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23 Apr 2008 : Column 436WH—continued

The final and most obvious consequence of overcrowding is the inability to tackle reoffending. There is no point in repeating this, but the obvious solution to the problem is that if we could tackle high reoffending, we would begin to bring down the prison population. Not enough is being done within the prison population to tackle
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reoffending. Efforts should start in the prisons; the issue is not only for the community afterwards. It is important that the problem is tackled, because we need to reassure the public that the system, which costs a lot of money, is not just wasting that money by sending out individuals who commit crimes again.

I wish to ask the Minister a couple of questions on that issue. One thing that would certainly help to reduce reoffending is giving ex-offenders some support when they go into the community. As I said, I am a trustee of Unlock and a couple of issues are of enormous concern to the organisation. The first is that it is virtually impossible for an ex-offender to get home insurance and, as a consequence, it is difficult to get rented accommodation. Landlords can lose their insurance on the house if they declare that an ex-offender is renting it. It can be difficult for those individuals to purchase or rent a property themselves.

An issue that needs more work done on it is the inability of ex-offenders to get bank accounts. It is difficult for people leaving prison to get a bank account. I met the British Bankers Association and I am encouraged that it will try to do more to tackle this issue. However, the various money laundering legislation and requirements for proof of identity make it difficult for a prisoner to open a bank account and get the benefits of that. If people cannot have a bank account, in many cases they cannot get a job. It would be helpful if the Government gave a little push to a couple of practical barriers in relation to insurance and bank accounts.

What are the solutions to all this? I have talked about some of the issues. However, one problem is that the Government have tended to put in place some quick fixes—they have seen the numbers rising, panicked slightly and want to avoid the headlines—that are in danger of backfiring and undermining public confidence. The early release programme is not a sensible way to tackle the overcrowding problem: it can seem unfair and simplistic to the public and it is a knee-jerk response to the difficulty.

The individual who oversees prisons, the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said in her most recent report that

This short-term quick-fix approach is clearly not the way forward. The way forward is a fundamental review of the prison structure. Here I speak individually and not for my party. I have argued privately that we need to look at the very concept of a prison and see whether we should have different models, comprising education and training centres and units to tackle people’s mental health. It may prove impossible for a prison, on its own, to do all those things at the same time in one building—one structure—that has so many different individuals to cope with.

We certainly need to do more about education and training. Again, some of the Government’s schemes have been superb. For example, at Reading prison, where work has been done to get Transco and the big utility companies to come in, take prisoners and train them, it has been discovered that the reoffending rate for those on such schemes decreases to 6 per cent. or 7 per cent., because the individuals get jobs. That is where we should be at, but we need to be doing more of it.

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On sentencing policy, I pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who rightly said that, if there were an alternative to prison as part of sentencing policy, it could undermine public confidence in the system. I understand and accept that. I have been an advocate of community sentences for a long time. I am troubled by some of the recent figures that suggest that alternatives and community sentences are not a panacea and are not, perhaps, as successful as we had hoped they would be.

Mr. Llwyd: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the reason for that is surely that there is gross understaffing. We cannot squeeze a quart out of a pint bottle.

Mr. Oaten: The hon. Gentleman is right. However, we need to make community sentences robust and ensure that the staff are there. Community sentences need to do two things: they need to reassure people that they are effective and they need to be effective. They must be put in place to ensure that we tackle reoffending. We should be looking towards some system of public service sentences, so that the public see that a community sentence is not a soft option but will give something back to the community. That will allow the community to have a say, perhaps, in what kind of work it wants to be done. Then there might be a sense of community restorative justice, with the community getting something in return for the crimes that may have been committed in it. However, such sentences should be linked with training and education to ensure that they are not just about litter picking, but that they change people’s behaviour. That has to be the right way forward, but I still do not think that we have got it absolutely right. Certainly, alternatives to prison would be a sensible way forward for many offenders.

I want to highlight women prisoners, which is an issue that I am sure is close to the Minister’s heart. Here, surely, more than anywhere else, we should be looking at alternatives to custody. The Minister will be aware of the Corston report, to which the Government have responded. The report mentioned trying to move towards closing women’s prisons over a 10-year period, replacing them with small custodial units for serious offenders and trying to ensure that the majority of women offenders were supported in supervision centres in the community. That is absolutely the right approach for women prisoners and it could well be a model for some male prisons. I should welcome the Minister’s updating us on where she is on that matter; I think that she was going to be appointed as the lead Minister to look at it.

I should like to make a quick plea for the Minister to provide us with an update on where the Government are in relation to votes for prisoners. That is a controversial issue, but I will not let go of it because of the various court rulings. Having lost the judgment in the courts in Europe, the Government have delayed for far too long the legislation required to allow prisoners the right to vote. I say that not because I want all prisoners to be able to vote so as to make a difference to elections—I am sure that that would not be so—but because they do not currently have the right to vote because they lose their civil rights and responsibilities when they go to prison. If we are to tackle many of the issues to do with reoffending, we jolly well ought to expect our prisoners to gain, and put in place, a sense of civic responsibility
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and civic rights. Among many of the other things they should be doing, prisoners should be voting.

