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Baroness Stern: My Lords, it is always a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, and I welcome what she said.

I, too, want to concentrate on the criminal justice system. As we set forth on another round of legislative change, it may be helpful to review where we are today and to ask whether the Government's policies over the past eight years have led them where they wanted to go. I want to ask whether the current position on some matters represents the realisation of the Government's ambitions or whether there is room for a change of direction.

Let me start with children. In the previous Parliament, we passed the Children Act, which has at its heart a requirement that children's well-being should be promoted and that children should be safeguarded. It was in many ways a great achievement. Nothing can be more central to crime prevention that putting resources into the nurturing of children.

At that time we discussed in this House the problems of children in custody and, in particular, the need for vulnerable children who are convicted, to be held not in a prison establishment but in a more appropriate setting. We were reassured that this matter would be dealt with in a youth justice Bill that was already under active discussion. A paper was issued setting out what might be in such a Bill.
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Can the Minister tell us what happened? I see no indication in the gracious Speech that the Government plan to do anything about this country's incarceration of children, which has by far the highest rate in Europe. I see no signs that the strong criticisms of the Government's policies by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I was a Member in the previous Session, have been taken on board.

In the past 13 months, three children, the youngest of whom was 14, have died in custody. Is it the Government's view that the way in which we are dealing with vulnerable children in trouble is satisfactory? Is it finished business?

In 2003–04, 3,337 children assessed as vulnerable were placed in prison service custody compared with 432 in 2000–01. That is a big change. Is it the outcome that the Government's policies were designed to achieve? Is it part of modernising the criminal justice system? Modernising is a word that has often been used by the noble Baroness to describe the Government's objectives—sometimes in circumstances that lead me to be grateful that I am rather old-fashioned. Is it an intended or unintended consequence? If it is not intended, what can be done to reform it?

There is considerable interest in this House about the sad state of women in prison. The excellent debate initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, on 28 October last year showed that clearly. Since that debate we have had the comments of the coroner of Cheshire at the last of six inquests into the deaths by suicide of drug-dependent women at Styal prison. He indicated his private view that,

The Government must take some responsibility for the huge increase in the number of women in prison. I welcome the small reduction since February 2004, which I am sure the noble Baroness will point out. I hope she will also note that the women's prison population rose again this month.

The Government have done little to stop the imprisonment of so many sick, abused and very needy women, and have been tardy in ensuring that they are protected when they are there. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, called in 2002 for proper detoxification facilities to be made available in Styal prison. They were eventually established, but by then six women had died. Is there a plan to deal with the problem of women in prison?

Finally, I mention the management of offenders Bill, the starting point of which was ostensibly that the prison and probation services needed to work more closely together to ensure that each convicted person is properly supervised and helped. This is a very good idea, worthy of support by everyone concerned with the effective use of resources in the criminal justice system.
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It would not be too difficult to achieve. It could be a matter of better arrangements, reinstating probation officers' visits to prisoners about to be released to their area. That was stopped because of shortage of money. Probation officers could be freed up from meeting centrally imposed targets, which it is agreed have had a very distorting effect on their work. They could be encouraged to used their skills, involve the local services, the local community and local voluntary organisations; and supervise offenders well and work for their reintegration into the neighbourhood where they live. That vision was set out by the noble Baronesses, Lady Henig and Lady Linklater.

This could have been easily done and would have given a boost to morale and perhaps renewed enthusiasm to both the services. Sadly, that was not the chosen method to bring prison and probation closer together. Instead, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, so clearly pointed out, a plan was issued in January 2004 which announced the abolition of the two services and their absorption into a new centralised organisation with regional outposts to be called NOMS. Since then—that is 16 months ago—plans have been issued and withdrawn; new plans have been issued and superseded; rumour and counter-rumour have flourished; and leaks have appeared in the newspapers describing the risk level of this new centralised service. The prison and probation services are at a low ebb because of the lack of consultation and the lack of knowledge.

