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The fact is that prisons are the repositories of our social problems. I have four points to make. The first is that we continue to have a financial incentive to incarcerate people. We all agree that prisons are largely populated by people with drug addiction problems, mental health problems and learning problems. The vast majority are dysfunctional people. That is not to say that some prisoners are not bad people who do dreadful things. We all agree that that element of the population should be in prison. However, I believe that what vexes noble Lords is that the vast majority of prisoners are social casualties.

Why were they not picked up by special education, social services, drug rehabilitation programmes or mental health programmes? I can tell you simply. The cost of keeping someone in prison is about £514 a week. The cost of keeping somebody in a psychiatric intensive care unit is £3,766 a week—seven times as much. Every local authority’s health and social services budget is pressed; there is not enough money. When welfare workers who mean well but do not act fast enough let the problem develop, in the end it is the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice that pick up the bill. Prison is a free good, and as long as it is a free good, there will be a financial incentive to use it.

My second point concerns offender health. The Government made a step forward—at last—in claiming prisoners’ health as part of the NHS. I am sympathetic and respectful to the Government, because this will be a ticking time bomb. We see in our prisons one of the highest levels of morbidity; between 60 and 75 per cent of inmates affected by drug addiction problems; 20 times the rate of communicable diseases of all kinds, both airborne and blood borne, including TB, hepatitis C and HIV; massive suicide problems—we have spoken of the desperate situation of the 92 suicides last year; very severe mental problems; and gerontological problems. We have 76 year-olds sleeping on top bunks and people so old that they cannot feed or wash themselves. Are they being treated appropriately in prison institutions?

The NHS now has responsibility for prisoner health. It has to commission, and to follow guidelines and NICE protocols. This will lead inevitably to a ratcheting-up of standards, but at great cost. However, above all else, we must have localisation: programmes for health, mental health and drug addiction that can be integrated between the prison and the community. These are not conditions that can be treated within the context of a three-month or even three-year prison sentence, let alone in circumstances where at no notice prisoners are moved from pillar to post. It is interesting to note that the highest incidence of suicide occurs one month after a change, be it admission, change of prison or release.

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That brings me to my next point: rehabilitation. Precious little planning is made for rehabilitation in the community. These are people with few emotional, physical and financial resources. When they go back into the community they feel lost and thus find it easy to fall back into old ways. My call is for a renewed effort by the TUC, the CBI and chambers of commerce to play their part in employing former offenders. There is not a company in the country that does not tell us about its policies on the environment, diversity, women and volunteering, but I want to know about their policies on employing former offenders. Doing so should be the sign of an enlightened company in which people are proud of employing former offenders. I do not pretend that that is easy; noble Lords know that my work is in the employment search field. I also want to know about the Government’s policy in this regard.

As regards employment, we need a renewed and sharper focus on prison education. I simply highlight the work of the Open University with the prison establishment to develop educational facilities. Only 1.5 per cent of men and 1.7 per cent of women prisoners are enrolled, but perhaps not surprisingly the completion rate is higher than elsewhere. On the other hand, the conditions and background of many involved are not at all easy. I hope that we can do more to help those working with the Open University.

The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, talked about the Government and the Prison Service. I believe that we can and must do more to change the views of the public. We have changed views on racism, gender, smoking and seat belts, and we must now do more to create a climate in public opinion that encourages the Government and the Prison Service to become more enlightened and productive.

4.53 pm

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, who has made a number of important points, and to listen to the range of experience and expertise lined up to speak in the debate. I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham on securing this debate and forcing us to think once more, in a strategic fashion, I hope, about what is to be done about our prison system. Many people, having done the job he did as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, would have been content to put their feet up and take a certain satisfaction from the sense of a job well done, but not my noble friend. The energy and dedication with which he has continued the battle in this House to get a prison system of which we can feel proud rather than ashamed are most admirable. This debate is apposite because, of all the topics that exercise your Lordships, the question of how many people we send to prison and how we treat them there probably causes as much heart-searching regularly as any other topic I have heard discussed in this House.

