question, as of 20 March, the date for which the last figures are available, 81,906 individuals were in prison. That is eight lower than one week ago, and not near the 82,180 figure, which was the highest ever published population figure, on 29 February.

I also thank Members from all parts of the House for their contributions to the debate. I shall pull together some common themes, because throughout the parties
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and the Chamber today, we do have some common concerns. They are how we ensure that we prevent crime and prevent individuals from entering the criminal justice system in the first place; reducing crime and ensuring that when people are convicted, sufficient prison places are available; and, crucially, reducing reoffending so that people in the system go through it and—I hope, as the vast majority of individuals will—return to society in such a way that they do not continue committing crime and further offences.

Important issues have been raised at the margins of that discussion. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) discussed restraint, and foreign national prisoners were mentioned. What we do with short sentences and how effective they are has been a key theme of the debate, as have the way in which we examine prison build and what we do about that, and the future of prison issues. There are some key challenges for all in the Government and the House to examine. First, how do we provide increased facilities to ensure that we keep dangerous, violent and sexual offenders in prison and ensure that prison places are available for them? Secondly, how do we help develop the reducing reoffending agenda in looking at the very issues that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and the hon. Members for Kettering and for Shipley (Philip Davies) mentioned: employment, drugs, alcohol, rehabilitation, family links and a re-examination of how individuals return to the community? Thirdly, how do we strengthen and examine the effectiveness of community sentences?

First, on the availability of places, I shall not deny that there are challenges in the prison system. There are 81,000 people in prison, and about 82,000 places. Some 20,000 additional prisoners have gone to prison through additional capacity, and there has been extra pressure on that capacity over the past 10 years. That is partly because we are bringing more people to justice and picking up more offences than ever before, and because people are being given longer sentences than ever before. There is range of challenges leading to the prison population issue.

We have responded, however, and I take slight exception to the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough that there has been no Government action over the past 12 months. He knows that in December 2007, following Lord Carter’s review, which Lord Falconer commissioned in May 2007, we announced additional prison places—20,000 new places by 2014, making a net total of 96,000 by 2014—and the decommissioning of 5,000 old prison places. Indeed, in the past 12 months alone, the capacity programme announced last year has delivered 2,227 places, and a further 1,900 places are planned in 2008.

There have been a number of developments—for example, regarding places at Stoke Heath, Albany, Erlestoke, Ranby, Lewes and Wayland prisons. Indeed, if the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) were still present, I would tell him what I told him in a letter on 28 January—that we plan to build an extra accommodation block with 90 places in Wellingborough prison by next year. What he called for in the debate, we already plan to do.

Many prison places are being built and it is important that we have them. I disagree with the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). We have planned three, 2,500-strong Titan prisons. They will be consulted
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on over the next few months, and we will issue a consultation document shortly. The plan is that the first Titan prisons will not come on stream until perhaps 2011, 2012 or 2013, but their large scale will allow us to create small house-blocks in a large prison, enabling us to provide some of the interventions that Members have spoken of today in a cost-effective and efficient way for the taxpayer.

There are plans to build sufficient prison places, but the key question is what we do with the people in prison. The figures are still challenging, so I believe that we need to up our game on rehabilitation, on investment in employment opportunities, on tackling the drug problems that have been rightly singled out as leading to many crimes in our communities, and on reintegration. I refer all Members to the prison policy update paper that we published in January, which highlighted what we intend to do on drug treatment in and out of prison. It also highlighted what we need to do on increasing the number of drug rehabilitation orders and helping support further testing and security regarding drugs in prison; on employment, linking up with employers in the community to ensure that they can provide proper work and work with prison workshops in the community and in prison; and on making strong links with individuals who are on their way through the process, so that in prison they learn and develop skills that can be used outside.

We all agree on the point that the hon. Member for Kettering made in his opening remarks: we have a problem with underperformance, literacy and numeracy, and with poor social background—often involving family break-up—leading individuals to crime. We must invest in those individuals not only because doing so is positive, but because it will, we hope, help them not to return to crime when they return to society, as undoubtedly they will.

On foreign national prisoners, which several Members mentioned, we have more than 100 prisoner transfer agreements with countries throughout the world. We have successfully negotiated an agreement that all European Union prisoners should serve their sentences in their home countries. It will take effect from 2011 and should have a major impact on the foreign prisoner population in jails in England and Wales. We have recently negotiated a prisoner transfer agreement with Jamaica, as has been mentioned, and I am due to meet the Nigerian Interior Minister shortly to discuss a transfer agreement with him. Ireland forms part of the negotiations that will take effect from 2011.

Mr. Garnier: Will the Minister publish the agreement, or arrangements, that he mentioned for EU prisoners? It is quite a significant change, if that is what he has done.

Mr. Hanson: I shall certainly write to the hon. and learned Gentleman on that point, and I shall place a copy in the Library if it helps, because that policy has been in existence for some time.

The issue of consent of prisoners was also raised, and I can confirm that we have introduced legislation that has removed the requirement for prisoners to consent to transfers, provided that the recipient country is willing to accept them. Much needs to be done, further agreements need to be made, and there are difficulties with some countries that have refused to have prisoner transfer
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agreements—South Africa being one. Others, such as Iraq and Iran, do not have agreements, and it is difficult to send individuals back to them. The problem remains that many individuals, although foreign nationals, may have long family ties and be married to, or have children who are, British citizens. It is not an easy solution, but we are willing to consider it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned restraint. We have published a review of restraint and there is a consultation, which I have extended until June via a parliamentary question of last Thursday. I shall write to other Members in due course.

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Helmand Province Mission

12.30 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): What will future historians write about one of the terrible disasters in British military history, one that ranks with the charge of the Light Brigade, the Somme and the Dardanelles? This debate is not about the mission to Afghanistan as a whole, which received almost universal approval from the House and still does so. I am not opposed to that mission; I was not opposed to it originally. However, the decision to go into Helmand province was a terrible mistake and plenty of warnings were given to the House before that decision was taken.

I do not want our troops withdrawn from Afghanistan. There have been real advances in the country that are worth while and worth defending—improvements in democracy, in the education of women, and so on. Before the Helmand mission was launched in 2006 many of us took the view that our task was to defend such advances around Kabul and to consolidate them, but that to go into Helmand province would be to stir up a hornets nest.

Let us look back on the reason that we went into Helmand province. My right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), who was the Secretary of State for Defence at the time, said on 24 April 2006 during a visit to Afghanistan:

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