The Government's Approach to Crime Prevention - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 124-157)


19 JANUARY 2010

  Q124  Chairman: I welcome everyone to this evidence session of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. We are holding two sessions this morning: the first is about the government's approach to crime prevention and the second is about the DNA database. Mr Wheatley, thank you for coming to give evidence to us today. I start by asking you about re-offending rates. Have they gone up or down? Are you meeting the government's targets? How does this help with the overall approach to crime prevention?

Mr Wheatley: At the moment we are meeting the targets set for the agency. Since 2000 the rate of re-offending has dropped by 20.3% for adults, which is a reasonably substantial achievement. I also keep an eye on the older measure which compares actual with predicted re-offending on the basis of whether somebody re-offends in a year's follow-up period rather than the rate of re-offending. That is interesting from my point of view because you can predict the rate at which people will re-offend but you cannot predict the rate of re-offending. You might get low offending because you have dealt with lots of people who have a very low probability of offending, that is, the police have taken a lighter-weight group of offenders, whereas comparing it with the prediction means you can see whether you are adding value. Comparing it with prediction, the evidence shows that we are adding value. The best results are being seen with the longer sentenced prisoners where we can spend more time with them. Because they are serving longer sentences we can put in more effort. For the four years and over group in 2000 the actual re-offending rate was 23.4% and in 2007 it was 17.6%, so there was a real drop. The predicted rate was 25.1% in 2000. That rate had gone up; it was a heavier-weight group of offenders in 2007. Therefore, we are reducing offending on all measures and that rate of reduction in re-offending appears to relate to the rate at which we put in new resources.

  Q125  Chairman: The Committee is conducting this inquiry to examine the statement made by the former prime minister that the government would be tough on crime and the causes of it. For how many years have you been involved in this area of criminal justice?

  Mr Wheatley: Forty and a half years.

  Q126  Chairman: It may not be fact but I am seeking your opinions now. What do you say are the causes of crime?

  Mr Wheatley: Crime has not changed. Crime is tempting to lots of people. Obviously, many people are attracted to breaking the rules if they can gain from it. Most of us are restrained by moral training by our parents, schools and social contacts, in the sense that if you engage in crime it will be the end of your career and nobody will want to pay any attention to you. It would be a tremendous thing to do. If you are at the bottom of the heap where you lose a lot less by engaging in crime, particularly if you are surrounded by people who would be supportive of crime—it is what happens round there—the restraints are considerably less. The restraints are considerably less in a deterrent system if you are not very good at thinking ahead. All the Members of this Committee will be very good at thinking ahead. If you have a mental health problem you probably are not good at it. A lot of young people who are not brought up in very consistent homes are not taught to think and will have difficulty thinking ahead and crime flows from that.

  Q127  Chairman: As far as concerns our criminal justice system do you think we pay enough attention to causes rather than the consequences which you deal with in the National Offender Management Service? You deal with the end product; you cannot do anything about it once they get to you because they have already committed their crimes. Have we paid enough attention to dealing with the causes?

  Mr Wheatley: It is a very difficult question to answer. How do you deal with people who have offended? We could still do more. If somebody gave me more money I would spend it fruitfully in this area, but there is not endless money and I do not make that bid. It is obvious that resources are always constrained. As a society we have lots of choices. Some societies have very low crime rates, of which Singapore is a rather good example. It is organised in a quite different way from our society and it has a different culture with different policing and sentencing. The atmosphere of the place is wholly different. With the freedom we enjoy to make choices also comes the freedom to choose to commit crime. It is a difficult question for you as politicians rather than me.

  Q128  Bob Russell: Last week I witnessed a presentation of research undertaken by the University of Exeter. It indicated that the majority of people who entered prison at some stage in their lives had suffered an acquired brain injury. Are you aware of any evidence to that effect?

  Mr Wheatley: I have heard people make that statement but I have seen no consistent, hard evidence from sufficiently large samples to convince me that is the case. My position is based on scepticism rather than disbelief. Certainly, it is not something that I feel is right from what I have known in the past, and I have not seen evidence to suggest that is right.

  Q129  Bob Russell: Bearing in mind that the National Offender Management Service delivers a range of accredited programmes should there be an investigation into the percentage of the prison population who have experienced an acquired brain injury some time in life?

  Mr Wheatley: I am all for having more research—that costs money and we must be careful about how much we do—that gives us a better background as to why people offend. I believe it is highly unlikely that that will be a fruitful area. I see lots of people entering prison who have shown no sign of a previous brain injury or an inability to think but who perhaps have chosen a life of crime.

