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We seek a formal mechanism whereby the impact of proposed sentencing changes is assessed by an independent body, which we would call a sentencing commission, so that Government and Parliament are properly informed about the decisions that they take and understand what resources will be necessary to deliver those changes. We do not seek a restriction on judicial independence, but rather much better information about the resource implications and consistency of sentencing. The fact
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that offenders in Surrey found guilty of an indictable offence in a magistrates court on an either-way offence have a 9 per cent. chance of being sent to prison, whereas in Bedfordshire it is a 23 per cent. chance, raises questions about consistency of sentencing and which approach is better. I am not saying that we should ever tell sentencers what to do, but we need to have the debate and for sentencers to be aware of it.

There are already guidelines laid down by the SGC, which is chaired by the Lord Chief Justice, and that works well, but I want to build on that, not least to ensure—as many of the judiciary are aware—that there is much better information available to the judiciary. Rather than damning the report by Lord Justice Gage and his distinguished colleagues before even seeing it, the hon. Gentleman should await its publication. He was, if I might say so, tilting at windmills earlier. I do not want this—

Nick Herbert: I quoted the Bar Council.

Mr. Straw: Well, as a member of the learned General Council of the Bar, I merely say that it is not always right. Sometimes it is a bit behind the times.

I do not want this issue to be turned into a political football—the others, yes. I tell the hon. Gentleman, in case he has forgotten, that the key words I quoted about the nature of the mechanism were the exact words that he used in a speech he made in November last year.

Sir Alan Beith: Will the Secretary of State explain why he said that whereas we do not want to go in the direction of the US, which has very high rates of incarceration, nor we do not want to go in the direction of European countries, which have either always had lower rates of imprisonment than we do or have moved to them, as Finland has? Where is the evidence that their method is less effective than ours? Does not the evidence rather point the other way?

Mr. Straw: I am sure that the evidence in Finland is that that system is effective in Finland. I know Finland a little, and I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that our society in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is just different. I happen to believe that there is a connection, as we debated earlier, between the fact that crime has gone down by a third and that the prison population has gone up by a third. I do not claim that there is an exact statistical connection, but we have had problems—we still do—with crime and disorder to a greater degree than Finland has. We need to develop solutions that are suitable for here, which would not necessarily suit Finland. We shall learn, of course. We always seek to learn, not least about how to make community punishments more effective. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), will say more about that later.

The first responsibility of any Government is the safety and security of the public. This debate has been about the challenges that we face in meeting those responsibilities. It is about how we punish and reform offenders effectively, improve reoffending rates and ensure that prison is tough, fair and constructive. It is about ensuring, too, that there are sufficient resources to meet the needs of the system. According to any analysis or
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comparison, we are meeting those challenges. Crime is down, and we are the first Administration since the war to achieve that. There is already a record increase in prison places and a record building programme over the next six years, and a big investment in the probation service to ensure more effective community punishments.

The debate is also about a choice about a party that presided over a record rise in crime and whose economic policies, in truth, would lead not to more investment in the criminal justice system but to less, as they would across the public service. The choice is between the relative success of our approach and the unquestionable failures of theirs. I urge the House to support the amendment and to reject the motion.

8.42 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I agree with the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on one point—there is a crisis in the prison system. It has a record population of 83,000 and there are predictions, as we have just heard from the Lord Chancellor, of further increases. Overcrowding is increasing again. There is a breakdown in the capacity of the system to deliver rehabilitation programmes, which is causing chaos, especially in the indeterminate sentences for public protection—people cannot get out of prison until they complete their programmes, but there is no capacity to deliver those programmes. That leads to a situation that is unsatisfactory to the extent of being illegal.

Prisoners travel up and down the country, sometimes effectively and sometimes not. In fact, I recently visited Bedford prison, where I was told that the equivalent of the entire population of the prison turned over once every 50 days. In those circumstances, delivering rehabilitation is near to impossible. In addition to that, reoffending rates are high. It is that crisis that has led to the use of early release schemes and home detention curfews. I think that the hon. Gentleman is right that those programmes are being used without proper consultation because of the need for speed and the need to deal with the crisis. However, I part company from the hon. Gentleman on the reason given in the motion for the crisis. In effect, the Conservative motion says that the crisis has come about because the Government did not build enough prison places, and will continue because the Government will not deliver extra prison places in the future. That is not why the crisis is with us; it is with us because the wrong people are in prison.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) mentioned the mentally ill, and we might also consider the addicted. Some 70 per cent. of prisoners suffer from two or more recognised mental illnesses. Treatment must be the first priority. Yes, some of those people will have to be treated in secure facilities, but the first priority must be to help them, not to build new prisons. That is not the only issue; later in my speech I will talk about methods other than prison building—better methods—that could be used to prevent crime.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned one member of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, Nicky Padfield. Let me mention another, Professor Friedrich Lösel, who recently wrote that with the right changes in policy, we could reduce the prison population by 30 per cent. and reduce crime. However,
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that would mean serious policy changes that would have to be implemented over an extended period. I will return to that subject later.

