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5 Feb 2009 : Column 304WH—continued

The Government, in responding to us, accepted a number of our recommendations. They recognised that short custodial sentences are not effective, that IPP sentences must be better targeted, that an audit should
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be undertaken to examine the current scale and nature of provision compared to the scale and nature of need, and that sentencers should be closely involved in the monitoring of compliance with community orders.

However, Ministers did not address the central problem that we identified—the lack of a coherent sentencing policy and the failure to allocate resources so that the most appropriate and effective sentence can be given to each offender. The Government did not accept that judicial sentencing and decision making are in effect limited when there are no places in the area to meet the conditions that a particular criminal presents for the sentencer’s decision.

The Committee welcomes the steps that the Government have recently taken to promote the use of alternatives to custody, but much of the extra funding is being given with one hand and taken away with the other because of the huge pressure for efficiency savings—a phrase that I feel like putting in inverted commas because in the front line of penal policy, it tends to mean downward pressure on services. In contrast to the billions of pounds that may be spent on the prison system, including titan prisons, probation services received only an extra £40 million to plug gaps in their provision.

An examination of criminal justice resources by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London found that, once increases in staff and work load are taken into account, the increases in criminal justice budgets this decade were far less generous than they appeared. Probation budgets went up by 21 per cent. in real terms, as I am sure the Minister will want to point out, but qualified and trainee probation case loads increased by 35 per cent. The permanent secretary, Sir Suma Chakrabarti, assured us in evidence that MOJ efficiency savings will have only a limited impact on front-line resources. I wish I believed him, but life does not tend to be like that.

In another aspect of the Government’s response, they accepted that there is insufficient mental health provision for offenders. Every prison officer will tell us that when they give accounts of the people with mental health problems whom they have to deal with. The Government therefore commissioned Lord Bradley to conduct a review of the treatment of people with severe mental health problems in the criminal justice system, which I think is due to report later this month.

Evidence from our current inquiry on justice reinvestment underlines the fact that prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse. If policy makers were serious about concentrating on what works in terms of reducing reoffending, community sentences and restorative justice initiatives would receive much more attention and resources and far greater efforts would be made to communicate the basis and success rates of such sentences to the media and the wider public. Efforts so far by the Government to influence sentences have had too many unintended consequences and there have not been the resources to back up the rhetoric.

We shall continue our work on justice reinvestment and we are beginning work on the role of the prison officer, who is an often undervalued and perhaps sometimes insufficiently trained part of the process but who does a vital job. We were struck by the greater amount of training that we have observed happens in many other
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countries for prison officers. In various ways, we shall continue to monitor what is happening, but underlining our inquiries—this report and the ones that we are working on—is this fundamental question: why is Britain different, or indeed is Britain different? Is it really totally different from so many of the countries that are our nearest neighbours? Why do we in this country find it impossible to change what other countries have changed in penal policy?

The example of Finland is often cited because Finland inherited a Russian tradition of very high rates of imprisonment and determined to change it. The Finns set out policies to change how their system worked without any consequent increase in crime at all. On the contrary, as with us, crime went down. Then they found that prison rates were drifting up again. When we were in Finland recently, we found that they were having to make efforts to ensure that their intention of keeping custody for those for whom it was the most appropriate and necessary measure was reinforced. That was partly because of financial considerations. Money was going to be pulled into custody provision that they really needed for measures that reduced crime more effectively and in a more proven way.

I do not believe that Britain is so fundamentally different. What is different is the public debate. That is what we have to change. The public are rightly concerned about crime. They are also concerned about the signal that sentences give. That debate is much fuelled by newspaper accounts of particular cases. We can all be concerned and perhaps even annoyed when we see a sentence that, relative to others, looks as though it is not taking an offence sufficiently seriously or which leads one to feel that an offender has got off lightly, having done something pretty dreadful.

The public see sentencing as a signal. However, if we use sentencing only as a signal, we will be using a very ineffective signal. Signals are meant to work. Signals on railway lines are meant to stop trains, not just to give the impression that someone is doing something. The signal that matters is the one that stops people committing crimes. Much as we might like to believe that the threat of being locked up for quite a long time stops people committing crimes, all the evidence is to the contrary. We have to find more effective methods.

The Committee’s report challenges the Government to have that fundamental discussion, rather than being pushed along by a strategy that arose at least in part from a faulty report with insufficient evidence on which to base its conclusions. We therefore hope that the Government will not feel it necessary to be defensive in reacting to what we are saying to them, but will recognise that that debate is necessary.

