Previous Section Index Home Page

5 Feb 2009 : Column 317WH—continued

I hope that the Minister will give us some assurance that that comment will be embedded in the Department’s thinking about the way ahead. I know that the Department has been restructured and is no longer the same Department as before, the Home Office. However, I was very struck by the fact that the Home Office managed to produce 13 Bills in one parliamentary Session, one of which was revoking parts of a previous Bill that had never been implemented. Leaving aside the political knockabout, I hope that some of the serious comments made by the members of the judiciary who presented evidence to the Justice Committee on the point of resources will be taken seriously.

5 Feb 2009 : Column 318WH

I want to focus on a few specific points in the Committee’s report, one of which is imprisonment for public protection. That issue provides a master class in muddle. I must say that the Liberal Democrats welcome the Committee’s point that IPPs ought to be only a rare exception, but in fact, there are 10,000 IPP prisoners—or at least, that is the figure given in the Committee’s 2007 report—and it was predicted that that figure would rise constantly.

The answer that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) received to a parliamentary question recently showed that of those 10,000 prisoners—the figure is possibly 11,000 now—3,900 are in prison although they have gone beyond the end of their tariff. In other words, those prisoners have not been put to the Parole Board for possible release. Perhaps the Minister can help me on this issue, but as far as I can tell that is because they have not been able to complete their required courses in time. Surely that cannot be right. The Justice Committee’s report says that the IPP has led to people being kept in jail simply because the programmes they need to complete have not been put in place.

I take a personal interest in this issue because I have two constituents who are in exactly that position. In December, I raised the case of one of them, Mr. W, with the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), who is the Minister with responsibility for prisons. At that time, I quoted a figure of 800 people being stuck in that position, because I wrongly thought that that was the right figure. However, we know now that the correct figure is 3,900 prisoners, and two of them are my constituents.

I have been taking up this issue for nearly 18 months now. My constituent, Mr. W, was due to go to the Parole Board in May 2008, but he still has not done the required course. There are all sorts of paradoxes in the system, which are spelled out in the report. Because Mr. W is a law-abiding individual—people may think that he is not, but within the prison environment he has been law-abiding—he is therefore in the lowest-security prison, and therefore in a prison where the courses that he needs to take are never available. Paradoxically, if he gave one of the prison officers a bit of a slapping, he would go to a high-security prison where he could take the course, except that he would not be eligible for it because he had caused trouble in the prison system. It is a total Catch-22.

Following the question that I put in December, I wrote to the Minister with responsibility for prisons. Six weeks later, I am still waiting for a reply. My suggestion in the letter was that those prisoners caught in the trap between the 2003 and 2008 legislation should be brought very quickly indeed within the provisions of the latter, so that they are not put in a worse position than those who come before them or those who come after.

I hope that the Minister can say how many of those 3,900 people who are still in prison beyond their tariff date are there because they cannot access the courses they need to take, and how many are there because they cannot access the Parole Board, even though they have done their courses. The Committee’s report makes the point that the Parole Board itself is seriously overstretched as a result of the extra work it has to do. Indeed, I noted that the Committee heard evidence that, for the Parole Board to function in the current environment, it was estimated that it would need an extra 100 judges; that is
5 Feb 2009 : Column 319WH
an extra 100 judges not for court cases, but for the Parole Board. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that estimate.

Linked to that issue is the fact, which emerged during the Committee’s inquiry, that there is a lack of centrally available data about the tariff situation. It seems strange that we know how many people are in prison, but we do not know how long they are in prison for. In a situation where resources are clearly very tightly constrained and stretched in all sorts of directions, the usual way of dealing with it is to reduce the demand. Oddly, however, in the case of prisons and prisoners—it is particularly evident with IPP prisoners—because we are short of resources, there is actually an increase in demand on the Prison Service, with those prisoners being kept in prison and not being able to get out.

The Chairman of the Justice Committee, along with other speakers in this debate, has drawn attention to the Committee’s criticism of another aspect of public policy. It is what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test steered away from calling “predict and provide”. He said that the policy was worse than “predict and provide”, because there was not even a proper prediction to go with the policy.

I understood that the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor had acknowledged that building more prisons was not the right answer or the right way to go. However, with the publication of the Carter report and its various deficiencies, the Government appear to have reversed their view on that issue. I hope that the Minister can be a little more positive than the rather bland words that appear in the Government’s response to the Committee’s report. In fact, they are bland and perhaps rather arrogant words, which just dismiss the Committee’s criticism on that matter.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North spoke eloquently about vulnerable people in prison. In particular, she mentioned the difficulties of those prisoners with mental health problems. The Committee says that nine out of 10 prisoners have a mental health problem and seven out of 10 have two or more mental health problems. The Committee’s report certainly backs the Liberal Democrat view, which is the view of many experts, that prison is the wrong place for many people who have a mental illness. The need for extra community resourcing is clearly very strong, particularly in the case of those who are mentally ill.

I have already commented on the hon. Lady’s support for the Women’s Turnaround Project in Cardiff. We clearly need a joined-up approach for dealing with women prisoners and women offenders throughout the system.

