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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 23 April 2008

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Prison Overcrowding/Sentencing Policy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]

9.30 am

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I declare an interest, because I still practise—for my sins—in the criminal courts as a barrister. Looking around the Chamber, I hope that what we lack in quantity we will make up in quality.

Are the inhabitants of Britain so intrinsically bad that we must lock up many more people per capita than our friends in Europe? Some might say yes, but that is a serious question because our prisons have been overcrowded since 1994. Over the past year or 18 months, more than half our prisons have been overcrowded. I well recall serving on the Standing Committee that considered the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 and saying, with others, that the legislation would result in a substantial increase in the number of new prisoners. I argued that if that Act was to make any sense, it would have to be matched with an increase in prison places, which seemed fairly obvious. Back then we were talking about 50,000 prisoners—if I recall correctly—but today the figure is 82,000. That increase had been foreseen for some time.

One complicating feature is that criminal justice, in general, and sentencing, in particular, are and always have been a political football. Every now and then, the larger parties get into a bidding war about how to be beastly to offenders, which usually plays out to the background music of the tabloid drum beat. If the question was depoliticised—as far as one can imagine that happening—the system would be greatly improved for the benefit of society and, quite importantly, the taxpayer.

Many experts in the field have long concluded that prison simply does not work for many offenders. Even before the 2003 Carter report, it was clear that policy was wrongly directed. The report’s findings were very stark. It reckoned that the prison population had increased by 22 per cent. since 1997, resulting in a 5 per cent. reduction in crime. It concluded:

The then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), said:

Surprisingly, that was not said ex cathedra, but when he was very much in harness.

Since then, not a lot has happened—to coin a phrase. Two contrasting factors continue to predominate: first, the political imperative, to which I have alluded, and, secondly, the fact that the vast majority of prisoners —67 per cent.—are reconvicted within two years of release. The figure for youngsters in Wales between the
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ages of 18 and 21 is 78 per cent. Arguably, even if there were a complete change of heart over custody, the situation would be like an ocean-going vessel, in that it would take a long time to stop and turn around.

The rehabilitation element of prison has been severely undermined. There have been cuts in training and education, which might well be contributing to these awful statistics. I think that it is plain that if prison does not make a real difference to an individual’s life chances, it is simply failing not just prisoners, but society, because it costs £40,000 a year to keep somebody in prison.

On Friday 11 April, the prison population stood at 82,003, and as far as I know, that figure is rising. As at February 2008, the prison population was 114 per cent. of the certified normal accommodation level. The prison population exceeded the CNA level by 9,765, 88 of the 141 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded, and the populations of 14 were more than 150 per cent. of their CNA level. The five most overcrowded prisons are Lancaster, Kennett, Shrewsbury, Swansea and Leicester.

To digress for a minute, despite what I am saying, I have long campaigned for a prison in north Wales, on the basis of human rights grounds, among other things. The figures that I have cited actually bolster the claim that north Wales needs a prison, given that many from north Wales end up in Shrewsbury prison and some end up in Swansea.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that experiences such as those in Dorchester prison, which is in my constituency, suggest that even when prisons are not technically overcrowded, very severe problems can emerge, for example with first night accommodation? General overcrowding is therefore rippling through the system and causing problems even worse than he describes.

Mr. Llwyd: I am sure that that is absolutely right. I do not think that any prison is working at a reasonable capacity, so there must be a knock-on effect, as the right hon. Gentleman says.

As I mentioned, England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe, with 143 inmates per 100,000 of the population, compared with France with 88, and Germany with 97. I know that we cannot compare like with like and that it is convenient to throw around statistics on international comparators, but this has been a trend for many years. I argue that the prison system is letting society down through wasting taxpayers’ money and, crucially, through failing to rehabilitate those who go into prison on a revolving-door basis, of whom there are many.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, for example, believes that the population crisis has had an adverse impact on the delivery of reoffending programmes, which must be crucial. It says that the movement and recategorisation of prisoners, and in some cases the closure of whole establishments for recategorisation, have undermined the stability required for the effective delivery of those very important programmes. It goes on to say that basic standards of human dignity are compromised with more than 12,000 prisoners being held two to a cell in cells designed for one. It also says that prisoners are being transported all over the UK in search of spaces, costing the taxpayer millions in transportation, resulting in delays in the criminal justice system, jeopardising family relationships and, for all I know, breaching human rights.

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Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I sit on the board of the Prison Reform Trust, so I am naturally sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but does he agree that if our constituents are to be convinced about the alternatives to prison, those alternatives must be sufficiently rigorous and properly managed? Does he think that community sentences fit that description, or is there scope for improvement?