2.58 pm

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to have this debate under your strict but benign chairmanship, Mr. Key. The Committee, in preparing the report, has demonstrated not only that we are collectively a critical friend to Ministers, but that it is a Committee packed with optimists. As evidence of that, the last sentence of our conclusion says:

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That is a state that we ought to aspire to. It is important for us to ask the purpose of the criminal justice system. There is an opportunity for that question to be answered by saying that the purpose of the criminal justice system must be to cut crime and reduce reoffending. In that context, I hope that Ministers will seriously consider the sentencing council allowed for in the Coroners and Justice Bill—which is being discussed in the Public Bill Committee of which I am also a member—playing a significant role in holding the criminal justice system to the purpose of reducing offending and reoffending. It would be possible to build that into the Bill while it is passing through the House, but having seen the evidence so far, I worry that the discussion will tend to focus mainly on resources and prison numbers. As the Committee’s report states, resources and capacity planning are important, but they should be considered to see how they can serve the purpose of the criminal justice system, rather than themselves becoming the purpose of the system. My answer is close to that given a few moments ago by the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith).

The Committee heard interesting evidence from Victim Support, which was asked what victims really wanted from the criminal justice system, and the answer, other than for the criminal event not to have happened in the first place, was for it not to happen again. It seems to me that to respond to the concerns of victims, reducing reoffending rather than becoming ever more punitive has to be the right answer, and that answer will be pursued only if there is genuine unanimity across the political parties and across an adequate national debate. Again, it seems to me that the sentencing council might be a suitable vehicle to lead that debate.

There is a danger, however, because the sentencing council will be dominated by lawyers, and specifically by judges—I think that was intended as a reassurance, but I do not find it reassuring at all. Legislators and lawyers need to bear in mind Gibbon’s advice that laws rarely prevent what they forbid. In the discussions this morning in the Public Bill Committee, I asked how we could ensure that the sentencing council’s guidance is driven by consideration of what works and what will be effective in cutting offending and reoffending, rather than being driven only by the court-based experience of its members or tempered by considerations of resource issues.

The most optimistic of the witnesses suggested that one of the non-judicial members of the sentencing council should perhaps have experience in rehabilitation. There is some encouragement in the fact that the council will have the capacity for examining data and bringing forward evidence on effectiveness, but I am not yet satisfied that that will be the key driver. Effectiveness in sentencing must surely be the prime consideration, and the whole direction and ethos of the council must be to drive answers based on the question, “What works?”

Sir Alan Beith: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and pleased that he is a member of that Public Bill Committee and is doing very good work on that issue. Quite by accident, I omitted to mention the sentencing council’s relationship to Parliament. There were those who thought that Parliament should vote on the council’s proposals, but theirs was the minority view in the working group. I hope that the Minister, when winding up, will give some thought to how Parliament and the Justice Committee can play a role in that, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will also wish to refer to that.

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Alun Michael: The right hon. Gentleman makes some powerful points. Indeed, the point I endorse strongly is that Parliament must call the sentencing council to account in its role in driving the criminal justice system in a direction that feeds the main objective of reducing offending and reoffending. That also applies to other aspects of the criminal justice system. Anyone who has made a complaint about the criminal justice system in general or any part of it will know how difficult it is to penetrate its complexity and dark recesses. For example, if a witness or victim wishes to make a complaint, they will find that about 10 agencies and organisations have a part in that machinery—some of them seem to be moving parts as one tries to hold them to account—and each has a different way of receiving and dealing with complaints. Indeed, many of them merely make a complaint to the person who has made the decision or undertaken the work in the first place. That is unrealistic, because complainants who are not used to the criminal justice system, including most victims and witnesses, are unlikely to know how the bits fit together.

There are many circumstances in which it is not clear whether a failing, if there is one, or an alleged failing that needs to be investigated is the fault of the police in their preparation of evidence, of the Crown Prosecution Service in considering how to use the evidence it was provided with by the police, or of the court in the way the case is heard. Basically, most people who have complaints or want to hold the system to account neither know nor care how the whole system works. It is absolutely right that there should be systems of complaint for different elements within the system, and that is fine if the complainant knows exactly what or whom they want to make a complaint about, but I suggest to the Government that victims and witnesses need one point of complaint where their hand will be held.

