Debate on Carter Report

I thank the Secretary of State for sight of the report and his statement, just over an hour ago.  All of us agree that the situation in our overcrowded prisons cannot continue.  In calling for urgent action, is not the latest Carter report a devastating indictment of the Government's failure to manage the prisons system?  We have consistently called for an expansion of prison capacity to meet demand, so the Government's announcement of additional prison places is welcome, but long overdue.  Can the Secretary of State confirm that the additional 10,500 places that he announced today are in addition to the 9,500 places already promised?

At present 17,000 prisoners are doubling up in cells-twice as many as when the Government came to power.  Will the Government's proposals reduce that overcrowding, and will the Secretary of State reject Carter's recommendation that there is scope for increasing levels of overcrowding?  The Secretary of State says that he is actively looking at securing a prison ship.  Why did the Government sell off their prison ship at a loss, if a new one is to be purchased?

We have called for more appropriate security provision for prisoners with severe mental illness, so we welcome a review in this area.  Should not serious drugs offenders also be treated in separate secure units?  In two previous reports Lord Carter proposed replacing unsuitable prisons.  That is long overdue.  Can the Secretary of State say how many of those prisons will be closed?  Is he sure that Lord Carter's recommendation to build large titan prisons is right?  Would it not be better to build smaller, local prisons where offenders could be closer to their families to aid rehabilitation?  Is it not clear that although there will be some increase in capacity, the Government are choosing to release more prisoners early and water down sentences to moderate demand?

We Conservatives believe that sentences should fit the crime, not jail capacity.  Will not any proposal to fetter the discretion of judges and magistrates to hand down sentences as they see fit cause the gravest concern?  The Government already propose to remove magistrates' right to suspend sentences; now they want to link sentences to the resources available.  The Secretary of State claimed that that had nothing to do with linking individual sentences to resources, but is it not the case that sentences as a whole could be shortened if Ministers failed to provide enough capacity?

The Secretary of State proposes greater use of community sentences as an alternative to prison, but prison is already largely reserved for serious, violent and persistent offenders.  Is it not the case that 70 per cent of prisoners released have 10 previous convictions?  Prison is already the last resort, when community sentences have failed.  Some 40 per cent of unpaid work requirements for male offenders are not even completed. How can the public have confidence in community penalties as an alternative to prison when the sanctions are so weak and unenforced?

For the past five years, the Government have paraded as a badge of honour their indeterminate sentences for public protection.  Why, then, do they now propose to limit those sentences for criminals who, by definition, pose a significant risk of causing death or serious injury by reoffending?  The Secretary of State proposes a minimum tariff of two years for indeterminate and extended sentences.  Can he confirm that in the first year of operation, 26 indeterminate sentences for public protection with a tariff of less than two years were given for sexual offences against children?

The Secretary of State's statement said almost nothing about improving the rehabilitation of offenders.  What do the Government plan to do about the fact that prisoners still spend fewer than four hours a day engaged in purposeful activity?  Any Government's first duty is to protect the public.  How can the Government claim to have done so, given that they have released 11,000 offenders early on to our streets in just four months?  The Carter report assumes that the end-of-custody licence will continue indefinitely.  Will the Secretary of State now confirm that that measure is to become permanent?

The Prime Minister took office promising to punish offenders, but is it not the case that we now have overdue additional places for prison, but no serious action to reform our jails?  We have weak community penalties for offenders who should be sent to prison and early release for criminals who should have served their sentences.  Far from honouring their promise to punish offenders, the Government's agenda is to give thousands of criminals a break.

Nick Herbert