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We had the early custody licence in abundance on a number of occasions, but they were disguised by the previous Administration, most spectacularly when Douglas Hurd, now Lord Hurd of Westwell, extended remission from one third to one half, releasing 3,500 prisoners—not 1,200—at a stroke, the effect of which continued for many years. However, the Conservatives did not volunteer
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to do what I did, which was to ensure, because I thought it was right to do so, that monthly independent figures were produced on their equivalent of the early custody licence.

In 1984, Leon Brittan increased eligibility for parole for short-term prisoners. That doubled the number released early. In 1991, Lord Hurd’s temporary measures were made permanent in the Criminal Justice Act 1991.

Ms Dari Taylor: Will my right hon. Friend add two more statistics to those that he has given? One is the number of convictions during the late ’80s and early ’90s. That fell by a third. The second statistic is that crime trebled in the same period.

Mr. Straw: I agree with my hon. Friend on the first statistic. As for the second, crime doubled in that period.

Ms Taylor: Not according to my notes.

Mr. Straw: Well, okay. Some crimes did. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend needs to sack the researcher.

Mark Pritchard: I know that the Minister always likes to be accurate with the House. He mentioned absconders or people who have escaped from prisons. Does he recall a written parliamentary reply to a question I tabled last week in which it was stated that there were 510 absconders from open prisons alone, never mind category A, B and C? He might want to set the record straight.

Mr. Straw: Of course I do. I think it was the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question in which I spelled out the difference between escapes, which is the correct term to use for closed prisons, and absconds, which are from open prisons, where people are free, by definition, to walk in and out because an open prison is open; it is a halfway house, as they call it in the United States. As it happens, the record in that respect is very good as well. In 1996-97, there were 1,115 absconds. That was cut by more than 50 per cent. by 2007-8. The question for Conservative Members is this: are they saying that in the unlikely event of their gaining office they will close all open prisons, or are they saying that if they keep them open there will be no absconds?

David T.C. Davies rose—

Mr. Straw: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I promised to do so earlier.

David T.C. Davies: I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, not least because my constituency contains an open prison from which numerous very dangerous prisoners, including child rapists, have escaped or absconded. Whatever the difference is, it is not important. Is it not the case, however, that under the Government that the Secretary of State represents, people are trying to break into prisons to sell drugs and to prostitute themselves?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman knows that to be nonsense, but may I say how pleased I am to see him in the Chamber? Like an awful lot of Members on both sides of the House, when I received the message that a “David Davis” had decided to resign, I thought it was him. It was a great relief to us all—except, I think, the
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Leader of the Opposition—to discover that he is still here, young and vigorous, and that it is the other “David Davis” who has decided to go off on a frolic of his own.

Let me now return to the subject of the increase in the number of prison places. We have delivered more than 23,000 additional places since 1997, at twice the rate achieved by our predecessors, along with a commitment to increase the total to 96,000 net and 101,000 gross by 2014. There is some flexibility in the system.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs asked about the building programme. All the evidence that I have suggests that it is well on time and, in some cases, ahead of time. I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman’s information originated. Over the past 12 months 2,422 places have been delivered, and we plan, and fully expect, 2,700 to be delivered in this calendar year. It is also a great credit to the Prison Service that not only is it delivering those places but—here I touch wood—in 11 years there have been no category A escapes.

We have a responsibility to provide enough prison places for those who the courts determine should be there. Prisons are first and foremost places of punishment and public protection, but they are also places of reform, which means ensuring that there is a constructive regime that gives people on the inside a better chance of going straight on the outside.

Prisons are not cushy. I was glad to note that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs told a recent CBI conference:

Perhaps he will talk to his hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies). It is nonsense to suggest that prisoners want to be in prison, nor should they want to be there, because, as I have said, the purpose of their incarceration is first and foremost punishment.

Prison regimes have been hugely improved since, in particular, the 1980s and early 1990s. Reoffending rates have fallen—I would be happy to write to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs about that—and we have provided more opportunities for rehabilitation. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will tell the House later about the new offender compact that he is developing. There has been a tenfold increase in spending on drug treatment programmes, and the number of people failing mandatory drug tests has fallen by two thirds.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): Armley remand prison in my constituency has received welcome investment under the present Government. Its staff do a brilliant job in difficult circumstances. However, will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to a proposal from the former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, for what he has described as academies, by which I think he means practical, positive, small residential units to give the 3,000 young offenders in Britain a better chance to obtain the training and early intervention that will prevent them from reoffending? If my right hon. Friend would like to pilot one in Leeds, that would be most welcome.

