Penal Reform

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House considers that the Government's management of the prison system has become a national disgrace; believes that the Government by ignoring official projections of the prison population and failing to plan for sufficient capacity has allowed jails to become overcrowded, reconviction rates to rise and the Probation Service to become overstretched; further considers that the Government's resort to releasing prisoners early, including violent offenders, without risk assessment or accommodation checks is wholly unacceptable; notes that many of those released under the scheme have previously been refused release on Home Detention Curfew and that others have already re-offended when they should have been in custody; is concerned that offenders are also being transferred early to open prisons from which they can and do abscond at any time and that over 4,000 offenders released early on electronic tags have re-offended, committing over 1,000 violent crimes; further believes that the modest additional prison capacity announced by the Government will be insufficient; and calls upon the Government to halt the End of Custody Licence scheme and take immediate steps to ensure adequate prison capacity, the proper treatment and rehabilitation of offenders, and the safety of the British public.

I am not surprised that the Government appear to have done their level best to minimise debate on this issue today. The first duty of any Government is to protect the public. Let us be clear about what that means. It means that if a Government Minister issues an instruction to release offenders early from prison, and those offenders go on to commit crimes, the public quite obviously have not been protected and Ministers have failed in their duty.

The early release of prisoners is "simply wrong"-not my words but those of the former Lord Chancellor, just weeks before he announced the scheme. So much for rebuilding trust in politics. Already, 2,000 prisoners have been released early on to the streets, equivalent to two prisons. They have been released without risk assessment, without accommodation checks, even though it is a requirement of the scheme that they have an address to go to. Nearly 1,400 of them have previously been refused release on home custody detention; apparently those offenders were unsuitable for release early with an electronic tag, but it is perfectly acceptable to release them on to the streets with no tag.

A fifth of the offenders released in the first week had committed crimes sufficiently serious that they were jailed for over a year. Three hundred and forty-four of them were violent offenders. The Prime Minister says that they had not committed serious violence, so apparently that makes their release acceptable. People who are jailed for violent assault or causing actual bodily harm are apparently entirely suitable to release from our prisons early. Well, it might be all right by the Government that more than 300 violent offenders have been tipped out of jail, but it is not all right by the public and it is not all right by us.

One hundred and forty-nine of those released had been in prison for burglary; 22 for robbery; more than 400 for theft; and 65 for drug offences. The Government do not even know what 32 of those released were imprisoned for in the first place. The former Prime Minister repeatedly said that the scheme would be temporary; the new Lord Chancellor says that it might be permanent. That is a measure of Ministers' grip on the prison system.

Now we know that at least six of the released prisoners committed crimes, including two offenders who carried out a robbery while on their way to see a probation officer. What was their original crime: assaulting a police officer, which was not considered serious enough, according to the Prime Minister, to merit an apology. Eighteen early release prisoners still remain unlawfully at large.

Our position is unequivocal: those offenders should never have been released early in the first place, still less with more than £200 in their back pockets. That was their reward for getting out of prison early, and it is why the National Association of Probation Officers says that offenders are queuing up to get on to the scheme.

When he announced the scheme on 19 June, the Minister said:

"release on licence is not the same as Executive release. Releasing people on licence means that their sentence continues."-[ Official Report, 19 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 1242.]

Even by this Government's standards, that is remarkable spin. How can an offender's sentence be continuing if he is let out of jail, free to commit other offences? As the Prison Officers Association said,

"The fact that they're not calling it executive release is just word games."

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not understand what release on licence means. It is a long-established concept, whereby for the duration of the sentence imposed by the court, the prisoner is subject to recall to prison if he commits a further offence. The concept is clear, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not appear to understand it.

Nick Herbert: How does the hon. Gentleman think that the 18 offenders who have not been tracked down will be recalled? As far as the public are concerned, those offenders are not continuing their sentence; they are free, out on the streets and able to commit further offences, which they could not otherwise have committed if they had been behind bars.

We all know why the Government are releasing prisoners earlier: the prisons are full. The reason why they are full is that the Government, not least the Lord Chancellor, repeatedly ignored warnings that more capacity would be needed. As long ago as 1992, in his report on the Strangeways riot, Lord Woolf warned that the prison population would double from 44,000 to well above current levels by next year, 2008. In 2000, when the current Lord Chancellor was Home Secretary, his officials predicted that the prison population would be at current levels by this year. Two years later, the lowest Home Office projection for the prison population today was 5,000 above the current capacity. The Government were told that greater capacity was needed, and they simply ignored the projections. Their great claim is to have provided another 20,000 prison places. Well, let us examine that claim.

Only three new prisons in the past 10 years were commissioned by the Labour Government; the rest were commissioned by the previous Conservative Administration. In the year when the Government came to power, the number of new prison places was 4,716. By 2005, the number of new places had fallen to 940. During the current Lord Chancellor's watch, prison capacity building fell by 86 per cent. over three years. The Government also tell us that they are providing an additional 9,500 prison places by 2012, but on their own projections, that will not be enough. Total capacity will still be 4,000 places short of their medium projection for the prison population by that time, assuming that prisons will be full to the gunnels, with prisoners continuing to be doubled up. As Harry Fletcher of the National Association of Probation Officers said,

"They've had eight, nine years and really done nothing... There's been no substantial building programme and no provision for probation."

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The hon. Gentleman prayed in aid Lord Woolf, but he should not forget that Lord Woolf also said:

"no solution will be really effective, apart from reducing prison population... building more prisons is not the solution, not least because it means that more and more resources are being sucked into the hugely expensive process of building prisons",

instead of

"making effective non-prison sentences".

