Previous Section Index Home Page

27 Apr 2009 : Column 571

I have already set out the situation for new-build prisons. Five existing prisons have previously been subject to competition. Of those, Manchester, Buckley Hall and Blakenhurst are run by the public sector, and Doncaster and Wolds are run by the private sector. Each will be subject to a new competition as their current contracts end. Blakenhurst now forms part of HMP Hewell, so we will put the Hewell cluster out to competition when the contract for Blakenhurst ends in August 2011. Two poorly performing public prisons will be market-tested this year—Birmingham and Wellingborough. Public, private and third-sector providers will all be invited to bid in respect of those market tests.

It is against a background of greatly increased real-terms budgets that the probation service is being asked to make some savings of low percentages this year and thereafter. Detailed analyses show that, historically, the work load and resources of probation areas have not necessarily been well matched—especially when measured against convictions, the key determinant of work load. So, we now seek to target resources better to match needs. We want to be clearer about the service that probation should deliver, to reduce administration costs and rigorously to manage contracts.

The probation trusts programme gives areas greater control over budgets and enables the private and third sectors to provide more services. If probation boards fail to become trusts, then from 2010 options will include amalgamation into existing trusts or being put to competition in the open market. Probation court services will remain with the public sector, as required by the Offender Management Act 2007. Probation areas are now also required to review their services against a national “best value” framework. If services fail to meet the standards necessary, areas must improve performance or use competition to identify alternative providers. As the first services to be reviewed in 2009, at least 25 per cent. of community payback and victim contact services will be subject to competition in this open market.

As I have already reminded the House, since 1997 we have provided nearly 25,000 places to accommodate the most serious, dangerous and persistent offenders; and we are committed to bringing the total number of places up to 96,000 by 2014—just five years away. Over the past decade, prison conditions have been transformed. As Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons has acknowledged, prisons today are more decent, more constructive and considerably more secure. They are places both of punishment and reform. The measures I have announced today for expanding and modernising the prison estate, and for the management of prisons and probation, will allow us to realise still further improvements to public protection and reoffending, with maximum benefit for the tax-paying public. I commend this statement to the House.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I thank the Justice Secretary for advance sight of his statement. I join him in paying tribute to the service and commitment of prison and probation staff, and police and emergency services, under such challenging conditions. May I therefore express my disappointment that once again he has trailed a major policy announcement in the weekend press, with the Government’s usual disdain for this House?

27 Apr 2009 : Column 572

I should say at the outset that I welcome the Government’s U-turn on Titan prisons; giant warehouses are no good for reforming prisoners or for protecting the public. However, the Justice Secretary first announced Titans amid great fanfare in 2007. Why has it taken almost two years to work out what Opposition parties, the chief inspector of prisons, the voluntary sector and prison officers told him then? Is it because the Government ran out of money, or because the policy ran out of spin? The stark reality is that this U-turn is the nail in the coffin of a flawed approach to tackling crime.

Violent crime has nearly doubled under Labour, with Ministers advised to expect a further surge during this recession. The Justice Secretary has released more than 50,000 prisoners early, including 14 violent offenders every day, to grossly inadequate aftercare; and we have seen Ashwell prison virtually destroyed in a riot. Does he now at last accept that these systematic failures are the direct result of his Government failing both to provide enough prisons and to provide the right prison regime? Take prison numbers; more than half of prisons are overcrowded, and 70 per cent. of prisoners are in overcrowded cells; and on top of early release, dangerous offenders have been moved to open prisons to create space. We now face the possibility of serious unrest, with prisons bursting at the seams. Can he tell the House whether he received any warning from the Prison Service of the riot at Ashwell before it took place? Has he received any further warnings of possible unrest elsewhere?

The current crisis is a direct result of reckless neglect by Ministers. Many will suspect that the sudden conversion over Titans is really just cover to delay or dilute the Government’s pledge to provide the additional 15,000 places that we need, net, by 2014. Ministry of Justice officials advised only last year that 15 prisons would be needed to match the capacity otherwise provided by Titans, but the Justice Secretary is now proposing just five. Will these be mini-Titans, or is he reneging on his pledge to provide the extra places that we need within the timetable that his officials have said is necessary? We will look carefully at the particular sites that he now proposes. Can he explain what consultation process is under way for each site?