I know that this House feels strongly that probation and prison officers are, in the main, dedicated public servants doing work that is difficult and important for,

to quote the gracious Speech. Can the Minister expect the services to deliver what is needed in these circumstances? The Prison Service is dealing with the highest ever prison population. Last week, it reached nearly 75,800. The Probation Service is facing the new community sentencing structure, which came into force on 4 April, and it needs to convince the courts that it has viable alternatives to offer.

My third question to the Minister is: are the Government happy with the way these services have been treated since NOMS was announced in January 2004 and are there any changes in the offing in their plans?

7.23 pm

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I agree with every word uttered by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, particularly her emphasis on the failure of the gracious Speech to say anything about the large number of women in our prisons. Many are suffering from addiction to drugs or alcohol, and the Government have not provided enough establishment for their treatment, even though there are empty places in facilities where treatment is provided. Apparently, those places remain empty because the NOMS does not have the money to send the women either on
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remand or after conviction. The noble Baroness was also right about the children, a point to which I shall return.

I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, in her review of the past eight years, in which we have had a large number of Home Office Bills. This year is no exception, and perhaps that is intended to give the impression that the Prime Minister will "focus relentlessly" on people's priorities, a cliché that he seems to have adopted from American management-speak. It was originally coined by in an address to its shareholders in 1997—coincidently the year when Mr Blair came into operation—when it said that its fundamental management and decision-making approach was to,

Fosters, the lager manufacturers, used the identical words in its 2005 global strategy. So if it looks as though the customers are demanding more action on immigration and asylum, give them another pint of the indigestible froth that was served up in the Acts of 1999, 2002 and 2004.

The Government will say that the legislation of the past few years has been successful in the sense that it is seen merely as an exercise in reducing the number of asylum seekers. The total, excluding dependants, reached a peak of 84,000 in 2002, dropping to 49,000 in 2003 and to 34,000 in 2004. But that decline was paralleled everywhere in Europe and is a reflection of the improvement in stability elsewhere in the world as much as of the measures that we have enacted to deter unfounded applications. The UNHCR published figures last Friday showing that asylum requests to 36 industrialised countries had fallen from 150,000 a quarter in 2002 to 80,000 at the beginning of 2005, but human rights violations still cause thousands to flee countries such as Iran, Iraq, Somalia, China and DRC, which are at the top of the list of asylum-generating countries as shown in the previous RDS report from the Home Office.

If Mr Howard wants to impose quotas, he should have a word with the ayatollahs in Tehran, the suicide bombers in Baghdad, the warlords in Mogadishu, the persecutors of the Falun Gong and other dissidents in Beijing and the armed gangs that 16,000 UN troops are unable to repress in the eastern DRC. So, as long as the conditions exist that prompt refugees to flee persecution, a cap on the number entering the UK would mean that other European countries would have to accept the balance, a policy that would wreck the common European policy on migration. I did not think that the Tories opposed that principle—perhaps they can say whether they do during the wind-up—but though the Tory Party is now said to be united in its antipathy to everything European, it is also ready to have its cake and eat it by enjoying the benefits of European co-operation in combating illegal migration.

This subject has been examined by Sub-Committee F of your Lordships' European Union Committee in several recent reports. In 2003, there was an examination of the way asylum claims were dealt with
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and of proposals for European border guards. In February 2004, there was an examination of the role of carriers in fighting illegal immigration. The sub-committee is currently engaged in an inquiry into economic migration to the EU.

Mr Howard throws all that careful analysis aside in favour of simplistic catch phrases and one barefaced lie drafted by Mr Lynton Crosby. That was the claim that the choice under Labour and Liberal Democrats was for unlimited immigration. Mr Lynton Crosby and his voice, Mr Howard, also want a bureaucratic Australian-style points system for work permits, pre-empting the discussion of Community rules for admitting economic migrants and on the added value of adopting a common framework launched by the Commission only a few months ago. As my noble friend Lord Newby pointed out last week, economic migration into the UK has met skill shortages rather than displacing other workers. It will be interesting to know what the CBI has to say about Tory policy making it harder for employers to recruit abroad when they cannot find the necessary skills here in the UK. I wonder also what health service managers would think of it.