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Mr. Straw: I always take Lord Ramsbotham’s suggestions seriously, and I would be happy to talk to him and to my right hon. Friend about this one.

As there has been a debate about the number of people under 18 in prison, let me say that it has been stable in recent years. The number of people whom we would describe as children—12 or 13-year-olds—in secure custody is tiny. There are seven 12-year-olds in custody, not the hundreds implied by some lobby groups, and they are there because they committed very serious offences. The bulk of those under 18 who are in custody are 16 or 17.

We have worked hard to improve the regime for those people. That is a matter for the Youth Justice Board, which provides more resources per head. Staffing levels are higher and so is the standard of the regime, but it is always open to improvement. We are dealing principally with offenders for whom the custody bar is much higher than it is for adult offenders, because they have committed either many more offences or more serious offences.

They often have intractable problems, frequently including emotional and learning difficulties. It is hard to turn them around, but we have to keep trying.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): On the prison building programme, does the Secretary of State accept that even if the so-called titan prisons are built on time, on the basis of the current figures he is planning that they should be more than 30 per cent. overcrowded? As he has not produced any cost-benefit analysis, what evidence does he have that these are the most efficient way of providing new prison places?

Mr. Straw: In prisons, there is always—and there will always be under any Government, in my opinion—a level of what is described as overcrowding, which is the amount above what is called normal capacity. I can conceive of no Government deciding to increase prison places by half the number of prisoners. Regardless of whether they are categorised as overcrowded, all but a few current prisons are very different from those of 20 or 30 years ago.

The large prisons will not be warehouses, and it is ridiculous to suggest that they will be. They will be prisons within prisons. There is a good deal of evidence to show that they will be more cost-effective. It is easy for the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman blithely to assert that instead of building one prison for 2,500 on a footprint of 50 acres or hectares, it would be easier to build five prisons of 500 places. Would that we could. What happens the moment that we try to build prisons, for example at Beam Reach in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire), or in South Suffolk where there is also a suggestion that a prison should be built—and in both places land is available? What happens is that we do not get co-operation from the local Conservative Members; instead we get opposition, with the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) saying they will not have any more prisons in that area. We face a problem, therefore. I understand why the public are always unhappy about a new prison being built—although they are equally unhappy about a prison closing once it has been built. However, the truth is that this appears to be a cost-effective way of delivering this number of places on time.

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Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw: If I may make some progress, I will try to give way to the hon. Gentleman shortly.

We are also clamping down on the supply of drugs into prison, and as I said to the House last Tuesday I will publish the Blakey report and our response shortly. We have also greatly increased training arrangements in prison and we are trying to do a great deal more.

Managing the criminal justice system is not easy. It requires professionalism on the part of the prison and probation services, and I hope that all Members will join me in paying tribute to their staff at every level. It also requires consistency of approach. When asked about home detention curfew, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs skated over whether the Conservatives would abolish it. [Interruption.] Perhaps they would not abolish it; perhaps he would like to clarify this? [Interruption.] Well, I heard him being asked about it, and I remind him that in the then Home Affairs Committee the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) was in unity with the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) in welcoming the home detention curfew initiative in what became the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The Conservatives did not vote against the extension of home detention curfew on Third Reading of the Bill that led to that Act, nor did they vote against the extension of HDC in 2003.

The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who watches for the Leader of the Opposition, ought to be aware of the following quotation in respect of a new appointment by his leader. On the extension of HDC, a Conservative Member said:

That was said by a then junior spokesman who is now a highly elevated spokesman: the new shadow Home Secretary, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). Since the scheme was introduced, with the approval of that Committee and of the Opposition, officially in 2003, 151,000 prisoners have been released, 85 per cent. have completed their period of HDC successfully and 4 per cent. have reoffended while on the scheme.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs devoted a significant part of his speech to the end of custody licence—ECL—which was introduced in June 2007 to create sufficient headroom to allow for prison numbers to be managed safely. That involves taking out 1,400 prisoners at any one time, which contrasts with the 3,500 prisoners whom Douglas Hurd took out of the system in 1987. Let me put this into perspective.