Then there are the costs. The Prison Service already faces a black hole of nearly £500 million. How will the Justice Secretary fund these proposals? He says that he intends to end early release. Well, he has said that before. When will it end, and does he recognise that nothing can make up for the failure to invest in the prison estate since he was first warned of the looming crisis more than a decade ago?

As I said, I welcome the abandonment of the Titan model in favour of smaller prisons, because we will never reform our prisons until we reform the poor regimes that are the direct result of overcrowding. However, these proposals are too little and too late. Can the Justice Secretary confirm that more than half of all prisoners now have serious drug addictions, but that fewer than 10 per cent. are on rehabilitation programmes? Can he confirm that vital programmes in work and skills have been shelved because of the overcrowding, and does he accept that far from a reduction in adult male reoffending from prison, as he claims, there has in fact been a rise in reoffending from 57 per cent. in 1996 to 65 per cent. in 2006, at which point the Government fiddled the figures rather than tackle the problem?

27 Apr 2009 : Column 573

Turning to probation, the Justice Secretary has, I think, announced cuts. Will he tell the House how many probation areas will see a reduction in their budget, and can he guarantee that public safety will not be compromised? Amid the disinformation and bluster, two things are now crystal clear. The Government are papering over the cracks of a prison crisis that is entirely of their own making and, as the author of that failure, the Justice Secretary appears incapable of providing a credible solution.

Mr. Straw: Let me respond to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s points. First, on leaks, I can tell him—if he had been in my Department, this would have been visible and palpable to him—that I did not appreciate the leaks that took place. But the last party and the last individuals in the country to complain about leaks should be the Opposition and their Front Benchers. They actively encourage leaking, and they need to bear that in mind. They want a culture of leaking, in which people are not loyal to the Government of the day. [Interruption.] Well, that is what he sought, and as one sows, as the good book says, so shall one reap.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked me why it has taken until now to alter the policy in respect of Titans—it has been altered, and I make no pretence that it has not been. Well, we had a consultation. Lord Carter of Coles was asked to produce a report, and he went away and produced it. I was attracted to his proposals; there was no dispute about that. I thought that large prisons, provided that they were divided into smaller units, would work and be cost-effective. On the face of it, the arithmetic was also very attractive. We had a consultation, and rather to my surprise there was overwhelming opposition to the proposals for very large prisons, not least because prisons had not been built on such a scale before. We had no experience of that, and experience abroad was, on the whole, not good. Yes, I did listen to people—I plead guilty to that. I have never had an ideological view in favour of 1,500 or 2,500-place prisons. I have a view in favour of prison expansion, but I happen to think that today’s proposals are the better way, and a number of prisons of the size that I have described already exist.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked me about an advance warning about Ashwell. No, we received no warnings, and neither did anybody in the Prison Service, so far as I know. Nor have we received any warnings about any impending difficulties inside prisons, although he would not expect me to go into any detail if we had. Riots and serious disturbances take place from time to time in prisons, but since he was trying to imply that things had got worse since 1997, I shall say that actually they have got a lot better on almost every measure. There is 10 times the investment in drug treatment. I will send him explanations of this, but there are much better reoffending rates than ever before. After a temporary period when the prisons were under very serious pressure, they are no longer “bursting at the seams”. The number of escapes has gone right down, to zero last year, and touch wood and please God that may continue. That can be compared with the early 1990s, when there were four escapes a week—so many that private offices did not bother to tell their Ministers, as they were seen as routine. Prisons are safer.

27 Apr 2009 : Column 574

On probation, we already told the probation services about some reductions in their budgets for the current year, but that budget was over their budget for last year. Since those services have underspent by getting on for £30 million, there will, in practice, be no cuts to budgets for this year.

The hon. and learned Gentleman may wriggle, but the Conservative Government established a measure, which they said was the best measure of crime rates—the British crime survey. The Conservatives admitted that, according to the British crime survey, crime had gone up by 50 per cent. between 1981 and 1997. According to the same measure—theirs—it has gone down by 39 per cent. since 1997. We are the first Government since the war to get crime down and we are proud of it.

