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22 Feb 2010 : Column 29

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I thank the Justice Secretary for allowing me advance sight of his statement.

Conservative Members have been calling for an end to the Government's reckless early release scheme for some time. In principle, therefore, the statement is welcome, but, as always with this Government, it is necessary to check the fine print. The House will recall that the introduction of the early release scheme was a direct result of the present Prime Minister's failure. As Chancellor, he choked funding for the prison cells for which the Home Secretary had asked to provide the capacity that was required to meet official projections for the prison population. The consequence of that failure has been stark. Eighty thousand criminals were let out of jail early, including 15,000 violent offenders and two terrorists, and those released went on to commit 1,500 crimes, including several rape and murder offences.

Given that record, it is vital to bring the scheme to a close by providing the cells that are needed to house the prisoners and protect the public; yet, over the past six months, the Justice Secretary has shelved plans for a prison in north Wales and, more recently, for one in Dagenham. That leaves a gaping hole in the Government's plans. Can the Justice Secretary confirm that, according to the Government's own projections-taking account of planned increases in capacity-the prison population will still exceed operational capacity by July 2011? Those are his Department's projections. Can he please confirm them?

Not only do we have the Department's projections; I have personally received a letter complaining that the Justice Secretary has been warned by his own officials that the prison population will continue to rise without adequate capacity, and that that will create a crisis of overcrowding within two years. The Justice Secretary has a track record of ignoring Government legal advice. Can he say categorically that he has not received any official advice warning that ending early release cannot be sustained for more than a temporary period?

Today, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) has also released a written statement to the House, announcing a new contract that will promote the use of home detention curfews. The Minister is explicit. She says that the Government want

It seems that the Justice Secretary gives with one hand and takes with the other, or perhaps his right hand does not know what his left hand is doing. Can he confirm what that means and whether we will in fact have more early release under another label? Let there be no doubt that this party wants an end to early release, but it would compound the recklessness of the scheme to end it if that can only be done temporarily, or to reintroduce it under another name.

On 9 February, I asked the Minister of State whether the Government had plans to end early release. She denied such plans, stating that the Government would end early release

In less than two weeks, what has rendered possible what was then practically impossible? The timing of the end of the scheme, just weeks before an election is called,
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only increases our fears that the Government are acting out of political desperation and not in the national interest. Is the Justice Secretary talking tough on crime before the election because he certainly does not care a bit if the result is tough on us after it?

Mr. Straw: The Opposition need to work out whether they are in favour of or against our ending the scheme. Only on Saturday, the Leader of the Opposition said that he wanted to see an end to the early release scheme. I assume that he took advice from his shadow Justice Secretary about whether it would be safe to do so before he said that. The projections up to 2015 for the future operational capacity of prisons are public. I have been supplying the hon. and learned Gentleman with as much additional information as I can in recent weeks by way of answers to parliamentary questions.

I have of course taken advice, but this is my responsibility. I have made what I regard as the safe judgment that it is appropriate to end the scheme now. Ever since it was introduced, the Conservatives have been calling for it to end. Back in October 2007, the Opposition went so far as to issue a public statement saying that early release should be ended immediately. That would have been irresponsible, because the figures did not back it up. Every week, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) and I examine the figures, and some weeks ago we came to the conclusion that it probably would be safe to end this scheme and that there would be sufficient headroom, not just tomorrow but in the future. We now judge it appropriate to end the scheme.

As for the examination of the basis of these proposals, I will not disclose official advice. It would be a strange constitutional doctrine under which Ministers had to explain the official advice that they have received. I am perfectly happy, however, to ensure that the full facts are made available for examination by the Justice Committee, because I am entirely comfortable about the responsible nature of the projections that we have made.

As for the hon. and learned Gentleman's last point, which was frankly silly, when he spoke about so-called political desperation, the only desperation that I now see is that emanating from those on the Conservative Benches. Because the Opposition do not know what their policy is, and to the extent that they do know what it is, they change it-

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): Every week.

Mr. Straw: Almost every week. Or, because in the case of justice policy the Leader of the Opposition says that he wants to increase the prison population, whereas his shadow Justice Secretary says that he wants to cut the population to 44,000, it is no wonder that the Opposition are facing, and are in panic about, a fast-diminishing opinion poll lead. We have acted sensibly.

Let me make this last point about the problems that we had in the summer of 2007. They were nothing as compared with the problems that arose repeatedly during the 1980s and 1990s. Such problems can arise because the actual prison population can vary significantly. If the hon. and learned Gentleman looks at the latest population projections for 2014, he will see that they
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differ significantly even from the projections of a year or two years ago. However, I repeat to the House: I am clear that we are taking a sensible and responsible approach for the medium term.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I also thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement. However, I notice from the statement that he is still trying to claim that crime has fallen under this Government because of their prison expansion policy. The truth is that crime started to fall in 1995, not 1997, and that it has fallen in all western European countries apart from Belgium, whether or not they have gone in for a massive prison-building programme. Will he not concede that although the chances of becoming a victim of crime have fallen substantially, as he said, the chances of becoming a victim of crime in this country are still far higher than the European average, and higher than in all western European countries except one? That is not a successful policy; it is an expensive failure.