First, I want to talk about the extraordinary statement in the first line of the Government amendment, to which the Lord Chancellor alluded. It is the line in which we are invited to welcome

as though the Government could claim credit for the reduction in crime. I agree with the Lord Chancellor that there has been a reduction in crime, especially according to the British crime survey figures, although there has been a slight increase in recorded crime, but that is mainly in line with recorded crime figures across Europe. As he said, there have been a number of accounting changes that could easily explain that increase.

There has been a fall in crime, and there are three things to say about that. First, the reduction started in 1995, not 1997. Indeed, since 1995, crime has gone down by way over 40 per cent., and there were bigger falls per year in the final years of the Major Government than under the Labour Government. The second point is that there are no obvious differences between the trends in Britain and the trends in other western developed countries. In Canada, for example, crime is at its lowest for 25 years and has also fallen by a third since the mid-1990s. According to the international crime victim survey, in France, crime has almost halved since 1995. The survey also shows that in the three European countries that have kept comparable figures for the longest, namely Britain, Finland and the Netherlands, the pattern of crime over 30 years has been near identical.

It seems impossible to claim that the fall in crime is anything to do with this Government’s policies. Indeed, it is quite difficult to claim that it has anything to do with any Government’s policies. We are seeing the same pattern across the western world, which means that the fall must have more to do with social and economic conditions than with the details of Government policy in one country or another. Of course, this Government have form when it comes to claiming credit for global changes. They claimed the credit for improvements in the global economy.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): Is that why Liberal Democrat policy is not to imprison drug offenders?

David Howarth: That is not our policy. Our policy is to imprison offenders. If offenders happen to be drug addicts, they should receive treatment in prison, if prison is the appropriate sentence for their crimes.

Let me return to the point about claiming credit. What will happen when those chickens come home to roost? Researchers have found an overall relationship between property crime and economic conditions. The Government have claimed the credit for reductions in property crime in times of economic prosperity, but will they bear the blame when those conditions change and crime rises? If they do, I will be surprised.
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The third point to make about the claim of the fall in crime since 1997 is that, since crime seems to have fallen nearly everywhere else in almost exactly the same way—except in Belgium, where something odd happened that no one can quite work out—Britain remains near the top of the list for the rate of victimisation. Some 22 per cent. of people are the victims of crime in this country in an average year, as opposed to 15 per cent., which is normal for the developed world. So it is true that the situation here is better than it was, but it is not good, and it is still not good compared with other countries.

A more important question than whether there has been a general reduction in crime—a reduction in crime has happened everywhere—is whether we are doing as well as we could to prevent crime and to reduce reoffending, and it is not obvious to me that we are. Reoffending rates are extremely poor in Britain. The debate between the two Front Benchers was about whether the rates are worse or remain the same. The plain fact is that they are bad. About two thirds of offenders reoffend within two years. The reoffending figure is 73 per cent. for men between the ages of 18 and 20 who are given custodial sentences, and it is even higher for some sub-categories.

By contrast, in countries such as Denmark, which is very similar in many ways to ours and very similar even in having only a slightly lower crime rate than ours—it is not in the category of countries, such as Portugal, that have very much lower crime rates—reoffending rates are astonishingly lower. In 2003, the rate was 27 per cent.

David T.C. Davies: Has the hon. Gentleman looked further into that research on reconviction rates and realised that the longer that people spend in prison, the less likely they are to reoffend and that the reoffending rate for people who spend four to 10 years in prison is about 33 per cent., which means that prison works?

David Howarth: I have heard the hon. Gentleman make that point in the past, but that figure is produced by the fact the people in that category commit very different crimes from the people in the categories that are given shorter sentences. However, he is right in one respect: we should be looking at what works to reduce reoffending. That is the crucial question. If prison worked in the way that he thinks it does, I would be prepared to think about it as a way forward; but, unfortunately, in general, it does not. Short sentences especially do not work.

We know about a number of different ways to sentence offenders that work better. The most obvious one is restorative justice, whereby the offender is confronted with the victim and with the harm that has been done to the victim. Reconviction rates in restorative justice have been consistently found in scientifically controlled experiments to be much lower than when offenders are given other sentences. The difference varies between 15 and 26 percentage points lower—a vast improvement. It works even better for some more serious crimes than for less serious crimes. It also helps victims with the trauma and pain of being victims and helps them to overcome their experience. One of the big questions that those of us who have been victims of crime always ask is, “Why me?” Restorative justice helps to deal with that feeling.
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Will the Lord Chancellor state when we are likely to see the evaluation of the London trials of restorative justice, which he promised would be published this month?