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, especially his commitment to dealing more sensitively than through the normal Prison Service with vulnerable women, and to addressing mental health issues. Far too many of our prisoners have a difficult background and end up with mental health issues.

I particularly want to ask my right hon. Friend about community payback. The public need to know that people who have offended are doing useful things in the community, and that that is one way in which we can begin to turn lives around, especially young offenders’ lives, so that they recognise not only the impact of their crime, but what they can give back. What proposals does he have to ensure that community payback genuinely works more effectively and that many more local people are properly involved?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her approval of what I have said. It is important that the public are better informed and involved in community payback. That is why we have introduced the high visibility jackets, which have gone down very well throughout the country, as a senior officer in the Lancashire probation service told me in Blackburn on Saturday. Even in areas where there is a bit of resistance, the public now see the point. We want the public to make proposals for the use of community payback schemes. At a residents’ meeting—again in the blessed borough of Blackburn—on Friday, exactly that proposal came up, so the point is getting through.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I also thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement—and for the advance warning I gained by listening to him on the “Today” programme. I also welcome the announcement that the extravagant and much-derided Titan programme has been abandoned, but I do not welcome much of the rest of the statement. How is building five very big—dare I say Promethean?—prisons instead of three enormous Titan ones any sort of change of direction? Raising the prison population to 96,000 is inherently the wrong policy, even if the right hon. Gentleman has found a slightly cheaper way of doing it—although he failed to tell us precisely how much cheaper, and I will press him on that.

By linking the fall in crime with the rising prison population, the Secretary of State seems again to claim that prison works, but will he not admit that crime rates have been falling since the mid-1990s in almost the
27 Apr 2009 : Column 575
whole of the western world—except, it seems, Belgium—regardless of whether countries have used prison more? In relative terms, Britain is in the same place now in the international league table of crime as it was then—in the top two. In comparative terms, the Government’s prison expansion policy has made absolutely no difference to crime.

Does the Secretary of State not recognise that the current financial conditions mean that the country can no longer afford that sort of posturing? As the Prison Reform Trust pointed out, we already spend an astonishing 2.5 per cent. of our gross domestic product on criminal justice. We now need to concentrate all our resources ruthlessly on what works to prevent reoffending and to prevent crime. We know that short-term prison sentences do not work. Three quarters of all young offenders reoffend within a year.

Will the Justice Secretary now admit that his own Department produces briefings that clearly indicate what does work? For example, alcohol and drug treatment in the community both work. They work on the one hand to reduce violent crime and, on the other, to reduce acquisitive crime. We also know that restorative justice works to reduce both. He should be retargeting the overstretched probation and prison resource budgets on what works, not tinkering with the details of how probation and prison are delivered.

The country can no longer afford to waste resources on policies, the only objective of which seems to be to curry short-term favour with tabloid editors. We would not allow tabloid editors to decide what sort of treatments should be used to prevent swine flu, so why should we allow them to decide what works to reduce crime? The game of punitive leap-frog between the Labour and Conservative parties is an expensive indulgence that the country should no longer tolerate.

Mr. Straw: I note what the hon. Gentleman has said and I now look forward to every Liberal Democrat “Focus” leaflet across the country declaring the consequence of that policy, which is that dangerous and violent offenders and persistent drug dealers will no longer be sent to prison. As for crime rates, perhaps he will also ensure that not a single author of a “Focus” leaflet will ever claim credit for getting crime down in his or her area or criticise a Labour or Conservative council for some failure in the other direction.

Frankly, the hon. Gentleman’s remarks were waffle from beginning to end. What we know is this: of course it is true—there is almost a consensus on it in the House—that where possible, offenders should not be sent to prison. That is why we have put large sums of additional money into the probation service, including £40 million recently, to help the courts divert persistent offenders away from prison. The number of short-term prisoners has been going down. It is the serious offenders who are going to jail—the ones whom the hon. Gentleman seems to want to release.

