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We have set out plans to restore confidence in the criminal justice system, redesign prisons for the 21st century and launch a rehabilitation revolution. We would create prison and rehabilitation trusts with clear accountability. We would pay them by results, rewarding
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their success in reducing reoffending. We would trust professionals, giving governors new powers and freedoms to unlock the private and third sector to run rehabilitation services in and out of prison and give offenders the support that they need to go straight.

At the beginning of April, the Lord Chief Justice criticised early release schemes and the lack of transparency in sentencing:

We agree. That is why we want to see honesty in sentencing. A Conservative Government would legislate for minimum and maximum sentences, to create that honesty in sentencing. When handing down a sentence, the court would have to explain the minimum and maximum sentence, and also the rules according to which it would be implemented.

Under our policy of earned release, no prisoner would be released before the minimum had been served. Release after that point would be conditional on the conduct of the offender in custody. That means that both the victim and the public will know when the prisoner will be considered for release on licence, and also that the offender may serve longer than the minimum if he does not earn his release by fulfilling his conferred duties in the system.

For that reform, and to address the urgent need to reduce overcrowding, we recognise the need for additional capacity. That is why we outlined our proposal in March for 5,000 more prison places above the Government’s plans—not to increase the prison population, but to deal with overcrowding—that would be funded by a redevelopment of the prison estate. Our reforms have at their heart the recognition that public confidence in our criminal justice system has been gravely undermined by the early release of prisoners and a failing penal system. That confidence must be restored.

But more than that, we recognise that in the long term, the right way to prevent the unsustainable growth of our prison population is to reduce reoffending. We all know that reoffending rates have remained stubbornly high. A leaked internal memo from the Government admitted as much. It said that recidivism rates for young criminals remain some of the highest in the developed world and that they “have not significantly changed” since 1997. Ministers will claim progress, but like so much from this Government, it is all about how we measure it.

The truth is that our prisons do not do enough to rehabilitate offenders. Indeed, in their current state of overcrowding, they are doing less now than they did 10 years ago. We cannot go on administering giant human warehouses, where nothing much happens except drug taking and bench pressing. We have to create regimes where offenders work hard, learn skills and get support to break their drug addiction, so that they leave less likely to reoffend. We need to create prisons with a purpose; reducing reoffending will help break the cycle of crime. We recognise that we will not make Britain safer unless we reduce reoffending; and we will not reduce reoffending without ending overcrowding and
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without constructing purposeful regimes. That is the only acceptable way forward to deal with the current problem.

The truth is that the Government are paralysed. There is total incoherence across Government policy. Ministers are constantly buffeted by events. We were the ones who led calls for stronger sanctions and robust enforcement for knife crime; then the Government followed us with calls for a presumption in favour of prosecution. We led calls to tighten the bail laws; and only now, four months on, do the Government bring forward their own narrow and rather unimpressive consultation document.

We have set out our ideas for reform, so where are the Government’s? If Ministers are simply to attack every positive proposal for change, if they are going to resist every new idea and if they are just going to maintain their tired refusal to act, the future really is bleak: prisons in a permanent state of overcrowding; ever more desperate emergency measures to bring the situation under control; turf wars between Government Departments and conflict with the judges whose independence is threatened; the biggest jails in Europe warehousing offenders; prisoners transported hundreds of miles around the country in a search for available places; drugs freely available in jails, which should be places of security; short-term prisoners being released with little or no support in the near certainty that they will reoffend. Politicians should not use the word “crisis” lightly, but the prison system is in a state of crisis. If Ministers do not think so, they do not deserve to be able to continue to run the system.

Last month, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) received a letter from a 17-year-old prisoner in a young offender institution. I think that the House should hear what he had to say. He said that he had been in the young offender institution

What hope are the Government offering young offenders such as him? What hope for communities blighted by their crimes?

Let us hear no more excuses from the Government. Let us hear no more pointless attacks on what a previous Government did more than 11 years ago. Let us hear from the Justice Secretary what he is actually going to do about our penal system. In the words of the Lord Chief Justice:

8.3 pm

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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As the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, this is the third debate tabled by the Opposition on this subject in less than a year. No matter how many times one tries to compare what this Government have done on law and order with what previous Administrations did—yes, I shall make comparisons, as well as deal with what we are currently doing and what we will do in the future—our record stands up to any amount of scrutiny.

Let us look first at crime.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con) rose—

David T.C. Davies: rose—

Mr. Straw: Before I take interventions, let us first look at crime. It was the former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) who admitted in this House that crime had doubled under the Conservatives—and indeed it had. Car crime doubled, domestic burglary doubled, violent crime went up by 170 per cent., and robbery went up by almost 400 per cent. Furthermore, the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), was asked on BBC “News at Ten” on 23 April—I do not need the transcript, as I saw him say it, as did many others—whether crime had fallen under a Labour Government and he said “Yes, absolutely, absolutely.” He was right to say that, because it happens to be true. Not only that—

Mr. Swayne rose—

Mr. Straw: I shall give way shortly to the Leader of the Opposition’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, who is sitting there like some sentinel watching the performance on the Front Bench, so he can report back. Indeed, he is nodding with approbation.

What the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs forgot to mention in his litany of painting down the success of the police and other criminal justice agencies is that only today, Sussex police—his own local constabulary—have announced a 10 per cent. fall in recorded crime over a year. Those figures happen to be grounded on a consistent basis.

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Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con) rose—

Mr. Straw: Before I give way to a junior member of the Tory Front-Bench team I shall give way, as I said I would, to the man who really has power—the Leader of the Opposition’s PPS.

Mr. Swayne: In the excellent performance by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), he referred to an instruction, so will the Lord Chancellor confirm that it is genuine, and that it is indeed the case that days on the run can be counted as contributing to the number of days in custody? If that is the case, is it possible that if a miscreant were on the run for long enough, they might actually be eligible for compensation for having been detained beyond the length of their sentence?

