Speech to the Conservative Party Conference

Prison reform is a great Conservative cause

I don't know about you, but whenever I hear Helen Newlove talk about what happened to her and talk about what she thinks should be done, I just feel that we're all being given a dose of common sense.

I also admire hugely her courage.  It's always sobering to be reminded of that appalling crime that took place just about a year ago.

But what I don't think you did hear is that that dreadful murder might, might just have been averted, because the man who murdered Garry, her husband, had been released on bail that morning.  And not only that, he had been released on bail before, and before that.  Every time he broke his bail conditions he was released on bail again.

We've seen the same thing happen with other cases.  Gary Weddell, charged with murdering his wife, released on bail, to murder his mother-in-law.  He broke his bail conditions; nothing happened.

We saw the case of Anthony Joseph, where an inquiry said that there had been a "lackadaisical" approach to the enforcement of bail conditions.  Just this week we've seen another case in Scotland: a murder took place, the murderer had been released on bail charged with a knife crime.

There are some who say there's nothing wrong with the bail laws.  But I say ‘we simply cannot go on like this'.

One in five murder suspects were on bail at the time.  One in five, isn't that a staggering fact?  We know that bail conditions are routinely breached, and I think it's time to do something about it.

If you're charged with a criminal offence then, yes, there's a presumption of innocence, yes, you should be entitled to bail, but not if you've committed a serious offence beforehand, why then should you expect to receive bail?  Why should you expect to receive bail if you've committed a string of offences beforehand and are charged with a new one? 

You shouldn't expect to receive bail then, because a very simple principle should apply - public safety should come first.  And that's why we've said that we're going to tighten up bail conditions.

We're also having a look at community sentences because we have the same fear about them; the fear that actually decisions are being taken because there aren't enough prison places available to ensure that judges and magistrates can offer the right disposal.

We know that there's been an attempt by the Government, repeatedly, to urge the judiciary to use community penalties.

Now, I think community penalties have a place, but it can't make sense to operate a system where offenders can be put on an unpaid work requirement, so called work in the community, when they've committed a crime, and a third of them don't even complete that requirement.

That means it's a voluntary sentence.

So we're going to look at ways of toughening up these sentences, of making sure that offenders do comply, because if we can't have confidence in community penalties then inevitably the judiciary are going to want to use custodial alternatives.

And one of the ways that we'll tighten up is we'll say to those offenders, ‘if you're on benefits and you're meant to be doing an unpaid work requirement, and you just don't turn up in the morning, then you're going to lose your benefit'.  That will be an incentive.

Because you can't just stick two fingers up to the system and expect get away with it.

Did you see Jack Straw last week announce, yet again, that offenders on community penalties will wear identification, will wear clothing so that you can see them in the community?  Quite right.  That's what we've said.  But the Government has proposed it time and time before, and it hasn't happened.  Why hasn't it happened?

I've got a little bit of inside information for you.  Watch Jack Straw.  Believe me, Gordon Brown is.  Jack Straw is one of those politicians for whom principle always comes second to being in the right place when the wind changes direction.

One day Jack was an arch-Blairite; the next day we woke up and he was running Gordon Brown's leadership campaign.  I don't suppose that it'll be long before we wake up to discover that he's changed to the winning side - and we look forward to him joining the Conservative benches.

There's another system which Jack Straw has been presiding over, and it's a consequence again of the Government's lamentable failure to plan for prison capacity.  They've released, in just over a year, 36,000 offenders.

36,000 offenders have been released early, and over 7,000 of those offenders have been violent criminals.  Jack Straw says it doesn't matter, because after all they're only released eighteen days early.  Well, eighteen days was long enough for one of those offenders, Andrew Mournian, to go out and murder his girlfriend.  Eighteen days was long enough for over 700 of those offenders to commit new crimes.

The previous Lord Chancellor said that this scheme was ‘simply wrong' - and he was correct, this scheme is simply wrong.  And let me give you this assurance: a Conservative Government would scrap End of Custody Licence immediately.