Mr. Llwyd: I am, and always have been, a believer in community sentencing, not as a soft option, but because, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, the reoffending rate is lower—it is more effective than prison. His point is absolutely right. Unless and until we properly fund the probation service to do the job that we expect it to do, we will be at a pinch point and will not persuade anyone of the efficacy of community penalties, or convince them that they are more effective and useful. He makes a good point, and I hope to touch on it in a few minutes.

Deaths in custody are on the increase. A study by the forum for preventing deaths in custody in September 2007 found a definite link between overcrowding and self-inflicted deaths. In addition, violence on prison officers is increasing. We also have self-harm and prisoner-on-prisoner violence. The PCS says that the situation could be further exacerbated by the 3 per cent. year-on-year cuts expected between 2008 and 2011 under Lord Carter’s review. It believes that the solution to the crisis should include safeguarding the budget of the Prison Service and ensuring that programmes to tackle reoffending—including the work of instructional officers—and drug and alcohol treatments are properly resourced.

Prison education is a hot topic at the moment. I know that the Government will say that more money has been put in, but on the ground there are fewer opportunities. I also know that not every prisoner is interested in education or retraining; however, there are many who are who cannot access it. Again, the system is failing us. Instructional officers in the public sector prison service have been very effective in delivering education, training and work to help inmates address their reoffending behaviour. That is another area that needs to be assessed to see whether sufficient investment is being made.

I have said this before and I will say it again: we need a thorough audit of those who are in prison. If we had such an audit, we would find that as many as 35 per cent. of prisoners—possibly higher—should not be there. There is a high percentage of people with psychiatric illnesses and with drug dependency, and those two issues are not being addressed. Sending such people to prison is not dealing with the problem. The system is failing them and society, as well.

As a young solicitor in the mid-1970s, I recall appearing many times before mental health tribunals. Usually, we would go to a halfway house. There was a very good centre in mid-Wales that served the whole of Wales very well. It has since closed. Typically, people from Rampton, Broadmoor or wherever were sent to that halfway house. They had often been convicted of very serious offences, including extreme violence and sometimes murder. I was instructed on their behalf to make an application for them to be re-categorised and ultimately reintroduced into society. That centre had a fantastic record of working closely with such people. Believe it or not, many of those people still send me the occasional postcard. They are back in society. We were looking after them at that
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stage and they were receiving the best care. Unfortunately, that centre has now closed down. It closed at about the same time when all the clever commentators were talking about care in the community being the best thing since sliced bread. However, there is very little care in the community. What we seem to do now is lock people up, and that is no good to them or to society. It is costing some £40,000 a year just to keep them under lock and key.

I want to refer to the current sentencing problems. There are now restrictions on sentencing in 34 of the 42 probation areas in the UK. Such restrictions involve the non-availability of unpaid work, the cancellation of one-to-one programmes, major delays in programmes for domestic violence, and drink-driving, substance abuse and community and internet offenders. Those are crucial matters that need to be addressed. The National Association of Probation Officers tells me that 34 of the 42 probation areas—or 80 per cent.—are now suffering from lack of resources and staffing. Of the 34 areas, 20 report huge delays with domestic violence programmes, 17 with unpaid work, 11 with substance abuse, 10 with community sex offender programmes, and so on. Let me give some specific examples. In south-east London, major cuts to staff resources mean that there are considerable delays in offenders getting on to domestic abuse programmes. The situation has worsened over the past 12 months.

In Essex, there are waiting lists for the intensive domestic abuse programme. The average wait now is 12 months. That must be a ridiculous situation. One officer said that none of his cases has ever started a programme within six months of the order being made. The officers have been advised by management to recommend supervision orders of two years when an IDAP proposal has been made to ensure that there is enough time for completion. That obviously leads to complications in terms of resourcing and the volume of casework.

In Gwent, in south Wales, staff report a waiting list of at least 40 men and say that there is no work load relief for officers to train or to deliver programmes. They cite one instance of a man placed on a supervision order for two years with a condition of attendance of the course after having been convicted of choking his wife. He was not placed on the programme and he committed the offence again. A request has been put in for a place on the programme as a matter of urgency, and he is still waiting.

Therefore, the situation is pretty dire across the UK. Avon and Somerset report a minimum delay of two to three weeks for all offenders with an unpaid work requirement because of a sharp increase in prison numbers and a decrease in staffing. As from 22 January, Staffordshire ceased making active proposals for unpaid work in reports to magistrates courts because of a deficit, thereby restricting the ways in which courts can deal with offenders.

