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23 Apr 2008 : Column 430WH—continued

The Minister will know that I have seen her colleague, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) to discuss a suggestion. Community penalties are all well and good—I have made the point about needing more probation officers—and I believe that more money has gone into the system, but we need far more if we are to turn the situation around rather than simply imprisoning more and more people and having a revolving-door syndrome. My suggestion is about progressive community sentencing. Very often, under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, there are various aspects to a community penalty. It might involve getting a person clean from drugs, for example, or it might impose a curfew or activity requirement such as undertaking unpaid work or looking for work. NAPO and I have suggested introducing lengthier community penalties
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that might involve concentrating entirely on getting offenders clear of drugs for the first four or five months. The second phase could then involve literacy and numeracy, or unpaid and community work. The hope is that the final phase would involve those people looking for paid employment and getting back into mainstream society.

Too many people have community sentences that lump everything together. Someone who is on hard drugs is bound to live a disordered life. How can they look for work or attend a literacy or numeracy course? It is impossible. Crown Court judges, of whom I know many, are disheartened when they hand down such sentences because they know pretty well that they will see the same people again in two or three months’ time and will have to send them away.

I know that the Minister of State to whom I referred is considering my suggestion with his officials, and I hope that phased community penalties are introduced. Suffice it to say that I am a firm believer in the community penalty route. Clearly, we need prisons, but they should be a last resort, and when we send people away we should be considering their rehabilitation. That is not about being soft on crime, and nor are the staggered or progressive community orders. In fact, they are about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, to coin a phrase.

9.56 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I apologise for being late, Mr. Gale. I put it down to problems with the transport system, which I am sure will be resolved after the mayoral elections in a week’s time. I shall not even mention the name of the relevant candidate.

I speak as the secretary of the all-party group on justice trade unions that brings together the Prison Officers Association, the National Association of Probation Officers and the Public and Commercial Services Union. It also engages in dialogue with the Police Federation and other voluntary organisations that deal with the Prison Service. May I briefly put on record some of the concerns of individual unions and associations that have been raised through the all-party group? I apologise if some of these issues have been discussed in more detail by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd).

A key concern for the POA, which I have raised on several occasions, is the lack of long-term planning regarding the prison population and the investment of resources. There is a specific problem with identifying what needs to be done for rehabilitation. In previous debates on this issue, the Government have announced that there would be 9,500 additional places on the prison estate. The number was initially 8,000, and a further 1,500 were announced later. POA’s position on those additional places is that they are too little too late. I recall having meetings with Ministers two years ago in which we identified, using POA’s projections, the capacity that would be required, but the Government did not respond to those submissions. As a result, it looks as though the Prison Service will soon be at operational capacity once more, which means that there could be about 20,000 overcrowded places and prisoners sharing. POA points out that, in that situation, it is almost impossible to venture into rehabilitation.

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I repeat POA’s plea about the need for a clearer strategy on mental health and drug treatment. I appreciate what the Government have done in giving additional resources, particularly for drug treatment, but from POA’s point of view, it is almost a drop in the ocean in terms of the scale of the mental health and drug issues that prisons face. The last estimate was that at least a third of the prisoners that it deals with have mental health problems. A similar number of prisoners have drug-related concerns.

There is cross-party support for the development of community sentencing. In our own areas, we have seen the success of community sentencing in many instances. However, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said, community sentencing must be resourced properly. We welcome the additional £40 million that the Government have announced; it was a real breakthrough to have a specific amount identified as a result of a lobby that came from the all-party group on justice trade unions and other organisations. However, that additional money is being given in the context of the overall savings that must be found within the Department itself and there is some confusion about the specific allocation of the budgets that will be dedicated to community service.

My colleague, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, who is the vice-chair of the all-party group on justice trade unions, has cited the individual examples that are being reported to us now of situations in which there are insufficient resources to supervise the community sentences in a way that would make them constructive in contributing towards the rehabilitation of individual offenders. It would be useful to obtain clarity on the individual probation budgets, area by area, so that there can be greater transparency about the level of resources that are being invested for community sentencing within the regions themselves, because there seems to be a lack of clarity at the moment.

I would also like to say that there is an issue of morale within the service, across the piece. Members of the POA have been affected by the continuing refusal by the Government to recognise their trade union rights. From the POA’s point of view and increasingly from the point of view of NAPO, there is almost a continuing wrangle over pay, and NAPO members are back in pay talks with their employers. The Government have set an overall 2 per cent. pay limit on public sector pay, but within the probation service the employers seem to want to go even further, by inflicting pay reductions. The employers are now looking, before any process of negotiation that will lead towards a pay offer, at undermining the conditions that NAPO workers have enjoyed regarding flexible working and harmonisation of working hours, and they are also looking at assaults on sickness and other forms of working condition agreements. That all impinges upon the morale of the probation officers themselves, who are struggling to do a good job in very difficult circumstances.