  Q130  Bob Russell: Perhaps we can revisit that on another occasion. How have resources allocated to reducing re-offending in the Prison and Probation Services varied over the years, if they have?

  Mr Wheatley: They have varied. We have always worked to try to reduce re-offending but in terms of investment we have had a substantial additional investment since 2000 as new money comes in. Before coming here I looked at base information. Going back to 1998-99, we were spending £745 per prisoner per year on reducing re-offending by way of offending behaviour programmes, drug treatment programmes and education. By 2008-09, the last year for which I have full information, that had gone up to £4,300. That is a big increase in resources specifically spent on drug treatment, offending behaviour programmes and education. There has been a similar increase in resources on the probation side. There has been a 40% increase in money going to the Probation Service since the start of the national service. I believe that has produced a reduction in re-offending. I am less sure I can tell you precisely which of the things we have put in has made the biggest difference.

  Q131  Bob Russell: That is my next question. Linking that answer to the area of questioning with which the Chairman started this session, where do resources make the most difference in terms of preventing re-offending?

  Mr Wheatley: In prison we deal mainly with people who have either done something dangerous or horrendous or are persistent. There are not that many first-timers unless they have come in for horrendous offences. People get out of offending because somebody convinces them that they could be different. That needs a persuasive individual who understands the person's problems, who is not a soft touch and can convince him that the world can be different for him and he can really make that stand. Once that has been done you have to stack up behind it some practical things to help people: you have to get them de-toxed if they are using drugs; you probably have to help them get accommodation that is not with other criminals. They will do much better if they can get work, particularly work that gives them some social standing and is not mindless and boring which carries the danger of making the individual think that a straight life not what it is cracked up to be. If you can put those things behind them and keep them motivated they will give up crime. You need a combination of things; it is not a single factor, and it is best to target the riskiest group. Obviously, if there is only one in a hundred chance of certain people re-offending, a lot of money is invested in it and you make a 20% reduction in a very large group it will not result in a big difference. If I can target people who have a 60% or 70% chance of re-offending and get a 20% reduction that is quite a lot of crime prevented.

  Q132  Tom Brake: On the subject of research, you said that pre-2000 £745 was being spent per prisoner.

  Mr Wheatley: That was the figure for 1998-99.

  Q133  Tom Brake: We are now up to £4,300. Are you aware of any research done to show that for every pound spent on trying to address re-offending you save the Prison Service x pounds by people not going to prison?

  Mr Wheatley: Not in quite that way. Using results published each year I can show you the first quarter's releases. The first quarter's releases are a tranche of offenders including those who are on community sentences, so it is both prison and probation. They are followed up for a full year with a proper gap to make sure we have all the convictions. The results are published showing the rate and frequency of re-offending by sentence, age and sex. There are lots of data. That is changing over time. The research techniques needed to work out which things make a difference are incredibly complicated. You would normally need to do random controlled trials in which everything else remained static. Take an individual prisoner who is greeted in reception by a particularly powerful officer who is able to persuade him to be different. Then he undertakes an offending behaviour programme and education. In the mean time he is de-toxed and comes off drugs. The Probation Service links the individual to a group outside to support him in coming off drugs, find him accommodation and supervise him. How do you work out which of those things has made a difference? It is very complicated. It may be the reception officer, the Probation Service at the end or the drug treatment. It is probably a combination of all of them, but it is not easy to do and I would be foolish if I said I had a pat answer to that.

  Q134  Mr Winnick: What is the prison population as of today, yesterday or whatever?

  Mr Wheatley: Friday's figures which are published show there were 82,761.

  Q135  Mr Winnick: As I understand it, the Ministry of Justice will increase capacity to somewhere in the region of 96,000 by 2014.

  Mr Wheatley: That is the plan.

  Q136  Mr Winnick: In 2002 the Social Exclusion Unit said that the current balance of resources did not enable the Prison and Probation Services to deliver beneficial education and rehabilitation programmes to "anything like the number who need them". What has been the position since 2002?

  Mr Wheatley: Probation and prison resources for reducing re-offending per head for the people we are looking after have gone up substantially. It has tripled for education and gone up 15 times for drug treatment. Looking at the data, my maths are not good but an increase from £745 to £4,300 is more than a quadrupling of resources. One has to take account of inflation. There has been a substantial increase. I do not expect these increases to continue but I expect to be able to maintain what we are doing at the moment. The resources for reducing re-offending have substantially increased and produced a measurable result.