I welcome the end of the early release scheme, but the problem with the Secretary of State's statement is that he confirmed that the Government's policy is still to increase the prison population towards 100,000. An extra 10,000 prison places will mean about £400 million a year in running costs. We all know that some offenders have to be in prison, but we also know that there are non-custodial sentences-restorative justice is the best example-that are better at reducing reoffending. The cost of restorative justice for the whole country would be only about £60 million. Why can the Secretary of State not accept the conclusion of the Shapland review, which is that restorative justice would be better value for money? In an interview with The Times on becoming Secretary of State, the right hon. Gentleman said:

He was right then. What has changed now, apart from the looming election?

Let me take the Secretary of State through the detail of the figures. He said that the figures would allow headroom for a number of years, but they do not seem to fit with the figures that the Ministry of Justice gave the Prison Reform Trust last year. The prison population then was 111 per cent. of certified normal accommodation. Where, precisely, have the extra places come from? Is the Secretary of State just allowing more doubling up in cells, which is just another form of overcrowding?

I do not agree with the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that the end of the scheme will reduce crime by very much, because the crimes committed in those 18 days would probably be committed anyway, 18 days later. However, I accept that the end of the scheme will reduce risks, because it means that fewer prisoners will be released without proper supervision. However, is not the real problem the reoffending rate of all prisoners? Two thirds of prisoners are reconvicted within two years of release, while 75 per cent. of young prisoners are reconvicted in that time. Does the Secretary of State not accept that the real problem is not earlier or later release, but the fact that too many offenders reoffend in the first place, regardless of whether prisoners are released early?

Mr. Straw: I readily acknowledge that crime has fallen since 1995. It is my judgment that it began to fall because of the rather more coherent policies that
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were adopted towards the end of the Conservative Administration, including an increase in prison building, and it has continued to fall because of that. I do not claim-I never have done-that having more prison places is the only factor that has led to falling crime. There have been others-much more effective policing; neighbourhood policing; a wider range of powers to deal with persistent antisocial behaviour; and reform of the youth justice system, plus other measures in education and health-all of which have borne down on offending.

However, I believe that there is a connection between the fact that the prison population has risen and the fact that crime has fallen. The hon. Gentleman will know that, in his own constituency, there were persistent offenders who represented individual crime waves, and that when they were locked up, crime went down. If he does not believe that, I suggest that he go through the local newspaper or the court records, and then tell the Cambridge Evening News which of those offenders he believes would be better out on the streets than inside. He owes it to his constituents to let them know about that well before the date of any general election.

The hon. Gentleman has conceded that our victimisation levels are now lower than they have been since the British crime survey started in 1981. If he wishes to make a comparison, he will see from the Eurostat figures that our levels of recording of crimes of victimisation are significantly better than in many other areas, and that the levels are falling.

So far as restorative justice is concerned, yes, I am an enthusiast, but none of these measures is a panacea. Yes, we need to get reoffending rates down, and we have been doing so; they are falling. The rate for young offenders is down 20 per cent., and we have seen a significant drop in the number of youngsters coming into the youth justice system for the first time. That is one of the reasons why there is less pressure on the youth justice estate, and that is very welcome. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston has done great work in regard to women in prison, and their numbers have also gone down, not up.

Certified normal accommodation is nice to have, but the truth is that we cannot run an effective, efficient prison system by not having accommodation levels above CNA. All Administrations have used operational capacity, and we will continue to do so.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement today, including what he said about women prisoners and the mentally ill. I urge him to redouble the efforts of his Department to reduce offending and reoffending. If the example of violence reduction in Cardiff were followed right across England and Wales, would that not reduce the need for prison places and enable prisons to be used more effectively to reduce subsequent reoffending, as the Justice Select Committee has argued?

Mr. Straw: I strongly endorse what my right hon. Friend has said. This gives me an opportunity to commend the work of Professor Jonathan Shepherd in Cardiff. He has made a huge effort to cut down the incidence of violent crime in Cardiff, and also, when violent crime does take place, to reduce the injuries. His work has had a dramatic effect, and it should be studied and followed elsewhere in the country.

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Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The Secretary of State is right to end the early release scheme, which is not a sound or evidence-based policy, but should not he and those on the Opposition Front Bench also recognise that the prison population will always expand to fill the places available? Making those places available is an expensive process that pre-empts resources that need to be used to prevent people from getting involved in crime, and in the addictions and alcoholism that are the source of much crime, in the first place. Will he look carefully at the Justice Committee's report on justice reinvestment in that regard?