I wonder whether the victims and witnesses commissioner might be given a role to take complaints from victims and witnesses and co-ordinate the responses. In other words, the role of the commissioner would be not necessarily to undertake those investigations but to ensure that those complaints processes—whether there are one, two or three because of overlapping issues—deal with the complaint adequately, looking at it from the viewpoint of the individual witness or victim rather than merely operating within the silos of their own organisational structures. There is a lot in the report that I hope the Government will not only take on board in the formal response, but incorporate in how they take matters forward.

The question of community sentences has come up time after time in our discussions, and it is quite clear, as we state in paragraph 30 of the report’s recommendations, that the

That is one of the factors that have led to implications for resources and prison numbers. The Committee’s conclusion was that

Again, that takes us back to a much more focused approach based on evidence of what works. The appropriateness must be what is appropriate to prevent
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a repetition of the offending as well as what is seen as being just and fitting for the offence. The report suggests that the Government

I think that the Committee is making a useful and helpful suggestion, which I hope Ministers will take on board.

The report also states:

We really need to take that to heart, because there is considerable evidence to suggest that sentencers do not have enough confidence in or knowledge of community sentences.

The Committee heard from Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers towards the end of his period as Lord Chief Justice; he said there was a lack of confidence in and knowledge of community sentences. Work has been funded by the Esme Fairburn Trust to take judges to see community sentences in action, and I suggest to Ministers that that should be made universal. If we are to tackle those issues, we need a drive towards judges and magistrates having better knowledge of the sentences that are available to them and how effective they can be.

Paragraphs 37 and 38 of the report also encourage learning from local projects based on the joined-up provision of services, particularly in relation to the mental health and drug treatment issues that are so closely tied to offending behaviour, as we have heard from virtually every one of our witnesses.

Finally, I want to mention the Youth Justice Board and other youth justice groups. In paragraph 61, the Committee wrote:

for offenders. We continued:

The joined-up work of the youth offending teams and the Youth Justice Board has met with considerable success in the 10 years since the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, for which I was responsible as a Home Office Minister—so perhaps I am partial. Genuinely, though, I think that it has driven joined-up working where working was not joined up before. However, perhaps we need to consider the next age group up—17 to 23-year-olds—to build on that joined-up approach. Perhaps we could deliver in that age group as well. Those key young offending age groups need to be tackled successfully if we are to succeed in what must be the aim of the criminal justice system as a whole: cutting offending and reoffending, which is explicitly said to be the objective of the youth justice system, but not of the whole criminal justice system.

3.11 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I am pleased to address a few remarks to the Justice Committee’s report. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said, one of its central themes was the
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question, arising from the Carter review, of how to deal with the rise of the prison population. It also addressed a number of other issues, which to some extent revolve around the central observations in the Carter review. That review extrapolated prisoner numbers and considered ways in which additional prison resources could be provided. In doing so, it discussed the question whether titan prisons could do that.

The report did not address—perhaps it was not in its brief—the central question of why the prison population has risen to such an extent. The Committee might have been rather mild in its comments on that question. It recorded:

The Government response started robustly with the words:

In many ways that was well said, and much can be said positively about a Government under whom crime has been cut to such an extent. However, setting that against the rise in the prison population suggests an immediate contradiction. For example, between 1995 and the present day, the prison population rose at a startling rate, almost to the extent that a graph of prison populations since 1945 looks similar to that for climate change—the climate was growing a little warmer, but suddenly heated up considerably over the past 12 or so years.

Everybody present will be aware of the problem of false correlations—for example, of correlating an increase in birth numbers with the number of storks seen on chimneys. There is no correlation between climate change and the rising prison population. However, one can draw clearer correlations. Perhaps, therefore, the Committee’s report could have begun, “Wow, look at those rises in prison numbers. They’re amazing. What’s going on?” I appreciate that that would not be Select Committee language, but it is the sort of realm that we are talking about in terms of the rising prison numbers. Between 1995 and 2007, prison numbers have effectively doubled—up about 30,000.

What are the main factors in the rising prison population? Have more people been found guilty in the courts? As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned, the answer is no. Those numbers had been roughly stable—2 million in 1996, 1.71 million in 2006. In 1995, 258,000 people were found guilty for indictable offences and in 2006 the figure was 254,000. It is not that there are a lot more people going to prison as a result of sentences passed by courts. Some members of the public will say, “It is a great success that prison numbers have doubled, because it means that double the number of criminals are banged up,” but others might say, “Well, that is a Government failure, because there should be double again. We should put them away for a very long time.” Our duty is to dig into the causes of the increase, which will have a correlative effect on guiding our discussions. Indeed, that is what happened in the Committee’s report on sentencing policy and associated considerations.

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