  Q137  Mr Winnick: I do not question what you have just said but, however true that is, is it not a fact that a prison population of 83,000 means that the prisons are hopelessly overcrowded?

  Mr Wheatley: They are not hopelessly overcrowded because we will not overcrowd them more than we think we can safely do, and we take that operational judgment carefully. They are crowded.

  Q138  Mr Winnick: To say the least!

  Mr Wheatley: Having said that, the capacity in the system is over 86,000. Currently, I have available 86,000 places and we are now looking after under 83,000 prisoners. This is a time of year when the numbers are always low. There is seasonality in the prison population caused by Christmas. Nobody can quite work out why that is, but I can speculate without giving a straightforward answer. We have spare capacity at the moment and we are not hopelessly overcrowded. We are slightly less overcrowded than we have been and we will not overcrowd to a level that we think makes prisons hopeless.

  Q139  Mr Winnick: Therefore, reports about the difficulty in finding accommodation for prisoners and all the rest of it do not really reflect the situation?

  Mr Wheatley: We have been very near to maximum capacity on a number of occasions over the past seven or eight years, and before that. This is not a new problem. At that point we are moving prisoners around from prison to prison to make the maximum use of the estate. That is difficult and I do not try to minimise it. At the moment we do not have to do that. There is some seasonality in it. But the government is building so we can contain the population without being in a hopeless position.

  Q140  Martin Salter: I may have misheard you, but did you say at one point that the Ministry of Justice planned to increase the capacity of prisons to 96,000?

  Mr Wheatley: Yes.

  Q141  Martin Salter: Is that not predicated on the assumption that people choose to commit crime and receive custodial sentences?

  Mr Wheatley: It is based on the predictions of what the prison population will be which certainly includes some estimation about what offending will be, how the courts operate and police efficiency. It is an attempt by statisticians using all available past data to forecast the future. As with any forecast, the future is a little different from what people think it might be.

  Q142  Martin Salter: You are telling us that re-offending rates are going down and yet the prison population will rise?

  Mr Wheatley: Not only that but, looking at the national data, re-offending is going down and offending is reducing. What is primarily driving the increase in the population is an increase in the number of prisoners serving very long sentences. To go back to 1969 when I joined, the average life sentence was about nine years; now it is about 16 years.

  Q143  David Davies: You made a very interesting point earlier. I wonder whether you can confirm that the longer the prison sentence the less likely it is that the prisoner will re-offend.

  Mr Wheatley: The lowest predicted rate is for long-term offenders. That is probably related to the fact that in the long-term population there are a number of offenders who have committed some horrendous acts on the very first occasion and have a very low probability of re-offending. What I can tell you, which I believe is the point you pick up, is that in percentage terms the actual versus predicted results show we have made the biggest reductions in offending with long-sentence prisoners because they are the people to whom we have been able to devote the most resources.

  Q144  David Davies: That is the point I want to get on the record. I have done some research into the figures. Correct me if I am wrong, but even if you remove sentences for murder, where in a lot of cases an individual has killed another in a bout of temper or something, you find that somebody serving a 10-year prison sentence is only about 30% likely to re-offend in two years, whereas somebody who has served less than one year is 70% or 80% likely to re-offend. My figures may be a little bit out but I think it is of that order.

  Mr Wheatley: That is roughly right. The predicted rate for the four-year and over group is 25.1%; for the 12-month and over group it is 42.1%; and for very short sentences it is 51.2%. Some of that arises because the people who pick up short sentences are very often drug users who do a lot of shoplifting.

  Q145  David Davies: Do we agree that with people like that the longer we can keep them in the more help we can give them?

  Mr Wheatley: It is not really a product of time. With very short sentences it is difficult to do anything with them. Realistically, you do not have time to work with people who do only a week. For longer sentences we are able to devote more resources. We also have targeted resources for our riskiest offenders.

  Q146  David Davies: To put it on record, there is a strong argument, is there not, for saying that even when a persistent offender commits what may be seen as a relatively trivial crime it may be the 50th time he or she—usually a he—has done it and there should be a mandatory six or 12-month sentence, not to victimise him but to help him get off the ground to deal with his other problems and give him some sort of education?