I said that the prisoners are released up to 18 days early—that is two and a half weeks before they would come out in any event. Although I acknowledge that someone who is a victim of a crime, in any circumstances, is 100 per cent. a victim, regardless of how unlikely the event, it is important to put on record the fact that the offending rate on the scheme is just 1 per cent., which is remarkably low.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the terrible murder of Amanda Murphy by Andrew Mournian, and nothing that I can say can be of any assistance to her relatives
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and friends. However, as the hon. Gentleman sought to make a point about ECL, it is important to put on record what the learned trial judge, the honourable Mrs. Justice Swift, said in sentencing that man for that terrible murder:

[Interruption.] No, it is not all right; it is not all right in any circumstances.

It is important that the hon. Gentleman makes accurate points. It was the learned judge in that case who, obviously without anyone’s prompting, went out of her way to say that, in her judgment, whenever the offender was going to be released, as he was bound to be for his index offence, he would have committed that offence. As he says that people are released without any check on their circumstances and where they are going to go, I should tell him that they are released 18 days early with all normal arrangements, including supervision, that would apply, depending on their sentence length, were they released 18 days later.

May I also say that we will end ECL when headroom allows? I was asked whether that would be in some month next year. I wish I could say with absolute certainty when we are going to end ECL, because I understand the public concern about it. We can predict with some certainty the rise in the number of prison places over the next year, but it is very difficult to predict, as would be the case under any Administration, exactly what will happen in respect of the rise—it will be a rise—in the prison population. Let us consider what happened in the past three weeks in relation to very short-term predictions. There was a sudden and quite unpredictable increase in the prison population of getting on for 350 last week. Very tiny changes in 300 to 400 courts across the country can lead to a big aggregate increase in the prison population. We are working extremely hard, with the fastest ever creation of prison places, and the moment I judge that it is safe to do so, we will end ECL.

Nick Herbert: Will the Justice Secretary confirm that the combination of the automatic early release of prisoners and the ECL scheme means that many prisoners are being released before they have served even half their sentence?

Mr. Straw: The prisoners are released in accordance with the law. We have home detention curfew, and this was a matter for debate 10 years ago. The hon. Gentleman came up with some extravagant promises—I hope that the shadow Chancellor was listening if the Conservatives are serious about going into Government—when talking about minimum and maximum sentences. One of my predecessors as Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, went to enormous lengths, as will be recalled by the hon. Member for Woking and the hon. Member for Dorset North—

Mr. Letwin: West Dorset.

Mr. Straw: West Dorset. Of course, how could I forget? The right hon. Gentleman went AWOL during the 2001 election.

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The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe went to enormous lengths to try to introduce a system of honesty in sentencing. He produced one plan, which was in the original Crime (Sentences) Bill in 1996, but he had to withdraw it because it was completely incoherent. He then produced another plan, which I was ready to implement when we came into government in May 1997, but that also turned out to be incoherent and would not have produced honesty in sentencing.

Of course we should be explicit about the minimum and the maximum that any individual prisoner will serve, but the resource costs of what the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs implies are huge, at a time when the shadow Chancellor keeps criticising us for spending at current levels and suggests that public spending under a Conservative Administration—were that ever to happen—would be much less. No one will take the hon. Gentleman’s proposals seriously unless he can say exactly what the resource costs will be and where that money will come from.

The hon. Gentleman also has to say who would decide, once a judge has determined that there will be a sentence of between two years and four years, whether two, three or four years are served. Would it be the court? I think the judges would like to have some control over that. Or would it be a prison governor? How would that work? Or would it be done by an additional layer of complicated bureaucracy for the parole board? Those are serious questions and the hon. Gentleman needs to answer them.

The hon. Gentleman also proposed a sentencing commission. As I said on 5 December last year, and have repeated since, there is no suggestion that a sentencing commission—such as an upgraded Sentencing Guidelines Council—could or should ever be used to fetter judicial discretion or to manage the prison population down. The prison population will rise for the next 10 to 15 years according to almost any scenario one can foresee, and Parliament and everybody else accepts that.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. Parliament does have a critical role to play in setting the framework for sentencing, and in deciding on the level of taxpayers’ money to be spent on prison places and probation services that arise from that framework. That is nothing to do with linking individual sentences to the availability of resources. We make different judgments from those in the United States, which typically spends four or five times as much on prison places and has four or five times as many. We spend more per head than other jurisdictions in Europe, apart from Portugal. There is an argument for spending some more, and we are doing that, but we do not want to see either the low level of sentencing that some European countries have or the very high level that some states in the US go in for.

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