I shall not take up valuable time by rehearsing the catalogue of woes that afflict the prison system at present. Other noble Lords have already done that more than adequately. I shall put them in the context so brilliantly analysed by Professor Nicola Lacey of

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the LSE in her recent Hamlyn lectures, to which my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham referred. The woes afflicting our prison system result from a drift from moderation or tolerance towards a culture of severity, repression or control which characterises our penal system at the beginning of the 21st century and is clogging up our prisons, despite falling crime rates and the best intentions of the Labour Government.

Ministers will know, from our debate earlier this year on the report by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, that I favour a change in our institutional arrangements for dealing with these matters to ones based more on consensus than an adversarial approach. However, would a royal commission on the prison system supply what is needed? Certainly, judging from this debate, plenty of people will be ready to write its report, but I have some doubt about the proposal, as presented, for a royal commission.

To begin with, the commission would need to encompass the criminal justice system as a whole, not just the prison system. Prisons cannot be divorced from our whole society’s approach to crime and punishment. The Howard League has established the Commission on English Prisons Today, a valuable initiative which should inject and stimulate new thinking. Could a royal commission add value to that? The precedents are not encouraging: that on the criminal justice system in 1993 under the noble Lord, Lord Runciman, had few tangible outcomes. In the 1960s, the one on the penal system broke up in disarray, as the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said. It will always be difficult for a body with a broadly based membership charged with looking at fundamental principles to reach consensus on something so hotly contested as the aims and methods of the penal system.

However, we need a forum in which penal policy can be formed and tested against informed and expert opinion. Those who resigned from the 1960s royal commission believed that the search for agreed basic principles was a fruitless exercise but that a programme of pragmatic, experimental change might afford a way forward. That led to the establishment of the Advisory Council on the Penal System, a successor to rather than a carbon copy of the Advisory Council on the Treatment of Offenders, which preceded the royal commission between 1944 and 1964.

I am grateful to the staff of the Library, who drew my attention to an article in the Political Quarterly for 1979 by Rodney Morgan and Brian Smith, chronicling these developments. They argued that radical analysis of existing policy and the formulation of long-term policy solutions require independence from the intricacies of current administrative exigency, the constraints of party political ideology and the vested interests of personnel constituencies. The advisory council undertook a number of focused studies with circumscribed terms of reference and published nine reports between 1966 and 1980, but it did not survive Mrs Thatcher’s onslaught on quangos.

Would a revived advisory council or something like it do the trick? That is not clear. Professor Lacey argues that systematic differences between political economies organised along different lines create regularities affecting the penal culture which are more or less

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stable. Regularities such as these give us rates of imprisonment at eastern rather than western European levels. The whole process is underpinned and reinforced, as we have heard, by a political and media culture in which parties vie with one another to see which can be toughest on crime. That in turn creates what Professor Lacey describes as a “prisoner’s dilemma” from which escape is difficult. A revived Advisory Council on the Penal System, or perhaps a permanent sentencing commission, could help point the way out of the prisoners’ dilemma towards a penal policy that met at least some of the aims of both the Government and their critics.

In any event, I very much hope that, after today, the Minister will agree to take this discussion forward with a view to the debate having some practical outcome, so that it does not become just an academic exercise.

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, this is a timed debate. It will finish at 18.28 pm. We are running some six minutes behind; that will come out of the Minister’s speech, unless the remaining speakers speed up.

5 pm

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords, I shall do my best. This debate of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, could not be more timely or important and I thank him for it. The state of our prisons today is a tragedy for those imprisoned. The overcrowding is now 9,000 over the maximum capacity and rising, and the necessary regimes and services to provide for their needs are thus seriously undermined. Evidence abounds of severe cuts in training, education and mental health services and of other services being unable to meet the ever-growing need—I have had the most terrible briefing from the BMA on its concern—and suicides are rising. The catalogue is frightening.

It is a tragedy for the prison staff who have to work in these conditions, where it is a miracle that things have not already collapsed, and it is impossible for them to do their job as they should and could. It is a tragedy for the families outside, where tens of thousands of children lose a parent to prison every year and become more likely as a result to become involved in the criminal justice system. And it is a tragedy for each and every one of us in society today, where reoffending is between two-thirds and three-quarters, where people do not feel safe or confident in our prisons or the criminal justice system, and where we are all being diminished as a society in the process.