Interestingly, the Ministry of Justice itself acknowledged, in a press statement, the work that was being undertaken by NAPO members. That press statement complimented NAPO members, saying:

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At the same time, their employers are seeking to undermine NAPO members’ wages and working conditions.

I suppose this debate gives us the opportunity to make a plea to the Government for a number of things: first, consistency of investment over time; and secondly, clarity about budgets and their distribution on a regional basis. However, the Government also need to take responsibility for creating a climate of industrial relations within the justice sector that can contribute more effectively to the delivery of services than the situation at the moment, in which there seems to be an element of hostility from the employer’s side towards the employees, who, as the Government themselves have said, have performed well in recent years. I hope that the Minister will be willing to meet the all-party group on justice trade unions, so that we can discuss these issues.

I know that we have had direct access to Ministers on a consistent basis in the past and that has been very constructive; it has enabled us to raise issues that nip some problems in the bud and also assisted the Government in coming forward with some of their policies that have been constructively appreciated by the work force themselves. I would welcome now a further dialogue with Ministers through the all-party group on justice trade unions to resolve some of these issues in the long term.

10.4 am

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate you, Mr. Gale, on chairing the debate today. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) on securing this debate. I will try not to refer to his constituency again, because a mixture of Welsh and Ulster Scots at this time of the morning would probably be more than most people could handle. However, I am very happy that he has secured this debate. Briefly, I want to dwell on the issue of sentencing. I probably will be coming at the subject from a different angle to him, and hon. Members may disagree with me.

One of the features of sentencing in recent times has been a failure, on some occasions, to make the sentence even come near to fitting the crime when it comes to offences such as sexual offences, including rape and sexual assault. It beggars belief that people can serve as little as a few months for the crime of rape. We have a situation in Northern Ireland—I am speaking in this debate on sentencing in Northern Ireland, because the issue is not devolved—where, by the Government’s own admission, victims of rape were reluctant to come forward. They were reluctant to do so because, in the first instance, they were concerned about the way in which they would be treated. I work a lot with the Rape Crisis Centre and with young offenders, and many victims of crime would say that they often end up feeling like criminals themselves. Secondly, victims of rape are fearful about how the perpetrator will be treated. Far too often, the sentence handed down is too light and elements of the crime, such as the long-term trauma inflicted upon the victim, are not given proper consideration.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has vowed to tackle this problem, although I am not entirely convinced that his proposals will prove to be the answer that he believes them to be. Perhaps the Minister, when she is winding up, could answer some of my questions. First, does she agree that this situation is not unique to
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Northern Ireland and that it occurs right across the whole of the United Kingdom? Secondly, does she agree that much more needs to be done to encourage victims of such crime to come forward, to make the process less traumatic for them, and also to make judges more accountable for how they hand down sentences?

I have listened to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and I agree with a lot of his points. A balance must be struck regarding sentencing, but some judges hand out very lenient sentences for this type of crime. There must be stiffer automatic tariffs and early release must be made much more difficult to obtain.

Finally, will the Minister join me in asking the Secretary of State for the Home Department to place these issues higher in the Government’s priority list? If that were to happen, we would move to tackling what I believe is a very serious situation affecting folk right across the United Kingdom. There are many difficulties in relation to sexual offences and I believe that the Government should put the treatment of those difficulties higher up their priority list.

10.8 am

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): I start by declaring an interest, in that I am a trustee of a prison charity, Unlock. I will then attempt to pronounce the constituency of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), having spelled it out phonetically for myself.

Mr. Llwyd: Not bad.

Mr. Oaten: Good. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his remarks and on raising the significant issue of prison overcrowding. It is important that we keep referring to it; it is an issue that will not just go away, and I thought that he summarised extremely well the knock-on consequences of prison overcrowding.

Normally, those who participate in Westminster Hall debates try to be consensual and non-confrontational, but, given what has happened over the past 10 years under this Government, it is difficult to take a constructive approach. The figures speak for themselves. The enormous increase from 61,000 to 82,000 cannot just be explained away. I have some serious concerns about the way in which the prison population has gone up so alarmingly under a Labour Government.

Of course, the big increase in overcrowding has several wide-ranging consequences that make it difficult for the Prison Service to get itself out of the cycle of reoffending and overcrowding. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) discussed the impact that overcrowding has on the morale of the people who work inside the prisons. Their ability to deliver good prison services is clearly undermined by current population levels. Their ability to deliver services that would reduce overcrowding is a matter of major concern. I shall run through some of the effects of overcrowding, and they were touched on by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy.