As for crime rates, all I can say is that there is a relationship between central Government and local government policies and whether crime goes up or down. That is, without question, the reality. The political choices that the public make about crime and law-and- order policies make a difference to whether their streets are safe or not.

27 Apr 2009 : Column 576

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I know that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), as the Chairman of the Select Committee on Justice, would have liked to be here, were it physically possible, in order to respond to today’s statement on behalf of the Committee. As a member of the Committee, may I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision not to proceed with Titan prisons? I also welcome his reference to the drop in the number of young offenders held in custody and his intentions in relation to both the Corston report and prisoners with mental health issues. I must inform the House that the Committee found the report by Lord Carter deeply unconvincing.

Members will read today’s statement and documents with great interest, but my right hon. Friend will be the first person to acknowledge that the devil is in the detail. Will he undertake to continue to listen and respond to concerns from the Committee, not least on the need to invest in community sentencing and restorative justice, to make investments that work in cutting reoffending and, in particular, to get the judges to understand the value of such sentences? Will he also undertake to listen to what the Committee has to say about justice reinvestment and the work on the role of the prison officer that the Committee is engaged in?

Mr. Straw: The answer to all my right hon. Friend’s questions is yes. I am very committed to restorative justice, which has been a passion of mine for many years. In respect of the judiciary, it is worth both him and the House bearing in mind that the judiciary is committed to making use of alternatives to prison, but the criticism usually made of the judiciary is not that it is too hard on offenders, but that it is too soft. The judiciary is in a difficult position, as are all public policy makers.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that Boreham airfield was also on the list for consideration as a Titan prison? Can he assure me, for my constituents’ peace of mind, that Boreham airfield will not be proposed at a later date for consideration as a mini-Titan prison? Boreham would be totally unsuitable for that purpose and the people of Chelmsford would not accept it.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman will recognise that we have announced the two sites today, and a list was made public on Friday, in response to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), of the large number of sites that we have looked at. We have made relative assessments those sites. I cannot make a prediction for ever and a day, but we have announced two sites today and the one to which the hon. Gentleman referred is not one of them. I would add that it is improbable that we would build two prisons quite so close to each other on such different sites.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): According to a statement on page 125 of the Red Book, published last week,

yet the Secretary of State seems to have been saying something rather different this afternoon. He mentioned a couple of new-build public sector prisons. If he is
27 Apr 2009 : Column 577
moving away from all-private-sector new build, I would very much welcome that, given the lack of evidence that such developments are cost-effective or that the private sector runs those prisons efficiently. Will he clarify the position, and will he also confirm that the five existing prisons that to go out to competition will be open to competition from the public sector as well as the private sector?

Mr. Straw: The answer to my hon. Friend’s last question is an emphatic yes; they will be open to competition from the public and private sectors—and, indeed, from the third sector. So, too, will the two prisons—at Birmingham and Wellingborough—that are to be market-tested. I very much hope that prison officers and the public sector will put in a bid. As for the cost-effectiveness of the private sector, on page 7 of the capacity document that we have issued my hon. Friend will see a reference to the cost-effectiveness benefits that have resulted from having part of the service in the private sector. What was in the small print in the Red Book is fully consistent with what I have said. Should there be any doubt about it, what I have said is the truth.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): May I ask the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor whether it is still the intention to build a prison for 1,600 inmates adjacent to Featherstone and Brinsford in my constituency? If that is still the intention—the application has gone in from his Department—will he give me an assurance that it will be a public prison, not a private one?

Mr. Straw: The answer is yes to the hon. Gentleman’s first question. That is still our intention. The answer to his second question is that I cannot give him that commitment because no final decisions have been made.

Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is well aware that my constituents want the Omega site in Warrington to develop as a high-quality business park containing quality offices, new technology manufacturing and associated hotels and retail premises. Will he assure us that his statement today that the Department is not seeking to locate a prison on the Omega site will hold for now and for the future?

Mr. Straw: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. As far as this Government are concerned, that is an absolute guarantee. We have, and will have, no plans for a prison on that site. We cannot say that about everywhere, but one of the compelling arguments that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) have advanced is that Warrington already has two prisons—Thorn Cross and Risley. We also took into account the attractions of that particular site.

Next Section Index Home Page