In conclusion, the Government have been doing many things right in this area. However, the bottom line is that the figures speak for themselves. There has been an enormous increase in the prison population and their record so far can be summed up as follows: they are too timid and not prepared to be robust enough to tackle this issue with a big roll-out of programmes that we know could make such a big difference to prison overcrowding.

10.27 am

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): As others have done, I congratulate the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) on initiating this debate. It is sad that if he had introduced the debate last week or the week before, or even a year or five years ago, the facts that he brought before us, and the conclusions that we could have drawn from them, would have been largely the same. The fact that we are still debating these issues in 2008 and seeing, as far as I can tell, no meaningful progress emerging from the Government in their management of prisons is a shame, to say the least. It is a waste, because, as the hon. Gentleman said, accommodating every prisoner is expensive.

The figures that I have, which are based on studies by King’s college, London, suggest that the overall cost of accommodating every adult prisoner is about £50,000 a year, and more for young offenders—in the region of £75,000 to £80,000 a year. Of course, for 15 to 17-year-olds in secure training centres, given increased staffing levels and so forth, the cost is in excess of £175,000 a year. Considering that the reoffending rates of those who emerge from adult prison is about 66 per cent., that is a huge waste of public money. It is also immoral. It is an indictment of how we run our prisons that we spend all this public money pretending that we are protecting the public from criminals, yet criminals come out of prison and reoffend in industrial quantities.

The reoffending rate for young offenders is about 75 per cent. As the hon. Gentleman said, the sad thing is that about half the prison population has been there before: they are reoffenders who have been through either the community or custodial sentencing systems. None the less, we are churning prisoners around the prison estate and churning individuals through the criminal justice system to absolutely no purpose at all.

I want a criminal justice system and prisons with a purpose, which should, of course, be to protect the public from those who need to be in prison due to the crimes that they have committed. None of us in the Chamber would deny that, whether we are members of the Labour party, the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats, the Welsh national party, or the Northern Irish parties—[Interruption.] I went to school in Northern Ireland. I might even have gone to school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson)—at the Friends school, Lisburn.

David Simpson: That is why you have done so well.

Mr. Garnier: Exactly.

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I have a United Kingdom interest in the matter, but I do not come to it from a purely party political standpoint because, like the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, I am an officer of the justice unions parliamentary group. I fear that I do not attend its meetings as actively as the hon. Gentlemen, but the fact that I am an officer of the group indicates that I have a profound interest in the matter, which brings me to a point that I must make, not just as a formality, but because it informs the way in which I consider such issues.

I have been at the Bar for 35 years, which is a hideous thought, and for the past 10 years or so, I have also been a Crown court recorder, dealing with criminal cases with juries in the London Crown courts. When I sit as a part-time judge in the London criminal courts, I see a conveyor belt of people suffering from drug and alcohol problems who have been accused of committing crimes. Unfortunately, I often have to send those who are convicted to prison. What worries me is that I know that I am sending them to a grossly overcrowded prison estate in which, if they have a drug problem, they might start on a course to detoxify them, get them off drugs, and help them to stay clean, but, as other hon. Members have said—as they could have said last week, the week before or five years ago—they will then be churned through the system. There is a metaphorical jumbo jet of prisoners flying around the country from prison to prison.

At Canterbury Crown court, 10 people may be sent to prison every Monday. They may go initially to Canterbury prison for assessment and so on, but to make room for them, the governor must send 10 prisoners out of the back door. Where does he send them? He sends them to Maidstone prison. What happens at Maidstone Crown court? The judges send 10 people to prison, but to fit them in the governor of Maidstone prison must not only send 10 prisoners out to fit in the 10 from Canterbury, but must get 10 others out to fit in the 10 from Maidstone Crown court. That is 20, so where do they go? They go to Lewes prison. You can imagine, Mr. Gale, the increasing number of prisoners emerging from the sentencing process and being shunted around the prison estate all over the country. The numbers grow and grow.

We now have a prison population of 82,000, and it is obscene that we are making men live in lavatories. Around 3,000 or 4,000 prisoners are trebled up in cells designed for one person, and about 17,000 are doubled up. I need not go into the details, but they are obvious. We can congratulate ourselves that there is no more slopping out, except at Exeter prison, and it is disgusting that there is still slopping out in 2008. The obverse of that coin—my congratulatory words about having got rid of slopping out in all prisons except Exeter—is that because there is now sanitation in cells, two or three men sleep, eat and live in a lavatory. There is no privacy, and it is not surprising that the reoffending rate is so high when people are put into adverse conditions that go beyond the courts’ sentences. People are sentenced to lose their liberty. I sentence people not to live in public lavatories in inhumane and disgusting conditions, but to lose their liberty for a finite period.