I'll tell you what's doubly wrong about that scheme, and that's that these offenders are already released at the halfway point anyway.  They serve just half of their sentence.  Release is automatic.  It doesn't matter how they've behaved, it doesn't matter whether they're likely to go on to re-offend, it doesn't matter whether they're still on drugs in prison, it doesn't matter whether they've complied with any conditions.  Out they go onto the streets.

And with the End of Custody Licence scheme we have a situation where offenders are actually released before they've even served half of their sentence.

Jack Straw said that early release was a ‘benign deception on the public'.  Well he's right: it is a deception on the public.  It gravely undermines confidence in the criminal justice system when people see offenders being released well before they've even served half of their sentence.  And we're determined to change that.

We're going to introduce honesty in sentencing so that prisoners won't be released automatically - they'll have to earn their release.

We'll introduce a system of minimum and maximum sentences.  No prisoner will serve less than the minimum sentence; there will be no eligibility for parole until that minimum is served, and then if the prisoner has complied, is off drugs, has taken the right courses, has shown himself ready for release, is not a danger to the public, well then he can be released.  If he commits a disciplinary offence he can be brought back to prison again.

I think that this is the right way to help reform our prisons, because we'll be putting power back into the hands of prison governors, we'll be demonstrating to the prisoners that actually it matters what they do, what their attitude is, when we come to decide whether or not they're ready to be released into the community.  And above all it will restore public confidence in the system, because the public, just as Helen was saying, need to be reassured that when a court says something, that's what the court actually means.

If we're going to do all of these things, if we're going to toughen up in relation to bail, if we're going to toughen up in relation to knife crime, if we're going to toughen up in relation to early release then we're going to need the prison capacity to ensure that we never go down the line that this Labour Government has done and fail to provide adequate prison capacity.

So we will provide more prison places above Labour's plans. And we will do that by selling off old jails that are expensive to run that can't offer the kinds of rehabilitation that we want them to do in a modern society.  They'll go, and we'll construct new local prisons that have links with communities [and] that can turn the lives of offenders round.

And I do want to say to you that it does matter that we plan to turn the lives of offenders round.

There are some who say that if we talk about prison reform it's just a soft option - that we shouldn't mind what happens to offenders. We should simply put them in jail, lock them up and throw away the key.

Well, I profoundly disagree.

I think it matters immensely to society what happens inside our jails.

It matters not least because at the moment we have the appalling situation where prisoners are being released from jail and then going on to commit crimes again.

Do you know how many prisoners are reconvicted of a crime within two years of their release?  I wonder if any of you have any idea - it's two thirds of them.  Two thirds.

Amongst juvenile offenders, it's actually much worse - it's 75 per cent of them.

And these are just the ones who have been convicted.  They're the ones who have been caught.

What we do is turn out young prisoners from jail in the near certainty that they're going to commit offences again.

That system cannot be right, and we have to change it.

We've got to look at what prisons are actually doing.  Prisons should be places of security, first and foremost.  And yet we have a situation where thousands of prisoners are absconding from open jails, and drugs in jails are absolutely rife.

It's a scandal that the Government has admitted that young prisoners are actually getting on drugs while they're in jail.

Prisons should be places of safety, but last year 92 young men took their lives in Britain's jails.

Prisons should be places of hard work and restoration, and yet this Government is simply looking up prisoners for ever longer periods in their cells, where prisoners, smoke, watch TV and do nothing purposeful.

Voluntary organisations like Rob's that you just heard about are simply shut out at these times - unable to provide the services which they would like to do.

Prisons should be places of discipline, and yet they have become places of grievance and rights.

Recently, we had the extraordinary situation of a prisoner suing a prison governor for a breach of his human rights because the toilet in his cell was blocked.

As far as I'm concerned that's just one more reason why the Human Rights Act has got to go.

But if you think it's soft when I'm talking about prison reform like this, why we've got to deal with overcrowded conditions, then think about this.

One in every three juveniles who are in custody was in care, in a care home.

Eight out of ten of them were excluded from school.

Two thirds of adult offenders have some form of mental disability.