In north Wales, the service has been reorganised with a resulting 70 per cent. cut in the domestic abuse programme. The community sex offenders’ programme has been cut even further, and the internet sex offenders’ programme has been withdrawn. The reason given for the cuts is that offenders undertake such programmes in prison and they are being duplicated on their release. If anyone believes that, then they are more na├»ve than me.

The situation is that we are expecting a lot of probation officers when there are far fewer of them on the ground. In south Wales, believe it or not, staff have been told
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that they must not actively recommend supervision for foreign nationals who need interpreters because of the additional cost of interpreting. That sums up the whole situation. Yet on 16 April, the director-general of the National Offender Management Service, Phil Wheatley, said:

In effect, he is saying, “Do not suggest sending people away”. At the same time, we are being told not to recommend a community penalty. How on earth are probation officers meant to put a cogent report before a court? Phil Wheatley goes on to say:

All well and good, but where are the officers?

I spoke about the crisis in the justice system at a conference two weeks ago. I was told about the unpaid work situation on Humberside on Sunday 13 April. At one centre, there was one supervisor with 15 offenders. At Bransholme Pond site, there were 13 offenders with one supervisor. At Hessle Foreshore, there was one supervisor with 12 offenders. Ultimately, people given a 300-hour order end up litter-picking. I do not think that litter-picking will do much for the individual or anybody else. It might be a good thing to clear up a bit of litter, but I do not think that it will rehabilitate anybody. The sentencing options, therefore, are being severely cut back simply because of cutbacks in the probation service. With due respect to the Minister, she will quote global figures and the way in which funding has increased over the past seven or 10 years. However, the experience on the ground is that there is a crisis in this whole area. NAPO is alarmed at the decision taken by Kent probation area to cut 76 staff in the next three years in response to the imposition of a flat, capped budget. Things will get worse on the ground if we are not careful.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s flow too much, but there has been a 2.7 per cent. increase this year in probation budgets—that is before the £40 million extra. Some of the figures that he is quoting are from January, before the extra money has gone in. I hope that the extra money will relieve some of the situations that he describes.

Mr. Llwyd: I thank the Minister for her response, but at the conference that I attended last week, I gained the impression that the crisis is still there. The money might be of some assistance—it would be foolish of me to say otherwise—but the scale of the problem out there demands concentration and a redoubling of efforts. However, I do not deny that more money has been put in.

Mr. Letwin: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem is the way in which the Treasury views the matter? Seeing rehabilitation as a cost ignores the fact that successful rehabilitation is a money saver. We need to reverse the Treasury’s perception and get it to understand that it is an investment that could yield returns for the taxpayer.

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Mr. Llwyd: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Earlier, I mentioned the £40,000 that we spend on keeping each prisoner in prison for a year. It costs £76,000 to train a probation officer, and it does not take a great deal of mathematics to work out that if we start recruiting and training people now, it will pay dividends in two or three years’ time. It is difficult to think in Treasury terms of outcomes. He knows more about economics than I ever will, but I do not think that this area can be measured acutely in outcomes. Common sense dictates that it is better to invest in the probation service at this stage and ensure that we do not have to build too many prisons in which to fail to rehabilitate people.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Is it not a matter of balance? It is hard to convince an elderly person in the community who is being terrorised by someone that simple rehabilitation or some other solution is going to keep them safe in the community. Surely there has to be a balanced position that is not only in the interests of the offender. Those who have been offended against must feel safe as well.

Mr. Llwyd: I agree entirely. The hon. Gentleman’s use of the word “terrorised” implies that the offending person’s conduct is pretty bad, and there is no doubt that that kind of person should be in prison. I am the first to admit that many people are in prison because they deserve to be there and because there is no other option for them. I also say, however, that as many as 35 per cent. of people in prison should not be there, and that we should deal with them in another way that is more humane and cost-effective. If we explain to the public how they will get a return on that investment, and how people who are serving proper, structured and lengthy community penalties might be rehabilitated and brought back into mainstream society, that argument might be accepted.

Dr. McCrea: I do not want to take up too much time, either, but may I make another point? The hon. Gentleman talks about cuts in services, but it is hard to convince a community that experiences daily cuts in its services that there should be more concern about cuts in the services for people who offend.

Mr. Llwyd: That is a valid point, but if we fail with the criminal justice system it will implode, and that will affect everybody. We really must get things right, but we are not getting them right at the moment.

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