Education is one of the big losers as a result of overcrowding. The fact that some prisons do not have enough staff to cope with getting prisoners from cells to classrooms was drawn to my attention. A simple issue of geography within the prison itself is a ridiculous barrier to getting prisoners into classrooms to learn.

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There are other knock-on consequences. There is not enough time to ensure that prisoners are able to get the right qualifications to take part in the right courses. I remember speaking to a prisoner when I was visiting a prison. She was on a hairdressing course offered in the prison, and was due to be released the next week. I congratulated her on the work that she was doing and she said, “Please, could you arrange for me to stay in prison for a couple more months?” She wanted to stay in prison to be able to complete the course because there was no system that allowed her to continue it after she left. That is ridiculous.

Another consequence of overcrowding is that prisoners move around the country so much. They find it extremely difficult to continue a course that they started in prison A when they are moved to prison B or C. Our efforts to rehabilitate our prisoners and give them the skills to get jobs are totally undermined by overcrowding.

The next area of concern due to overcrowding is the health of the prison population. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy mentioned suicides. It is a tragedy that so many young men reach a point, in what should be a safe and captive environment, at which they commit suicide. The figures for self-harm have increased rapidly over the past three years. According to the Howard League, there were more than 22,000 cases of self-harm in the prison population. How can that be right, given that those individuals should be under some kind of supervision?

The problem goes beyond the pressure of self-harm and suicide. The British Medical Association recently issued a statement that expressed the concerns of some doctors who operate in the prisons. It stated:

Another matter that is raised with Members of Parliament when they visit prisons is access to dental care. Whether the issue is self-harm, suicide, doctors complaining or access to dental health, we know that overcrowding creates serious problems for the health and welfare of our prisoners. Whatever the merits of the case for whether prisoners should be there, it just cannot be right, in this age, to have such poor quality health care in our prisons.

Then there are the prisoners with mental health difficulties who perhaps should not be in prison in the first place. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy referred to them. The figure that I have been given by various agencies working in this field is that up to 70 per cent. of our prisoners suffer from mental health difficulties at some point. I am not arguing that 70 per cent. of prisoners should not be in prison but that serious resources are needed to tackle the problem and that in many cases prison is not the most appropriate location for such individuals.

Dr. McCrea: If 70 per cent. of persons who are in prison have mental health problems, surely those problems were already in the society. We should have dealt with them in society rather than having to deal with them because someone got into trouble.

Mr. Oaten: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have no data, but we can assume that individuals who have mental health problems in prison had them before
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going to prison. Those problems may well have contributed to the difficulties that led them into prison and I am sure that that is blatantly obvious to all of us in this Chamber. A joined-up approach would focus not just on prisoners while they are in prison but on the activities that we undertake to stop people going to prison and then reoffending when they leave. That is self-evident, and I am sure that nobody would disagree with it. The question is how we actually tackle the situation and make things work.

John McDonnell: The hon. Gentleman has raised a valuable point. Practitioners have identified a common issue among a core group of reoffenders: child abuse has been part of their experience. Many prisoners have been mentally damaged because of child abuse and, as a result, have later been involved in violent behaviour. The Government have instigated some terrifically successful programmes to deal with that issue, but they are few and far between. The scale of the problem is in no way matched by the resources, and overcrowding undermines the good practice that the Government have developed.

Mr. Oaten: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. A frustrating aspect of many of the issues that we are discussing this morning is that this Labour Government understand the problem and have been trying to do many creative things to solve it. I am sure that when the Minister responds, she will be able to announce and recall several initiatives that try to tackle the problems. There is much common ground, and there are many superb examples and case studies of schemes that work being tried in prisons. As the hon. Gentleman said, the difficulty is that we cannot roll them out quickly enough because of the overcrowding problem. It is almost a chicken-and-egg situation. A massive up-front investment is needed so that some of the trials can be rolled out much more quickly. We would then see benefits over a period of time.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy referred to drugs and there is concern that the overcrowding situation is leading to prisons being unable to cope with the amount of drugs that are traded within them. The head of drug treatment at the National Offender Management Service estimated that the street value of the drugs taken in prisons is £100 million. Again, in what should be a safe, secure environment, to have that amount of drugs just cannot be right. It also totally undermines public confidence in the prison system.

Then there is the knock-on consequence of prisoners being unable to keep links with family and friends, which are crucial for rehabilitation. It is a tragedy that contacts with children and partners often break down when people go to prison for the first time. That can make it all the harder for them to rebuild their life when they leave prison. The constant churn and moving around of the prison population because of overcrowding put an ever-increasing strain on family relations, which are strained in the first place because of where the individuals are.

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