  Mr Wheatley: If you wanted me to work more in prison with anybody you would have to give him longer than a very short sentence. That would give rise to a substantial public expenditure implication. They do not have to get a four-year sentence. The gains that we have been able to make show a 17.2% improvement in results for the 12 months and over group and 29.5% for the two to four-year group. Therefore, we have achieved that for the shorter sentence groups.

  Q147  David Davies: The costs to the public purse are a lot less than your figures suggest, are they not? The vast majority of people who are in that category are in receipt of a range of benefits when they are outside anyway, so even if you leave out the cost of investigating any crimes they commit the net cost to the public of putting somebody into a category D or C prison is not that much greater than the cost of housing them and keeping them on benefits outside, is it?

  Mr Wheatley: I cannot say; I do not know enough about the costs to the benefit system and the fact that they normally leave relatives outside who may go onto benefit because they are not able to work.

  Q148  David Davies: But most of them are not working nine to five in well-paid jobs?

  Mr Wheatley: Some will be, but I would not like to speculate; I do not know enough.

  Q149  Chairman: Remind us of the cost in England and Wales of keeping somebody in prison.

  Mr Wheatley: It is about £3,200 a month, so the annual sum is under £40,000.

  Q150  Chairman: Is that broken down to the daily rate?

  Mr Wheatley: No. I have just divided the annual figure by 12.

  Q151  David Davies: That is the average cost?

  Mr Wheatley: Yes.

  Q152  David Davies: It is very important we remember that category A prisoners are far more expensive than Ds and Cs, so if you take an average across-the-board cost that includes the cost of category A prisoners.

  Mr Wheatley: It is an average cost. There are a small number of high-security prisons which drive up the costs. I cannot give you the categories C and D average; I have not brought it with me.

  Q153  Chairman: It would be helpful if you could write to us and tell us the cost in each category.

  Mr Wheatley: We can do that.

  Q154  Gwyn Prosser: I want to ask about the prolific and priority offender programmes to some elements of which you have made reference. What recent research is there to show the impact of those programmes on reducing re-offending?

  Mr Wheatley: I am aware there has been some research, mainly action research, ie people looking at how the process has worked. There has not been a sound two-year criminological follow-up study. Certainly, the evidence I have suggests that the PPO scheme has been effective. Probation services are working very closely with the police to target the most prolific and some local anecdotal evidence suggests that it is making really big reductions in re-offending. Some of the police evidence I have seen suggests that they are very pleased with the reduction in re-offending by some well-known prolific offenders as a result of the intervention.

  Q155  Gwyn Prosser: We are told that the effectiveness of it depends very much on the co-location of the parties involved in it, but that does not happen in all areas. What is your view on that? What are the barriers to further co-locations?

  Mr Wheatley: There are no legal barriers. I am keen on co-locating probation staff and police staff where that is possible. There are some practical considerations such as whether there is space. Can we get office space in the right place to do that? There are barriers on the two systems sharing IT. Obviously, the police have some very sensitive data about intelligence that they would normally not share openly with other agencies. The more we can share base information the better this works. The very best co-working involves the two agencies crossing over in their work rather than saying this is the police bit and that is the probation bit, but even where we cannot get complete cohesion it is better than two silos operating quite differently.

  Q156  Tom Brake: In the past year the government in its Cutting Crime strategy announced the "new, single, comprehensive prolific offending scheme". Can you explain what that is and whether any work has started on implementing that new scheme?

  Mr Wheatley: I would not like to do so because it is not my area; it is mainly a Home Office-led piece of policy. We are working with prolific offenders in an increasingly joined-up way with other agencies. Prolific offender schemes also play a part in the integrated offender management initiative which a number of areas are driving forward with lots of the work being led by local authorities at crime and disorder partnership level. I have just reorganised the Probation Service so that its leadership lines up with the BCU police command unit to match the overall strategy which allows local variation to take account of local factors, which is one of the major improvements in the way we have been working.

  Q157  Tom Brake: Am I right in thinking from your response that if a "new, single, comprehensive prolific offending scheme" is in the process of being introduced it does not appear to have hit your desk?

  Mr Wheatley: I do not think that is entirely accurate because what I am describing is our bit of it. That is the bit I need to know about, but apart from knowing that we are delivering the things the Home Office want us to deliver—because we still work in an integrated way with the department—I would not like to comment on what is a major area of policy for them.

  Chairman: Mr Wheatley, thank you so much for coming to give evidence today. If you would be kind enough to write to us about the pieces of information we requested we would be grateful.

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