Parmoor Lecture

Nick delivers the Howard League for Penal Reform's Annual Parmoor Lecture

Thank you for inviting me to speak this evening.  It is a pleasure to address members and supporters of the Howard League for Penal Reform, and an honour to deliver the Parmoor Lecture.

I would like to begin by paying tribute to the Howard League and the vital work you do to improve our penal system.  For nearly a century and half you have been tireless campaigners for a great progressive cause.  May you long continue to follow in John Howard's footsteps and fearlessly speak truth to power.

Lord Parmoor came from a distinguished family.  His uncle was Stafford Cripps, Chancellor in Clement Atlee's government.  In 1948 crisis had hit the economy and Cripps introduced an austerity budget, including a wage freeze.  He told the TUC congress: "There is only a certain sized cake.  If a lot of people want a larger slice they can only get it by taking it from others."

So history repeats itself and lessons are re-learned.  We meet here in the week of the Spending Review.  The Ministry of Justice has to play its part in reducing the deficit.  Its spending will be reduced by nearly a quarter over four years.  By 2014/15, the Ministry of Justice will be spending around £2 billion less than it is today.  Tough decisions have to be made.

Our focus is on spending money wisely.  We will save £1 billion from administration and frontline efficiency, including a one third reduction in administration - our largest single saving.  We are consulting on the closure of 157 under-utilised courts.  And we will consult on how to reform legal aid, targeting funding on those who need it most, for those cases that require it.

Even after reform, we will still have one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world.  Indeed, we have one of the most expensive criminal justice systems in the world.  The combined budgets of the police, courts and prison have increased dramatically over the past decade - by £8 billion, from £11 billion to £19 billion today, an increase of over a third in real terms.

Within that, spending on offender management has risen faster still - by over two thirds under the last government.  In the last fifteen years, the prison population has grown by 34,000.  That increase was not properly planned.  It has placed huge strain on the penal system, resulting in three quarters of prisons today being overcrowded.  There are strong reasons, to which I will return, for believing that a continuing rise in the prison population is simply unsustainable.

But Ken Clarke made clear, in his first speech as Justice Secretary, that "we are not going to approach sentencing matters ... on the basis of cutting costs."  We do not make the argument that the prison population must be reduced simply to save money.  The majority of the savings in the Ministry of Justice's budget announced yesterday come from efficiencies.  Some come from reducing the requirement for prison places, which will be 3,000 lower at the end of the spending review period than it is today.  That is a reduction of 3.5 per cent.

Dealing with the deficit forces us to ask the tough and searching questions about how well public money is spent and what really works.  But those are questions that politicians should have been asking about penal policy in any case.

Almost three years ago, shortly after David Cameron had appointed me Shadow Justice Secretary, I delivered a speech on prison reform.  I warned that the previous government's approach to prisons was bankrupt.   And I ended by saying this:

"I want to see the most fundamental shake-up of prisons for two centuries, one in which we ... fundamentally re-assess what prisons are doing, and place an absolutely determined new emphasis on rehabilitation.  Our goal ... must be prisons with a purpose." 

Within a few months, we launched policy proposals to make this aspiration a reality.  The title of the policy document revealed the ambition: "Prisons with a Purpose - our sentencing and rehabilitation revolution to break the cycle of crime."

In it we proposed a radical new scheme to engage private voluntary sector organisations to reduce re-offending, paying them by results.

So the Conservative Party's plans to reform prisons - and reduce the prison population by reducing re-offending - were set out before the economic crisis took hold.  They were founded on a belief that our penal system was broken, that an inexorable rise in the prison population was unsustainable, and that there was a better way.  We were motivated not by considerations of public spending, but of public safety.  Indeed, I specifically said that "penal reform is a key component of our mission to make Britain a safer society".

And that is the argument that I want to make this evening.  Britain is not made safer by locking up more offenders only to see more of them re-offend again.  The public is not protected by hollow rhetoric on sentencing if the result is over-crowded jails and the forced early release of 80,000 prisoners. 

For those who have despaired for years about the futility of the escalating political ‘arms race' on penal policy, the prospect of a truce must have been encouraging.  In his first speech as Leader of the Opposition, Ed Milliband pledged that he would not attack Ken Clarke for being "soft on crime" for saying that we need to look at high re-offending rates from short term prison sentences. 

But this week, his new Shadow Justice Secretary immediately attacked Ken for proposing to reduce the prison population.  The grey, ghostly spirits of Blunkett and Straw have already seized the bodies of Milliband's promised "new generation", and where for a fleeting moment Labour's new team might have had the courage to mouth the word "reform", they now retreat to the discredited numbers game.

But it won't matter, because while the "new generation" reveals itself to be old, we have a Coalition Government serving in the national interest that is committed to reform.  We understand the need for new thinking.  And the public, too, know that the system is broken.