And if that doesn't persuade you that in prisons we really need to do something with these people, to help them to go straight, that we can't just leave them locked up, then think about this.

1 in 10 of every prisoner currently in our jails served in the Armed Forces.

Doesn't that shock you?

You know, somebody said to me recently when I was talking about prison reform, "Nick, you've got to remember that prisoners are all volunteers".  Well, yes they are, in one sense, they chose to commit the crime.

And I say if they have committed the crime, then they have to pay the price and that may mean going to prison.

We're not like the Liberal Democrats, whose previous spokesman said that they would like to abolish prison.

We're not like Labour, who think it's ok just to warehouse criminals and let them out early.  We agree that they need to go to prison.

But just as those offenders chose to commit their crime, I think it's our duty to help them to choose to go straight.
And so I want to tell you about a policy which we launched just a few months ago. It's called Prisons with a Purpose, and I would like you to read it on the Party's website.  Because it's one of the most radical policies which this Party is promoting.

And what we're saying is that it really does matter to us that prisons can perform a role, not just as places of incarceration, but where we can turn the lives of offenders around.

So we're going to create prisons as independent Prison and Rehabilitation Trusts.

We're going to charge them with a mission to reduce re-offending.  We're going to devolve power to prison governors and give them the authority to contract with outside services run by the private sector, the voluntary sector - organisations like Rob's which turn the lives of offenders around.

So that prisoners can go straight, [receiving] drugs services in and out of prison, teaching prisoners skills to read and write, making sure that prisoners are mentored when they're released, giving them a chance to get into work.  So they'll be enrolled on one of Chris Grayling's Welfare to Work schemes the moment they are released from prison.

If we do this, then we can reduce re-offending, and in that way we can reduce crime and ultimately the pressure on prison numbers.

That's the right way to reduce prison numbers in the long-term.

Now people will say, "where's the money coming from for this plan?"

But as Rob said, £11 billion a year is spent on the costs of re-offending by prisoners alone - and that's just the cost to the criminal justice system; wider costs accrue to society.

So if we can tap into that £11 billion and, instead of spending the money on failure, spend it on success, spend it on turning the lives of these prisoners around - then we have the route to a completely different system.

And that's what we have suggested, with an innovative payment by results mechanism.  It's analogous to Chris's Welfare to Work proposals.

Why pay people to be out of work, on benefit, when instead we could pay someone else to put them back into work?

Why pay for this system of failure at the moment?   Let us instead pay to turn the lives of offenders around.

It's an incredibly exciting policy, and you would have thought that Labour might be interested in it.  

Labour, the Party that champions progressive values.

Well, I'd like to know, what's progressive about locking up offenders for ever longer periods in their cells with no purposeful activity?

I'd like to know, what's progressive about presiding over a system of gross overcrowding in our jails?  Eight out of ten prisoners are in overcrowded jails, a quarter of them in cells which are meant for one fewer person.

I'd like to know, what's progressive about presiding over a system where the rate of suicides in our jails is going up?

I'd like to know, what's progressive about sending prisoners out into the world unable still to read and write, probably still on drugs, without a home, without work, and without a chance?

It is the Conservative Party which is showing that we have the progressive vision to turn around our criminal justice system, and so to make Britain a safer place.

And I think you know how important the family reforms that David Cameron has talked about are if we're going to stop young people going wrong in the first place.

How important Michael Gove's schools reforms are to try and ensure proper opportunity for young people.

How important Chris Grayling's Welfare to Work proposals are in order to ensure that people are in work.

How important Dominic Grieve's agenda is to ensure that there is enforcement and an effective police force.

But I want to leave you with this one last thought - and it's something that I have come to believe passionately - that actually prison reform is just as important a part of this agenda of making Britain a safer place as all of those other things.

Because we cannot just go on locking up more offenders, every year, without worrying about what the outcome of that is.

I'm not saying don't lock them up, I'm saying a very simple, straightforward thing to you: "prison reform matters".

Let us deliver prisons with a purpose.

It is a great Conservative cause, and it will make Britain a safer place.


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30 September 2008

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