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Question, That the proposed words be there added , put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


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Sentencing Policy

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): We now move on to the debate about sentencing policy and the early release of offenders. I must tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.16 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I beg to move,

This is the third debate that we have called in the House within a year on the early release of offenders. Since we debated the matter in July 2007, the situation has deteriorated. Last July, the prison population was more than 80,000; now, it is more than 83,000—an increase of almost 3,000, even after factoring in the early release scheme that started in June 2007. Last July, the Government had released 3,800 prisoners early; now, they have released 26,300 prisoners early. The prison estate is running at 99.8 per cent. of total capacity. In July, 86 prisons were overcrowded; now, 89 are. In July, 60,337 prisoners were in overcrowded jails; at the end of May this year, there were 63,176—another increase of 3,000. Almost one year has gone by, and that is what the Government have achieved.

Sentencing policy and the continuing early release of offenders is a cause of real public concern, yet we return to the issue this evening because the Government simply are not listening. That is why the debate has had to be called. We have repeatedly asked Ministers to explain how they are going to provide the necessary prison capacity to hold all those sentenced by the courts, but instead of action we have been presented with a litany of poor excuses. Ministers say that they have provided 20,000 new prison places, and I am sure that we will hear it said again this evening. They do not say that almost 17,000 prisoners are now doubling up in cells—twice as many as when Labour came to power; that those extra places have been provided by doing such doubling up; and that almost one quarter of the entire prison population are housed in cells that are designed for one fewer person.

Ministers say that they are embarking on a record prison-building programme, but the truth about their record is that after years of opposition from the former
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Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, they started the programme too late and it is already falling behind. Ministers say that they are tackling reoffending, but reconviction rates have increased. Even after the counting change, which Ministers are now so quick to fall back on, reoffending rates by ex-prisoners have risen since the Government came to power.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): indicated dissent.

Nick Herbert: The Secretary of State shakes his head, but in a letter on 27 November 2007, he confirmed to me that there was an increase in actual reoffending by ex-prisoners between 1997 and 2004. As the former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, said this morning, reoffending rates are “embarrassing”.

After more than a year, what has the new Ministry of Justice, dedicated to protecting the public and reducing reoffending, actually delivered? It has managed to release a record number of prisoners early on to our streets. We have now had 10 months to evaluate the end of custody licence scheme: a policy that has greatly damaged public confidence in the criminal justice system, that was described by the previous Lord Chancellor as “simply wrong”—a month before he introduced the scheme—and that was dubbed a “very temporary measure” by the former Prime Minister.

On Friday next week, on the anniversary of the end of custody licence, we expect that more than 28,000 prisoners will have been released early on to the streets in 11 months. The rate of release is running well ahead of initial projections. When the latest figures were published, I wrote to the Secretary of State to ask for an explanation. He replied by saying that the original estimate was quickly updated after the scheme started—in other words, the Government got it wrong in the beginning. He now admits that revised projections after the first week of the scheme led to a projected one-year total of 28,600 prisoners to be released early. But that revised—and, I assume, current—projection is still a gross underestimate. We have looked at the rate of releases, and we expect the total to be more like 31,000 in a year—5,000 more than Ministers cited when the scheme was launched.

When will this so-called temporary scheme end? The Justice Secretary will not say, or pretends not to know. In an interview with the Press Association earlier this month, he said:

He has refused to say when the scheme might be suspended, but others in the Government have been rather more forthcoming. On 7 May, the Prime Minister said in the House:

So now we know; end of custody licence will not be suspended until many thousands more prison places are brought on-stream. The Justice Secretary confirmed that in response to my letter and parliamentary question, perhaps unwittingly helping to clear up the ambiguity. He now estimates that prison capacity will reach 86,000 by “around September 2009”. In other words, we should
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expect at least another 15 months of this policy, and along with it another 35,000 prisoners being let out early on to our streets. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that what the Prime Minister said was right, and that no decision will be taken on ending this disgraceful scheme until September next year?

We should reflect on the price of this policy, which is much more than mere numbers. More than 500 violent offenders were released early in March, taking the total number of violent prisoners released to almost 5,000. A total of 820 offenders have been recalled to prison while on end of custody licence, 144 of whom remain unlawfully at large. At least 451 crimes have been committed by prisoners who should have been behind bars. Almost every day, the media report another victim of a criminal who has, in one way or another, been released from prison early. The Secretary of State plays down the importance of this. He recently said:

Only two and a half weeks? Frankly, I find that response complacent. It is no consolation to the hundreds of unnecessary victims of crime. Two and half weeks was time enough in the case of Amanda Murphy, a teacher who was beaten to death by her violent partner just days after he was released early from prison. Only last week, we learned of the case of Derek Burns, a violent offender with a string of previous convictions, who stabbed his partner in the back with a 10-in meat cleaver when he should have been in prison. He told the paramedics:

But let out he was, because early release under the Government’s end of custody licence scheme is automatic—prisoners do not even have to apply. No individual risk assessments and proper accommodation checks are carried out.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): My hon. Friend is making some powerful and important points. Will he confirm that if he becomes Minister for Justice, as I hope he will shortly, he will end all forms of automatic early release and prisoners will be released only if they have earned the right to get out of jail?

Nick Herbert: I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that we will scrap the policy of end of custody licence and scrap the policy of automatic early release of offenders, to which I will refer shortly.