Around half of all crime is committed by people who have already offended.  The so-called criminal justice ‘system' has already dealt with them - but unsuccessfully.  And nearly half of adult offenders are convicted of another offence within one year of release from prison.  The situation has been getting worse, not better.  Adult re-offending rose by 8 per cent between 2006 and 2008. 

Prisons are not optional in any society: they are essential.  They are the means not just to punish offenders, but to protect the public, particularly from the most dangerous criminals.  Some offenders, rightly, go to prison for life.  Others, rightly, go there for a very long time.  The function of prison to incapacitate those who have harmed others, literally to keep them behind bars, will not change.

And as Ken Clarke made clear this week, we have not said that we want to abolish short term prison sentences, and we will not do so.  Magistrates must continue to have the power to sentence offenders to a term of custody, including short terms, either for serious first time criminals or where they have run out of road with repeat offenders.

But getting on for two thirds of the 60,000 offenders on short-term sentences are released only to commit another crime within a year.  It simply doesn't make sense to allow this cycle of re-offending to go unbroken. 

There are some sensible changes which can be made to improve justice and reduce the use of short term custody.  For instance, we are looking at whether those who plead guilty should receive shorter sentences than those who own up later, and we want to reduce the number of foreign national prisoners.

But direct sentencing changes are only part of the answer.  To reduce re-offending, we need both fundamental reform of our criminal justice system, and a new focus on preventing crime.

Local partnerships

We know that those who commit crimes at an early age are more likely to do so as adults, and that early intervention is vital to prevent young people slipping into crime.  Yet 60 per cent of those given sentences of up to four years didn't attend school regularly.  We also know that 40 per cent of sentenced offenders have mental health issues, and that failing to address these will mean greater problems and higher cost in the future.

So we need to ensure strong local partnerships between agencies to tackle these issues, focusing on individuals at risk of offending or re-offending.  This morning I addressed a conference of local criminal justice boards and community safety partnerships to emphasise the value we place in collaboration to prevent crime and reduce re-offending.  We want to give these partnerships the space and discretion to do their job, able to organise as they see fit.  We want partnerships to be action-oriented, not bureaucratic. 

I've seen for myself where local partnerships can work really well.  Integrated Offender Management  approaches such as the ‘Diamond District' in East London and in the West Midlands are targeting offenders and those at risk of offending.  These initiatives were not centrally imposed - they have grown strongly from the ground up.  Those most likely to damage local communities are targeted in a co-ordinated way.  The police, probation and prisons, health and voluntary organisations work together to tackle those problems that matter most to their community.

The creation of elected Police and Crime Commissioners will drive local action to deliver safer communities and make it more accountable.  The police involvement in preventing crime is not a stretching of their role.  The founder of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, said that "the basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder."  All of the organisations which make up partnerships will have to deal with constrained resources over the next few years.  But using resources wisely should be a spur to joint action to drive down crime, not a reason to move apart.

And just as we want local organisations to work effectively together, government departments must do the same.  That is one reason why I am a Minister in both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.  But there are other departments, too, that will contribute to our reform agenda, not least the Department of Health which will play a key role in developing mental health provision.

Community sentences

For those who do offend, fines represent the vast majority of disposals.  So these must be enforced and paid.  And around 200,000 offenders receive community sentences every year.  These sentences must be strengthened .  They must be robust and rigorous.  They should be punitive.  But they should also be effective in getting offenders off drugs or alcohol dependency and into the world of work.  If community sentences are weak or unenforced, public confidence in them is undermined.  If they fail, serial offenders move inexorably into the custodial system. 

There is great potential for restorative justice to improve the experience of victims.  Offenders should pay back to the community and see the impact they are having on local people.  And we should give communities a choice in the work undertaken by offenders as part of their making good to those whose lives they have affected. 

Offending should always have consequences.  Community sentences cannot be a soft option.  They cannot be held in contempt by criminals or the public.  Yet nearly half of those sentenced to a community or suspended sentence order will never complete it.  This isn't a matter of better public relations to improve how community sentences are promoted.  We need to improve the disposals themselves.

That is why I want the same rigour and radicalism which we envisage for post-custody supervision to be piloted for community disposals, including using the skills and innovation of the commercial and voluntary sector providers, paid by results so that we get results.  

A few weeks ago in New York I went to a tough neighbourhood in Queens to see an innovative project which is offering courts an alternative to detention for young offenders.

Run by the Center for Court Innovation from a church hall, an impressive team of professionals supervise and guide the juveniles, with rigorous after school courses (including sport) and checks to enforce their curfew.

To date 84 per cent of participating youths have complied with court requirements, remain arrest free and have successfully completed the programme.

Now the Center is also developing simultaneous mental health treatment to address the needs of young offenders while they are on the programme.