Way back in 1997 new Labour spoke about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. After some 30 Bills dealing with crime, the number of offences has fallen, although violent crime is still rising. As has been said, the prison population is at an all-time high. That is because the Government have not addressed the causes of crime, and there is nothing in the gracious Speech that will deal with the situation in places such as Salford, where last week Phil Carroll was battered to death's door by a stone-throwing gang.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, has already referred to the comment made by Chief Superintendent Baines, who is leading the inquiry into this appalling crime. He blamed feral youths who are often fuelled by alcohol. Yet, in August this year, all-night drinking will come into force under the Licensing Act, and in their National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy the Government have discarded the use of price and availability as means of reducing the consumption of alcohol and the harm that it causes. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor estimated that in 2002 alcohol harm cost the criminal justice system over £7 billion and the economy as a whole £20 billion. I have a Question on the Order Paper asking for those figures to be brought up to date; they have undoubtedly continued to increase since then.

The problem of bad behaviour in one third of our schools will not be solved by a committee that reports to another committee in November. Again, rather than focusing largely on deterrence and retribution for unruly children, our purpose should be to identify and tackle the reasons for their behaviour. When Estelle Morris was Secretary of State for Education, she identified bad parenting as a major reason for disrespect in the classroom, but there is nothing in the Queen's Speech to help the parents concerned. For example, there is nothing about giving the Children's
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Commissioner for England the duty to consider the best interests of the child in accordance with international standards, a matter that the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, also mentioned.

What we have is a Bill to reduce re-offending by improving the management of offenders, based on the incontestable principle that there should be continuity between the treatment of an offender in prison and after his release. I agree with what the noble Baroness said on that subject. Whether that is best achieved, as the Government think, by bringing together the prison and probation services under a single authority or by creating better links between two separate authorities—for example, by creating a single database of offenders that both can have access to—is a matter for discussion, even though the Government have already gone a long way down the line to create the NOMS without statutory authority and after, as the noble Baroness said, inadequate consultation with the professionals. As the honourable Member for Crosby said in another place:

Having decided on NOMS, the Government should at least have done their utmost to take staff along with them, instead of the false starts last January and May—as the noble Baroness remarked—the withdrawal of Mr Narey's proposals in July and the long period of silence and confusion that followed. Even in the Westminster Hall debate just before the election from which I quoted, there were many questions still unanswered, including the crucial one of whether the local partnerships developed between the 42 probation boards and their corresponding police, courts and voluntary bodies were to be preserved in the new management structure. That is not clear from the NOMS business plan, which refers vaguely to strong emphasis on local partnerships, and the Minister who replied to the debate was equally non-committal.

I was pleased to see that the Government have temporarily shelved the plans for "contestability"—a horrible word that is not in the English language and which I hope will be abandoned by the Home Office—of the three prisons on the Isle of Sheppey. They are not failing prisons, but they were chosen because they were attractive to American capitalists, especially with the added carrot of being allowed to build and run a fourth prison in roughly the same location. The three-month moratorium on market testing is nothing like long enough to evaluate the further improvements that are likely to be achieved by partnership between NOMS and the POA, which is already producing results in the performance improvement programmes. On the other hand, the criticisms of some private prisons such as Rye Hill and Kilmarnock, in Scotland, show that privatisation can actually make things far worse and that experience also needs to be properly considered before decisions are taken. As the Prison Reform Trust argues, there is a need for a wide public debate.
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Finally, I agree with Chris Mullin's observations on ministerial musical chairs. It was unfortunate that he was moved from his Africa job in the middle of our G8 presidency, during which Africa is a priority, but it is also deplorable that prisons Ministers come and go like vicars in a Whitehall farce. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, is the seventh person to hold the job since Labour came to power in 1997, and in welcoming her warmly to her office, I hope that she will stay long enough to see the present far-reaching changes through to a successful conclusion.

7.36 pm

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