In his presentation of the report, the Chairman of the Committee drew the House’s attention to the weakness of short-term custodial sentencing. In this country, we seem to have a see-saw sentencing policy, which means that the Government are caught between a tabloid “hard place” on the one hand and the cold “rock” of reality on the other. Short prison sentences make the situation worse because they do not give time for prisoners to be rehabilitated, but they certainly give them time to learn how to do the crime better next time. Prison, as a crime school, works best for those on short sentences—there is plenty of evidence to support that.

I hope that the Minister will pick up on the broader points that have been made about community sentences.
5 Feb 2009 : Column 320WH
When resources are short and there is a drift towards an increasingly severe sentencing regime, money gets sucked out of community sentencing and into the prison system. That means that schemes such as the hon. Lady’s in Cardiff, which costs peanuts in terms of the budgets of the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, struggle to get funding, or at least to be replicated across the country, because of the money being taken into the prison system.

Will the Minister comment on what the Committee’s report says about the hierarchy of responses to convictions, in relation to sentencing, having been inflated in the past few years? There is evidence that people who would previously have been fined are now getting community sentences, whereas those who would have got community sentences are now getting suspended sentences and those who might have got away with a suspended sentence, so to speak, are now going to prison. Is that not one reason why we are in the trouble we are now in? Should there not be a reinvestment at that lower level of community sentences, suspended sentences and the custody plus option that has been mentioned today?

The Government’s response to the report is inadequate and complacent in places. Yes, it does accept some of the recommendations, but, equally, it has either bypassed or rejected completely some of the central ones. The Government say that they have a

There has certainly been a reduction in reported crime, but as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test has shown, there has not been a reduction in the number of people who have been convicted of offences. As the Committee’s evidence shows, there has not been a significant reduction in reoffending either. That is all there in detail.

Public support for community sentencing—or tabloid support for it, as a proxy—depends strongly on the perception that it is effective and is properly organised and supervised. In that regard, I want to discuss the probation service, which has not been mentioned so far, and which forms part of what the Committee has had to report on. Actually, I apologise to the Chairman of the Committee because I distinctly recall that he did mention it, so I withdraw that remark. The probation service is pivotal to ensuring that community sentencing works effectively, and an increase in resources has to lead to an increase in effectiveness on the ground. I hope that the Minister will respond to what the Chairman has said, and to my comments, and that he will reassure us that any additional funding for the probation service will be targeted at making sure that there is effective management and monitoring of such schemes, and that we will have a well-resourced probation service for the future.

I want to hear from the Government that they are going to take vigorous steps with the backlog of IPP courses—and, incidentally, that I will get an answer to my letter of last December. I should like to hear a more positive acknowledgment of the value of the report than appears in the Government’s printed response, which describes its central contention as being “untrue”. I should also like to hear a strong commitment to the proper funding of community sentences in future. Finally, I should like there to be a focus on developing a range of sentencing policies that will make a better job of
5 Feb 2009 : Column 321WH
doing what the Government say they want to do, whichis to punish the guilty and deter the tempted, while protecting the innocent and reforming the offender, thereby building a safer society for us all.

4.5 pm

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. I welcome the contributions of the Justice Committee and its Chairman, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), to this important issue, which affects us all in Parliament—increasingly so given the number of Bills dealing with effective sentencing that have come before us. It also affects our work in our constituencies, where we might deal with victims. The point has been made today that effective sentencing is also of keen concern to victims as it will, in its drive to prevent reoffending, prevent people from being affected by crime in the future and therefore becoming victims.

The debate is timely, and concerns an issue in which I must declare an interest as a practising criminal solicitor. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) said that he is not reassured by the membership of lawyers on the sentencing council. Nevertheless, I hope that he gets some reassurance in this debate, and that my input is helpful, as I have some experience in this matter, not only regarding the issues that we have been discussing, but in terms of Sir Igor Judge’s quote about the amount of legislation to be considered. I have certainly had to deal with such legislation as a practitioner.

Alun Michael: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that some of my best friends are solicitors, and that I have a great deal of respect for the profession. My concern about the sentencing council is that if it is dominated by such people, particularly judges, there is a danger that it will come to the misapprehension that what happens in court is the reality, whereas there is often a need to temper one’s knowledge of what happens in court with what happens afterwards. I certainly learned that as a magistrate, when I found that youngsters, despite the absolute clarity with which I delivered a sentence, had not totally understood what it was all about.

Mr. Burrowes: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention, although I am not completely reassured when one uses the “my best friend is” argument, as it is often a cover for criticising that group of people. Nevertheless, I take his point about experience. Despite my experience, I do not seek a monopoly on this issue, and I think that we need to hear from those at the sharp end of sentencing and criminal justice system issues.