Extraordinarily, while we imprison more people than any other country in Europe, and criminalise young offenders in particular, the Government response is to commission more of the same at a cost of billions. This includes $2.3 billion for the Titan prisons, which all the evidence shows are the antithesis of what should be done to create a humane, effective prison system. The Government pay lip service to the importance and effectiveness of community penalties while requiring cuts over three years in the budget of the Probation Service, which manages these offenders in the community. The £40 million allocated earlier this year to the service is matched by these budgetary cuts, thus making the government support a chimera.

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I chair a £4 million initiative called Rethinking Crime and Punishment which has for seven years been looking in depth at the uses of custody and its alternatives. Our manifesto, which is launched here next week, strongly supports, on the evidence, community penalties for all but the most violent, dangerous and prolific offenders, for whom prison is clearly necessary. This means reallocating those billions to community alternatives where reoffending is significantly lower, damage is reduced, prisons can do their job and, above all, society is safer.

I entirely support the call of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for a royal commission on prisons. It would give an opportunity to stand back from an issue that has become so politicised and distorted, so driven by events and short-term advantage and concerns about appearing soft on crime, and instead to look dispassionately at what we really want from our criminal justice system. It could make recommendations in a strictly evidence-based, thoroughly researched and thoughtful way at arm’s length from government.

Some noble Lords may remember a precedent; it has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Low. It was not exactly a royal commission but an advisory council on the treatment of offenders which was set up in 1966 and produced some seminal reports. Its members included the great Baronesses, Lady Serota and Lady Wootton. It gave rise, inter alia, to community service, which was carefully implemented through pilot schemes. Sentencers and the community were both involved before the scheme was rolled out nationally. A royal commission should, of course, carefully select its expert members and have a well focused remit. We would all benefit from such an exercise.

In the midst of all the detailed argument, I want to bring us back to the fundamental thinking which we need now by quoting the inimitably eloquent words of a Liberal Churchill in 1910. He said:

The quality of our civilisation, the strength of our nation and the living virtue in it are indeed being put to the test. We must not fail it.

5.04 pm

Lord Judd: My Lords, the British Crime Survey reports that crime has decreased by 42 per cent since 1995, which is a welcome statistic. However, there is precious little evidence from any reputable research that our existing penal policies have contributed to that decrease. It is arguably a reduction in spite of those policies, not because of them. The overall realities of penal policy are a brutal nightmare, although it

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cannot be said too often that there are many valiant, dedicated, inspired and totally committed people within the police, prison, health and other services, struggling to achieve a more civilised and effective culture. And prevailing culture is obviously fundamental to sustaining qualitative improvement.

The harsh realities bear repeating. Reoffending remains high with two-thirds of prisoners reoffending within two years. Within one year of release 76 per cent of children under 18 reoffend. Almost 20,000 men and women have to exist in inadequate cells designed for only one person. At the beginning of June 2004 there were 74,850 people in prison. A year later this month it is 82,791. This is a trend that will bring us to 100,000 by the year 2012. Amid the overcrowding in prisons the number of suicides is frankly appalling. There were 92 in 2007. In 2007 alone, eight women took their own lives, equalling the number for the two previous years combined. Seven under-21s took their own lives in 2007, compared with only two in 2006. The youngest was just 15. On top of all this, there is substance abuse and self-inflicted wounds.

How can we call ourselves a decent, civilised society with all this grim evidence of wasted, stunted lives? Our prisons are full of people who should be in secure, specially equipped centres specifically catering for mental health. Again the facts are shocking, with 90 per cent of prisoners having a diagnosable mental health problem and 70 per cent having two or more such problems. These prisoners are vulnerable to bullying, substance abuse and damaging cell relationships. They have difficulties securing access to appropriate healthcare and counselling. There is little opportunity to resolve traumas originating in past life. I have seen for myself how arrival procedures in prison can be highly stressful. Screening for mental health problems is too often minimal. The absence of anything like sufficiently meaningful daytime activity severely aggravates the situation.