As I have already said, under the end of custody licence, no individual risk assessments and no proper accommodation checks are conducted. As the National Association of Probation Officers has warned, violent criminals are released early— often back to the homes of the partners they were in prison for beating up—getting out of jail before their victims expected it and with no warning. With this appalling policy comes a human price. The moral case alone demands its cancellation, but prison capacity apparently does not allow it.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that we should be having a very different sort of debate. In the Criminal Justice Act 2003, we had the much-vaunted custody plus—an entirely new form of sentencing for our courts that was trumpeted
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by the Government as a huge bonus to the criminal justice system, yet five years later they have not even introduced it into our courts.

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend, who speaks with great expert knowledge on these matters and sits as a recorder, is absolutely right. Perhaps the Justice Secretary could explain why, after five years, custody plus has not been introduced.

It is a measure of how serious prison overcrowding has become under this Government that a policy that in a full year saves only 1,200 prison places cannot be suspended because apparently there are not that number of places available, or likely to be available, in the near future.

There is a second question that I should like to put to the Secretary of State. The Government told us that 2,500 new prison places would be delivered in 2007.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): There is obviously a problem with prison overcrowding. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we could reduce prison numbers if those with serious mental health issues were identified and placed in forensic mental health institutes? Will his party commit to expanding that service so that it could take them instead of their being put in prison?

Nick Herbert: I agree about the problem of prisoners with serious mental illness, but there are two points to make. First, if, instead, they are put into places where they are treated, those are likely merely to be secure places of a different kind. Many of us—including, I suspect, the Secretary of State—would agree that that is a desirable thing to do. Secondly, the Bradley review is investigating how such people could be diverted to places where they can be treated properly. Although the hon. Gentleman might be able to say that that reduces the prison population, and it may be highly desirable that those offenders are not treated in prisons where it is not appropriate for them to be detained, it will not necessarily reduce the overall numbers of people in some form of custody.

Richard Younger-Ross: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the recidivism rate for those who are treated in mental health institutions is only 10 per cent., compared with the figure for those who have been in prison? In time, therefore, the prison population would be reduced because recidivism would be reduced.

Nick Herbert: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Indeed, a reduction in reoffending is an important way of reducing pressure on prison population growth in the long term, and the point that he makes may represent one means of achieving that. I doubt that there will be disagreement between hon. Members of any party about the desirability of removing offenders with serious mental illness from our prisons. The issue is one of resources and potential expense. It is true that there has been a big displacement of prisoners from former mental health institutions into the criminal justice system; it is not just the prison system that has picked up on that, but the police. We all recognise that problem.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Would the hon. Gentleman tell the House what his first priority would be? Would it be to obtain more secure mental health facilities, or would it be simply to build more conventional prisons?

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Nick Herbert: I will come on to explain to the hon. Gentleman, if he has not read our policy document, that we propose an increase in capacity above what the Government propose to deal with overcrowding. On the question of how to deal with mentally ill prisoners, we shall await the outcome of the Bradley review, and if the hon. Gentleman is sensible, he will do the same. I must make progress, but I hope that I have answered the many questions put to me by the Liberal Democrats.

I have a second question for the Justice Secretary. The Government told us that 2,500 new prison places would be delivered last year, but they comprehensively missed that prison-building target. They managed to increase capacity by just 1,367 places—just over half their target—and there is no sign that things will be better this year. Since January, there are nearly 3,500 more prisoners in our jails, but far less than half that number of new places. Let us remember that most of those new places are just last year’s new places delivered late. Strip those out, and prison capacity this year has increased by fewer than 300 places.

With prison capacity and early release, the familiar pattern of this Government’s policy continues: release criminals more quickly and build prison places more slowly. The Government will not admit that even if they deliver the promised extra places by 2014, total prison capacity will still be many thousands of places short of their own median projection for the prison population by that time. They published a consultation paper on titan prisons, and they say that they intend to press ahead with plans to build three massive prisons—in the north-west, London and the south-east. Those prisons will take up 50 acres, which is a footprint larger than two Wembley stadiums. They will be the biggest prisons in Europe, in the face of all of the evidence that smaller prisons are more secure and superior for the purposes of rehabilitation. After all the urging by prison reform experts about the importance of local family links to the reduction of reoffending, why are the Government pursuing the policy of titan jails?

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Given the Government’s record of not consulting local communities, even over bail hostels, does my hon. Friend expect them to consult local communities on titan prisons? Does he agree that there should be a full local planning consultation process involving local councils? Titan prisons should not be driven through by the new planning infrastructure commission.

Nick Herbert: I agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that the Government have pursued the policy of titan prisons—a name that they chose—because they wish to subvert local planning procedures and thereby increase capacity without having to obtain the consent of local people. That is wrong, just as the policy of siting very large prisons away from the prisoners’ local communities is wrong.

The Government’s paper trumpets the potential efficiencies of titan jails, but admits that the Ministry of Justice has not done enough research to present a cost-benefit analysis. If these monstrous warehouses ever get built, projections show that they will be overcrowded by almost a third from day one. Old habits certainly die hard. In the short term, prison capacity pressures were going to be addressed by the acquisition of a prison
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ship. Whatever happened to that? What happened to that ghost ship? Perhaps the Secretary of State could update us. The Sun is certainly keen for an update.

Years of failure and today’s belated and inadequate prison-building programme have come at a price. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in May, the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, clearly warned of the dangers when he said:

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