I do not believe that rigorous sentences like these are soft options.  I think they are smart options, giving courts a better choice of disposals.  Where young offenders are turned away from committing new crimes, the public has been made safer.  I heard no voices in New York calling for this programme to be scrapped.

Prisons with a purpose

Of course, many offenders will still require custodial sentences.

Prisons will always be places of punishment.  But they should also be places of hard work, education and lifelong change.  And they cannot do that job if they are overcrowded and under pressure.  Often offenders are locked in cells for most of their day and do little purposeful activity.  I was shocked by my first visit to a local prison three years ago, not least when I saw its failure to deal with offenders with mental problems, but also because so many inmates simply had nothing purposeful to do.

Our vision is that offenders in custody will spend more of their time in productive and meaningful employment and part of their payment for that work will be used to make reparations to victims.  These working prisons should instil in offenders the principles of hard work, and the expectations of the working environment.  And we need to identify the right kind of work rather than just filling up the sentencing plan.  This will prepare offenders for employment post release, which will benefit society as well as offenders.

I am sorry that the Howard League's social enterprise, Barbed, at HMP Coldingley was forced to wind up.  I visited this design workshop and I used their services myself.  They did a great job.  There are differing accounts of why Barbed could not continue.  But these are exactly the sorts of social enterprises in prisons which should be encouraged, not choked.

Work is just a part of the new focus on rehabilitation which we want to drive in the penal system.  Better treatment for mental health and drugs problems is essential.  And we must integrate rehabilitation programmes so that support continues ‘through the gate'.  Two thirds of offenders lose their jobs and a third of women offenders lose their homes while in custody.   There is no longer any statutory supervision or support for adult offenders released from short-term sentences - a failure which almost certainly accounts for rising and high rates of re-offending.  If offenders leave prison without a job, home or work to go to, and with untreated addictions or mental illness, the consequences are obvious.  Yet we watch it happen.

I recently visited the Minerva project at HMP Hull, fittingly named after the Roman goddess of wisdom.  The project, which will be voluntary for offenders, aims to enhance the re-settlement of offenders into society after they finish short sentences.  Offenders will be met at the gates by Minerva staff on the day of release and then supported for the next twelve weeks to ensure future employability and integration back into society.  They will then participate in meaningful work to refurbish a semi-derelict factory, working towards nationally agreed training standards.

Crucially, all of the core project team are seconded from the prison or probation service.  They have been trained in coaching, mentoring and engagement of hard to reach offenders.  This core team are supported by experts in accommodation, education, training and employment, health, alcohol and drugs, finance, debt and benefit and other issues.

One former offender spoke to me about his experience of the Minerva project.  He told me that for the first time in 25 years he had been given stability in his life.  Previously he had simply been in an out of prison.  What's striking is the simplicity of schemes like this, and how effective they are at closing the revolving door to prisons.  Yet for far too long we have failed to promote them - a failure which has imposed enormous cost on society.

Payment by results

Minerva shows that successful working between prison and probation staff and local authorities can deliver results.  But I also want to make far better use of the vast, untapped enthusiasm and expertise of voluntary and private sectors to help with offender management and rehabilitation. 

We are exploring how to pay independent providers by results to deliver reduced reoffending - giving them an incentive funded by the savings this new approach will generate for the criminal justice system.

Paying by outcomes would allow for a wider, more diverse range of providers.  It would encourage innovation.  It could also provide the opportunity to create tailored systems for different areas rather than a national system.  It will allow regimes to focus on how to achieve a positive outcome for each particular offender.

We call this payment by results, but you might call it ‘justice reinvestment'.  Whatever the name, it represents a radical new focus on rehabilitating offenders, recognising that it no longer makes sense to incur such costs on the public purse through high rates of re-offending.  It allows us to make the ‘reinvestment' a reality by capturing the savings to the criminal justice system.  We are already piloting a scheme - the social impact bond in Peterborough Prison.  And I believe it is a world first.

Public safety

We will set out our plans for this rehabilitation revolution, including a sentencing assessment, in a Green Paper later this year.  We will value the contribution of expert groups in that consultation before we legislate.  But I want to end by repeating this key point.

We cannot rely on more spending to make us safe, or more laws to make us more law-abiding.  Piling offenders into a prison system which isn't working, and which presides over high rates of re-offending, does not make us safer.

I agree with the Howard League's declared core value, to "work for a safe society where fewer people are victims of crime."  

It is through radical reform of policing that we will drive stronger action to prevent crime.

It is by making local agencies accountable and effective on the ground that we will tackle prolific offenders.

It is by radical reform of the penal system that we will drive down re-offending.

Tough but hollow words will not make us safer.  Real reform of the criminal justice system will.

This is why I believe that penal reform is not just a great progressive cause, but a great public cause.  And I am proud that this Coalition Government, in our determination to drive down crime and make the public safer, has embraced it.

 


Document type

Speeches

Published

21 October 2010

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