Mr. Straw: I will indeed look carefully at what the Justice Committee has said, and I hope to follow many of its recommendations. I am afraid, however, that I do not accept the basis of the right hon. Gentleman's statement that the prison population expands to fill the places available. For example, that has not been the experience in respect of women's prisons, which now have 800 spare places, thanks to the work of the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston on implementing the recommendations of the Corston review, with all-party support. That is very good. We are also reducing the number of mentally ill people in prison.

If the right hon. Gentleman cares to compare the latest prison population projections, which came out in August 2009, with those for the same years that were published in 2008 and 2007, he will see that-coincidentally with our increasing capacity-they have come down. Obviously, the closer we get to the end dates, the more reliable the projections are. I am pleased to reassure him that his central assertion is not borne out by the facts.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend expand a little more on his thoughts on restorative justice, which the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) mentioned earlier? I visited Canada a couple of years ago with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and I met the chief of police for Toronto. He has real enthusiasm for restorative justice, whereby the offender meets the victim and learns what damage he or she has done to the victim's life. Apparently, the reoffending rate in Toronto went down from about 80 per cent. to 35 per cent. as a result of that policy.

Mr. Straw: As I told the hon. Member for Cambridge, I am an enthusiast for restorative justice; I have seen it work. It is central to many of the non-custodial sentences available in the youth courts, and we are trying to extend it to the adult courts as well. Again, I should say that none of these proposals and measures will work in all circumstances. Restorative justice always requires the consent of the victim, without which it cannot take place. So far as its effectiveness is concerned, available assessments to date show that it does not necessarily have a significantly different effect on reoffending rates when compared with other disposals. It does, however, significantly increase the confidence of the victims; I regard that alone as a sufficient justification for it, but if we can get crime down as well, so much the better.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): We in Plaid Cymru welcome the end of the scheme, of which we were very critical. On the capacity issue, what progress is being made on the renewed search for a site for a new prison in north Wales?

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Mr. Straw: The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston has the happy task of finding another site, but I should tell the hon. Gentleman and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that finding sites is difficult-it always has been-because everybody says that they want more prison places unless and until it is suggested that such prison places be provided in their back yard, at which point they complain vocally. We looked at two sites in north Wales, one of which I judged to be really good, but the local community was not happy about it. Another site was judged to be less good, but we went for it. However, it has turned out not to be satisfactory, so we continue to look for a further site. A similar problem has arisen in Dagenham. Indeed, the only area in the country that has been willing to back its rhetorical calls for more prison places with pledges that sites will be found is east Lancashire, including the towns of Blackburn, Accrington, Burnley, Nelson and Colne.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I welcome what I think is a sensible and timely announcement, and I am sure that if there were more Members on the Opposition Benches, or indeed any Members on those Benches, they would do so, too. May I press my right hon. Friend a little further on what he said about the reduction of the women prison population and about some of the lessons that were clearly learned from that? Are there any things that he felt led to that reduction that could be actively transferred to the male prison population?

Mr. Straw: Yes, there are, but my hon. Friend has put me on the spot. I will have to write to her in some detail as the expert is in her place on my left. The key is about sentencer confidence. What we have managed to do-through the excellent work of the Corston report, followed by the excellent work of my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston and as a result of the all-party consensus in favour of reducing the women's prison population-is to build up sentencer confidence about the alternatives to prison. It is more straightforward with women prisoners, as many fewer women offenders who are potential candidates for custody have committed violent offences; whereas one of the principal reasons for jailing male prisoners is their propensity to violence. I will write to my hon. Friend with a better and more accurate answer.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The Justice Secretary is right to focus on public confidence, but he surely accepts that the public will not be truly confident until we genuinely and directly link prisoner early release with prisoner behaviour during their time as prisoners and the likelihood of them reoffending and being a danger to the public. Will the right hon. Gentleman work with me and others in the House to try to get honest sentencing at some time in the future?

Mr. Straw: I accept the hon. Gentleman's key point. One criticism we all had about this early release scheme- the end of custody licence-was that if prisoners fitted the criteria, they had to be released, because that was the only way to operate the scheme. Other systems of early release-for example, home detention curfew-are very much dependent on good behaviour in prison and outside, and they work effectively.

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On honesty in sentencing, which is a holy grail for all Administrations, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 requires sentences to spell out what they mean. Given that prisoners with determinate sentences serve a minimum of half the sentence, we could change the sentence denomination to say that when a four-year sentence is given, it would mean two to four years. We could put that into law. That may be sensible; indeed, that approach has been adopted for the indefinite sentence for public protection, where the tariff set is the minimum that has to be served. There is merit in that. However, it would not be sensible to imply that we were going to double the prison population, because there are not the places.

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