Mr. Straw: I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that that does not apply to those who have escaped. That Prison Service instruction, to which the hon. Gentleman draws such extravagant attention, does not apply to escaped people or those who are in normal parlance “on the run”. It applies exceptionally to prisoners who have been released in error. Before Opposition Members say that no prisoners are released in error, I was intending to draw to the attention of a wider audience later in my speech the fact that on one single day in August 1996, 537 prisoners were released in error.

Mr. Garnier rose—

Mr. Straw: I am answering the man with the power, at the back. I will deal later with those of the lower orders, however learned they are.

It says in my briefing that such releases are extremely rare. Well, that is true under this Administration, but it was not true under the previous one. The decision to override the time out when a prisoner has been released in error can happen only if agreed personally by the Justice Secretary. I have never seen such an application, and I might also add—hon. Members are welcome to check the record on this—that when Mr. Ronnie Biggs had been on the run and finally returned to custody, I insisted, as I continue to insist, that all the time he spent on the run should be deducted, notwithstanding his attempts to say otherwise, from the time he claimed to have served. He would have been out years ago had he not decided to go over the wall.

Mr. Garnier rose—

Mr. Straw: The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) wishes to ask me a question.

Mr. Garnier: How very gracious of the Lord Chancellor to permit me to tug at his regal gown. I am honoured. Will the Justice Secretary condescend to tell us why, if crime has been reduced by such a massive amount under his Government, the prison population has gone up by 23,000?

Mr. Straw: I think that is dead easy: the two might be connected. Some statisticians disagree. I do not claim that there is an exact statistical connection, but I do say that there is some connection between the fact that
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crime has gone down by a third and prison numbers up by a third. I can speak so far as my own constituency is concerned. The truth is that this an element of criticism by the soft side of the Tory party, and I hope that the hon. Member for New Forest, West is making a note of who is on that soft side: Harborough is certainly wet; Woking is even wetter; Dorset is even worse—

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): And Monmouth.

Mr. Straw: No. Monmouth is on the other side, but we will come on to Monmouth in a moment.

The two things are connected. Speaking from my constituency experience, I think that the fact that many more serious criminals are now locked up, and for longer, is a reason why crime there has gone down as much, if not more, than it has in Sussex. Indeed, I am proud to say—I hope that the hon. Member for New Forest, West will agree with me on this—that the two forces that are consistently top performers in terms of public confidence and crime reduction are Sussex and Lancashire. As I said, the fact that we are jailing more people is one reason for that. I look forward to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough digesting that.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: Of course I will give way to another wet.

Mr. Letwin: I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. Does he regard the increase in the recidivism rate as another cause of his supposed reduction in crime?

Mr. Straw: It has not gone up. I shall not quote the rest of the letter to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs—the part to which he did not refer—at length, but if we compare like with like—

Mr. Letwin: Oh!

Mr. Straw: Well, we have to do that. Otherwise, there is no proper comparison.

If we compare the type of offences, we find that the rate has gone down, which I drew to the attention of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs in the same letter, when I stated that proven adult reoffending has gone down

Nick Herbert: Will the Justice Secretary confirm that in that letter of 27 November he wrote to me:

Will he therefore confirm that he has admitted that reoffending rates have risen under this Government?

Mr. Straw: I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. If we are looking at what is happening to trends— [Interruption.] We have to compare one cohort of prisoners with an accurate and similar cohort later on. That is not a cop-out; that is the truth.

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Mr. Malins: On reconviction rates, my mind goes back to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which introduced the much vaunted drug treatment and testing order—a brilliant solution to our problems! Does the Secretary of State know that in fact there was a 90 per cent. breach of those and an 80 per cent. reoffending rate—historically, terribly high—which is why they were simply dropped?

Mr. Straw: The drug treatment and testing orders were reformed into a better and more effective system. [Interruption.] I am making a serious point about community punishments to the hon. Gentleman, as he knows, because he served on the Committee that considered the 1998 Act. He complained then about the fact that the prison population was too high. It was 60,000. Lord alone knows what he is going to be complaining about tonight when it is 83,000. By definition, community offenders are not locked up and it is more difficult to deal with them. We have to see whether a particular approach works, and if it does not, to be ready to amend it. That is what we sought to do.

Perhaps I can make a little progress after those diversions. As I said, crime is down by a third. I am glad that we agree about that, not least with the backing and support of the Leader of the Opposition. It includes violent crime coming down, and a record 140,000 police officers. The chances of becoming a victim of crime are the lowest since the British crime survey began its operation in 1981.

Let us also compare our record with the system that we inherited. On youth crime, it was taking 142 days— 20 weeks—to get a young offender from arrest to sentence. That is now down to 60 days. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs criticises our record on prisons. I am very happy to compare our record with the record of the previous Conservative Administration. [Interruption.] It is no good his saying that he does not want to do that, because it was some time ago. That Administration is the paradigm for the Conservative party today. Conservatives seek to quote its record selectively when it suits them.

Hon. Members might want to use the noun “crisis” to describe the prison situation, but by God, there was a crisis for many years throughout the 1980s and 1990s. More people escaped from so-called secure prisons in a week in 1992 than escaped in the whole of last year. I am told that it got so bad that private secretaries would not bother to inform Ministers following each escape; they would tot them up at the end of the week. [Interruption.] It is true.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, prisons were beset by crippling riots. It was a rare month between 1982 and 1995 that police cells were not used, and in considerable numbers. On average in 1992, more than 1,000 prisoners were housed in police cells every night, and that was by no means a record. During one month a few years before that, 3,500 prisoners were in police cells in a single month.

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