Mr. Straw: The evaluation was published on Monday. I am not trying to catch the hon. Gentleman out—he cannot be expected to be aware of everything that is published—but it was published on Monday to my virtually certain knowledge, because on Monday morning I went through the schedule of things that were due to be published, and it was one of them.

David Howarth: That is good news. I hope that the evaluation shows that restorative justice was successful in that experiment.

I do not want to go through all the other possibilities on sentencing, but I must mention some of them. There is good empirical evidence that shows that specialist courts, such as drug courts, work. Some interventions outside the criminal justice system work, too. For example, early intervention has been mentioned, and it will reduce crime in the longer term. Even simple things such as teaching basic social skills to children and teaching basic parenting skills to adults work.

Even after offending behaviour has been noticed, some evidence suggests that some forms of therapy work—for example, cognitive behavioural therapy works—but it is also true that other forms of therapy do not work. The important point is to act on what the evidence tells us. There are other ways in which we can act on evidence: hot-spot policing works; other forms of policing do not. There should always be room for new proposals, as long as they are independently evaluated and we work to the evidence rather than to the prejudices of the people who are advancing the ideas.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) is no longer with us, but he mentioned Lord Ramsbotham’s suggestion of young offender academies. That idea is worth trying, because it would build on what we know helps to reduce reoffending. We know that reoffending is higher where offenders have no job, where they are homeless, where they lack close relationships and where they are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Aspects of Lord Ramsbotham’s proposal attempt to deal with each of those problems and with other problems that we know on the evidence are related to success.

Richard Younger-Ross: Is my hon. Friend surprised that such proposals have been tried in the past? A particularly successful scheme, which taught young offenders crafts and furniture restoration, was tried in Wilton, but it was closed down under the Conservatives, who believed that short, sharp shock was a better policy.

David Howarth: That is certainly the case, and I will move on to discuss what does not work. Other approaches may work, such as community justice panels, which have been tried in south Somerset—there is some evidence that that approach is successful.

We know that certain things will not work. Titan prisons have been mentioned, but the evidence suggests that they are unlikely to be successful. What do we know about unsuccessful interventions? Short, sharp shocks did not work; boot camps did not work; and there is increasing evidence that antisocial behaviour orders and tagging do not work. What do all those
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things have in common? They are all tough-sounding, popular and populist, but, most importantly, they do not work.

The same is true to a large extent, although not to a complete extent, of prison. Prison is by far the most popular sentence with the public, the media and the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), but it does not work, at least not in the way it is implemented in Britain. That takes us back to the question why our prisons are so ineffective compared with, for example, prisons in Denmark. The Government amendment boasts about the Government’s prison-building programme, which is bizarre in a country where prison is so unsuccessful. That approach might make sense in another country where prison is more successful, but not here. So, the central point is that over the years, vast resources have been poured into policies that we all know do not work. It presumably happened because those policies, as my hon. Friend mentioned, are more popular than the policies that we know will work. So, what do we do? It is not enough to say that sentences must be tough if toughness means ineffectiveness. Effectiveness should be the touchstone of policy making, not toughness. But the issue is worse than that. If we put into ineffective policies public money that we could have put into policies that work and reduce crime, in effect we allow more crime than there would have been had we put the money into the right policies.

Sir Alan Beith: I am reluctant to interrupt the careful flow of my hon. Friend’s argument, but is not part of the problem the fact that some of the interventions that would work most effectively to prevent crime are completely outside the budgetary arrangement of the criminal justice system, residing in fields such as education, social services and the care system for children and young people? Effecting a transfer from the criminal justice system to those areas is something that our system seems congenitally incapable of doing.

David Howarth: It does indeed seem to be incapable of doing so, and that is one consequence of our system’s over-centralisation. Once one places all the power in central Government, one ends up with such silos. It might be easier to undertake such work if we were to localise the system to a greater extent.

The point that I was trying to make was that every pound that we spend on an ineffective programme as opposed to on an effective programme is a pound that effectively increases crime. That means that Governments in search of popularity have been responsible for there being more crime than there should have been. We need to think about the issue in a new way. Perhaps the way to put it is like this: those who fail to take effective action against crime and instead take ineffective action are objectively pro-crime; they allow extra crime to happen. That is precisely what we must stop. A consensus among politicians of all parties—I do not exclude my own from this—has brought us to this situation of crisis, record prison populations and unsatisfactory short-term expedients, such as early release schemes and the extension of home detention curfews. We must move away from that system of thought. We need a new consensus—within the bounds of morality and common decency—that is built around what works, because until we reach that new consensus, we will continue to suffer more crime than we need to.

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