The Howard League for Penal Reform, the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health and other similar organisations, together with enlightened thinkers with frontline experience within the Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice, are brimful of sound analysis of what needs to be done. There is an urgent need to provide a forum in which this wisdom can be brought to bear. The notion of Titan prisons, with all the rationalising talk about centres of excellence, economies of scale and the best possible use of expertise, cuts very little ice with those with mainstream experience and responsibility. Most of the reputable research suggests that, to make effective progress with rehabilitation—which must surely be the only sane, overarching objective, not least on grounds of economic sense—smaller, more personal units are above all what is needed, particularly for the young. The Titan proposal is flawed from the start and should be fundamentally reviewed before we embark on yet another counterproductive exercise entailing the waste of huge amounts of taxpayers’ money. I have always believed that the concept of what we have traditionally called royal commissions has a big part to play in a healthy democracy. Free of short-term electoral preoccupations, and not egged on by the worst elements in the media, a royal commission is able, with gravitas and care, authoritatively to build up

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an understanding of what is really the nature of the social challenge confronting us and to propose a sound, strategic approach to answering it on which the debate about legislative requirements can focus.

Building on the work of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the recent excellent and telling report by my noble friend Lady Corston, I believe that there is no issue which more requires a royal commission than this one. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for having introduced this Motion today.

5.10 pm

Lord Neill of Bladen: My Lords, I, too, endorse that sentiment and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on bringing this matter for debate before your Lordships' House. A country is judged by its performance regarding its prison system and penal policy. We are told by the noble Lord that prisons are in crisis and the speeches have bristled with human rights issues and personal tragedies. The Howard League’s figures on prison suicide are terrible to read; in the case of women, especially, the figures have leapt by 167 per cent over the past couple of years, and the under-21s likewise. The youngest, a mere 15 years old, has already been mentioned.

The tasks of such a commission should be to look at the comparative figures for the UK versus other countries and, if it was appointed tomorrow, at the currently rising numbers in this country looked at on their own. I shall give noble Lords a few figures. My source is the International Centre for Prison Studies—this is the realm of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern—and the figures are very up-to-date. I shall use the unit of measurement used in the centre’s national reports of number of prisoners per 100,000 head of population. The figure for the UK, which we have had already, is 152. I gather that in some countries, including the United States, Russia and other eastern European countries, the figures are way higher. We may be talking about 600 or 750 per 100,000 of population, but I shall ignore those and come closer to our coastline, starting with Scandinavia.

I think we would all assume that in Scandinavia we will find a small number of prisoners per 100,000—at least I would—and so it is: Denmark has 66, Sweden 79 and Norway 75. There is an interesting parallel here. An organisation called Transparency International publishes an annual league table on the most and least corrupt countries in business dealings. It is based on businessmen’s evidence. Up at the top, in the sense of being the least corrupt, come the Scandinavian countries. It is rather interesting that these penal figures correspond.

For France, the figure for prisoners per 100,000 of population is 91, for Germany it is 88, and Italy 75. We creep over the 100 mark with the Netherlands. Then there is the very startling result for Spain; I think the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, himself would be surprised. It tops the UK, with a figure of 154. There has been a tremendous increase in the Spanish prison population, from 35,000 in 1992 to 70,000 in June of this year.

I also looked at the number of juveniles in prison. In the UK, 2.9 per cent of the prison population are defined as juveniles, minors and young prisoners. There

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may be some irregularity in the figures because the exact language may not be capable of totally accurate translation country by country. In Scandinavia, the figure in Denmark is 0.1 per cent; in Norway, 0.3 per cent; and in Sweden, 0.2 per cent. In France the figure is 1.1 per cent and in Germany it is higher, at 4.4 per cent. Then there is the astonishing figure of 11 per cent for the Netherlands which includes imprisonment outside institutions. In Italy, the figure is 0.9 per cent. We are not the worst in percentage terms—we are beaten by Germany and the astonishing figure in the Netherlands.

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