Maria Eagle: Is the hon. and learned Gentleman suggesting that prisoners are living in inhumane conditions? If he is, I reject that.

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Mr. Garnier: The Minister may reject that in due course, but I do not know whether she can do so with evidence. This is a matter of common decency, and it is inhumane that three men live in a room in which they must all defecate. We would not expect that in our own homes, in a hospital, or in any other institution, so why do we expect it in our prisons?

At Norwich prison, the sewerage pipes went through the cells and leaked, so prisoners and, just as importantly, prison officers had to work or live in sewage. Luckily, that has now stopped, but that was a consequence of overcrowding, and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy was right to raise the matter as one of huge importance.

Dr. McCrea: To return to an earlier point, surely this is a matter of balance. Many people in prison are living in better conditions than many of their victims in society. We must be careful to have a balanced view of the victim and the criminal.

Mr. Garnier: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman for one moment. It is not a question of either/or. As a Member of Parliament, a part-time judge and the shadow Minister for Justice dealing with my party’s policies on prisons, I am acutely aware of the huge damage that is done to crime victims, both physically and economically. Criminals cost the country around £11 billion a year. I want to capture that money and reinvest it in better rehabilitation, and we will get that if we stop overcrowding in prisons. No one can be rehabilitated in an overcrowded prison. Prison officers—after this debate I am having a meeting with Colin Moses, the president of the Prison Officers Association, and some of his colleagues—cannot work in overcrowded conditions.

The Government are introducing the core day, which will reduce prisoners’ time out of cell and the amount of human contact between officers and prisoners. Prisoners are inside prisons for different reasons, but denying them contact, socialising time, interaction with prison officers and the opportunity to go into workshops and other educational facilities for much of the day is not sensible. The average amount of purposeful activity, as it is called nowadays, is 3.6 hours a day. With the introduction of the core day at the beginning of this financial year, I suspect that that will be further reduced. There are consequences if prisoners are not rehabilitated and educated. Some 65 per cent. of the prison population has a reading age of under 11. They cannot get even the most basic of jobs if they have a reading age of under 14.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right, but he will know, as a Crown court recorder, that two thirds of the people he sentences for property crime are drug-dependent. If we concentrate on getting people off drugs as part of the rehabilitation programme, surely society will soon see that that will pay for itself.

Mr. Garnier: There will be a virtuous circle. As soon as my party and I get the opportunity, we will introduce the policy of capturing the £11 billion that is being consumed by the criminal justice system in dealing with reoffences. If one breaks down the figures, there would be about an additional £2,500 per offender. That money should be spent on getting people off drugs—either in or out of prison—and on teaching people to read and write, and to become responsible citizens.

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One problem is that after we send people to prison, they immediately become irresponsible; they have been irresponsible in the first place, but in prison they make no decisions and have no responsibility for anything. People do not even have responsibility for their own families once they go into prison, and if we can maintain or inculcate a sense of responsibility for not only victims, but prisoners’ dependents and themselves, the reoffending rate would decrease. Yes, we will need to increase the prison estate capacity to break the back of overcrowding, but having done that, we will miss a trick if we do not invest time and money in the rehabilitation of offenders. I do not think that because I am some drip who wants to be nice to criminals. I do not want to be nasty to criminals, but I want our approach to be productive and effective for the victim and the taxpayer.

When one considers the reoffending rates, it is madness to keep on reinforcing the problem. It is essential that we devote more time to reducing the reoffending rate because if we do so, we can spend less money on prisons, rather than building our way out of a problem. We will not build our way out of the problem in the long term, and I urge the Government to try to think more strategically, instead of constantly backing and filling the early release from custody on licence system. I think that the Lord Chancellor introduced that system on 29 June 2007; I cannot remember if he was in office then, but it does not matter because the Government introduced it. The system was designed to release 25,500 people during the 12 months after that date to reduce the prison population. The prison population is now at 82,000—I think that it reached an all-time record in February 2008—and it shows no sign of declining, despite the Government’s attempts to reduce the figure by letting people out early in one way or another.

The public want reoffending to go down and greater safety in their houses and on their streets. They want those who have been convicted of offences to be justly punished, but they also want them to be rehabilitated once they have been punished—either in the community or inside prison. They want their taxes to be spent wisely. At the moment, the public get neither public protection nor rehabilitation, and nor are their taxes spent efficiently, effectively and wisely. I have visited 40 prisons and seen excellent work during the two years since I took on responsibility for this subject. Pockets of dedicated work are going on in prisons. Why is that not being replicated and rolled out across the national estate? It is because the Government are constantly looking backwards and trying to be more macho than the other parties in Parliament to achieve political and electoral gain. The Government are failing; and they are failing big time.

10.43 am

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