As a practitioner, when I am to contribute to debates on this issue, I often cast my mind back to times at youth court—I have often frequented the youth court for Enfield and Haringey—where I have spent a lot of time asking for adjournments when practitioners, learned clerks and magistrates have been flummoxed by which legislation they should deal with when sentencing young offenders. We have sought to straddle legislation going
5 Feb 2009 : Column 322WH
back for decades to try to work out which legislation had been implemented and which affected the relevant individual. It is important that we, and the Public Bill Committee that is considering the Coroners and Justice Bill, reflect on the past, and the Justice Committee’s report, as well as looking to the future.

The report is entitled, “Towards Effective Sentencing”, but I wonder whether any consideration was given to what we mean by effective sentencing. Certainly, there are important and effective pillars of sentencing—whether they are punishment, reparation, rehabilitation or work—that must figure in custodial or non-custodial sentences. Different people who are affected by the criminal justice system have a different answer to the problem—for example, if we consider what we hear from victims, they would have their own answer to what is effective.

It is important particularly to focus on victims in relation to the criminal justice system, and I am sure that the Committee would wish to do that—perhaps in a separate inquiry. However, I also question whether it would have been appropriate to do so in this inquiry—although it is understandable that that was not the case because there is only so much one can cover. The inquiry sought to traverse a number of fields that, even in the time we have today, we will not be able to cover in sufficient detail.

Nevertheless, the impact on victims is of key concern, and the Government have sought to improve matters surrounding that—whether in terms of victim impact statements, victim advocates, or other proposals that the Committee on the Coroners and Justice Bill is considering, such as having a victims commissioner. All those matters need proper scrutiny. Certainly we, as an Opposition, are concerned that although the Government have talked about victims and rebalancing the system, which sounds good in headlines, the reality for victims going through system is that they often feel let down. Perhaps we can leave that issue until the debate on the Coroners and Justice Bill, when we can raise those matters further.

Sir Alan Beith: I would like to give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that we did, indeed, see victims’ representatives—in fact, we were doing so only yesterday. One of things we found in the evidence we received for the report was that those victims—inevitably it is only a limited number—who were happy to go into restorative justice schemes, which involve victims confronting those who have committed a crime against them, tend to be particularly satisfied with the outcome. I emphasise that although it is only a small proportion of victims who can do that, it shows that it should not always be assumed that victims favour the most retributive form of dealing with an offender.

Mr. Burrowes: I am grateful for that intervention. The whole area of restorative justice has much to commend it, and it is perhaps one area of the justice system that has been the most piloted and reported on in an attempt to find the evidence that would justify it being extended. There has been reference to restorative justice, in past debates and Bill debates tand one concern is that such evaluations often try to find the jewel that we all want to find: what would reduce offending? That is what is often sought in terms of restorative justice, but I go further and think that it must play a key part in dealing with this issue—beyond simply seeing it as a mechanism to
5 Feb 2009 : Column 323WH
reduce offending. As a principle of restoration and reparation, restorative justice should be properly recognised in the system.

Reference has been made to the issue of reoffending and seeking to reduce it. The statistics make stark reading and impact severely on all our communities. There is an estimate—it has to be an estimate in many ways—of 65 per cent. reconvictions. I make that point because it is only in relation to the reconvictions about which we know that we are able to say that 65 per cent. of adults are reoffending. What is the figure in terms of actual reoffending—in other words, those who do not get to the criminal justice system?

The point has also been made that reoffending sadly increases when the offender is younger—the figure is 75 per cent. of 18-to-21 year olds and is even higher for those under 18. Therefore, the matter is of real concern to us all. Although the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth no doubt seeks to take some credit for being an architect of the Youth Justice Board and system, and I welcome the improvements in streamlining the service provided by youth offending teams, there is a concern about the high level of reoffending, particularly in relation to young offenders. More needs to be done to address that.

We all unite in relation to the importance of focusing on driving down reoffending rates; doing so is important and we need to go beyond simply reacting to the high-level prison population and resources. The report makes the point well that that issue seems to dominate the Government’s thinking and consideration. Indeed, it is an area on which I want to focus shortly, when we consider how the Government think future sentencing will operate by way of the sentencing council.

As the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth said, it is important to look at what works. As the Committee rightly said, the reality is that we do not really know what works because the evidence base is sadly lacking. One could talk to those who are at the sharp-end of the system or ask the youth offending teams, “What really works in terms of the programmes you are doing.” However, although there might be very good programmes that anecdotally seem to produce results, there is no clear evaluation to show exactly what works in terms of reducing reoffending. If one goes to the youth court and speaks to magistrates, they might have an idea, but they do not exactly know whether the sentences they impose have the effect that they hope for. Certainly, improving the involvement of such people in the reviews of sentencing and providing more information would help. However, it is important to recognise that there is a lack of real evaluation and evidence out there.

Similarly, if one visits—as I have—secure training centres, secure children’s homes and young offender institutes, one can see that there is much good work taking place in various institutions. However, beyond the doors of those places, little is known about what happens to a young offender outside, what the true impact of what has happened inside is and how that has affected life outside in resettlement. Perhaps we can all agree that there is often a lack of resettlement programmes and continuity with what has happened inside.

Next Section Index Home Page