Nick Herbert: If we were able to rehabilitate offenders, we could reduce the prison population. We cannot rehabilitate them while prisons are so full, and I shall return to that point later.

The early release scheme can only be, in the words of the Prison Officers Association, a short-term fix. The Government have admitted that 25,000 offenders will be released early in the next year, but they will reduce the prison population by only 1,200.

At the current rate of incarceration, it is likely that prisons will fill up again and we will face a new crisis by the autumn. If the Government demur from that prediction, we would like to hear from them. As the Prison Officers Association has said, building new prisons

"should have been done years ago".

Last summer, in a BBC interview with Andrew Marr, the current Lord Chancellor said:

"I've never had a problem about building more prisons...I was one of the Home Secretaries who greatly increased the capacity of the prison service".

Clearly, that was nonsense, but he went on to say:

"I wish it were possible to deal with criminals outside prison, but most people who end up in prison go there because community punishments have failed. So it isn't a difficulty for me about getting people into prison and keeping them there until they are better reformed."

That was better. But then earlier this month there was an interesting front-page report in The Times, which stated:

"The Government will not be able to build its way out of the prison crisis, Jack Straw suggested yesterday. He indicated that the only way the pressure could be relieved was by sending fewer people to jail and using more non-custodial sentences...The Lord Chancellor...called for a ‘national conversation' about the use of prison. He also spoke of the need to make community sentences more effective to build confidence and trust in non-custodial sentences."

A year ago the Lord Chancellor said that he wanted to lock people up and that community sentences did not work; now he is saying that he wants to send fewer people to jail, have more community sentences, and have a conversation. So what is his current view? Is he going to be Judge Dredd or Mary Poppins? If he wants to build confidence in community sentencing, he has a very long way to go. Under the home detention curfew scheme that he introduced in 1999, more than 4,000 prisoners who were released early have reoffended, committing more than 7,000 crimes. More than 1,000 of those were violent offences, including one murder, 56 woundings and more than 700 assaults. Earlier this month, "Panorama" revealed serious flaws in the tagging of offenders. The public do not want a conversation with him. They want to feel safe. They want to walk home from work in the knowledge that they will not be mugged by somebody who should have been safely behind bars. They certainly do not want to be told that the answer is to weaken the sentencing of dangerous offenders.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the other things that the public and the judiciary need to be confident about is that, when sentences are passed by a judge, those sentences will be served? The expectation of the court will be that the sentence will be served as it was passed and the danger of early release schemes is that those sentences are not in fact served. That in its turn will undermine the public's confidence in the judiciary.

Nick Herbert: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. One of the worst effects of the early release scheme is that it undermines public confidence in sentencing, just as the Government undermined it in relation to their changes to determinate sentences, which mean that there is automatic early release after half the sentence is served-a proposal that we opposed.

Ten years ago, the present Lord Chancellor said that indeterminate sentences gave

"justice, above all for the victim, but also for the offender."-[ Official Report, 19 June 1996; Vol. 279, c. 902.]

Now he wants to review those sentences. Perhaps he should have a word with the Home Secretary about his plans. Only last Thursday, she was berating hon. Members for not supporting the sentences. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) is worried. In his column for The Sun he said:

"It's no time for a u-turn on crime...what has been happening since the fragmentation of the Home Office...?"

He said that the Home Secretary

 "has no control...over the froth that's being talked about indeterminate sentences".

That is the problem with splitting the Home Office, which is no doubt why the current Secretary of State for Justice opposed the idea last year. One Department talks tough and the other lets prisoners out early.

The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside was right about another thing: the new Prime Minister shares the blame for the current crisis in our prisons. In his diaries, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside describes the 2004 spending review, in which the then Chancellor would agree to fund only two thirds of the additional prison places requested. The then Chancellor removed the Home Office from the current spending review and froze its budget. Clearly, in his judgment law and order was not a priority. That is why we have the catastrophe of overcrowded prisons. Some 17,000 prisoners are doubling up in cells-twice as many as when Labour came to power. More than 1,000 cells designed for two people are occupied by three. That means that nearly a quarter of the entire prison population is housed in cells designed for one fewer person. The price of such overcrowding is that the rehabilitation of offenders is made impossible. As the prison service annual report says:

"Crowding...dilutes the resource available for constructive activity. High throughput and frequent daily movement impact directly on regime delivery by diverting staff resources and making it more difficult to assess prisoners and allocate them to appropriate interventions."

The number of prison officers has risen at only half the rate of the increase in the prison population, and prisoners are being transferred early to open prisons. Last summer, the governor of Ford open prison in my constituency warned that the transfer of prisoners who should really be in category C conditions

"will mean almost inevitably that the abscond rate will go up."

She went on to say:

"Ministers have apparently been briefed to this effect and are taking this risk."

The chief inspector of prisons too has warned that high-risk offenders are being transferred to open prisons, some without any proper risk assessment. Murderers are walking out of open prisons at will. In an overstretched probation service, some officers supervise up to 80 offenders and, as a result, reconviction rates have soared. Of the people discharged from prison, 65 per cent. reoffend within two years-up from 59 per cent. in 1998. Among young people, the recidivism rate is even higher. Reoffending accounts for more than half of all crime.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I note that the hon. Gentleman has referred to Ford open prison in his constituency, so will he support it being upgraded to category C?

Nick Herbert: The problem is that the prison governor made that proposal behind the backs of people in the local community. Uniquely, they have an agreement with the prison not to house more serious offenders locally. I think that the local community would be willing to have a higher category prison located in the area, but only if the debate is held openly with them. In my view, it was disgraceful of the governor to make that proposal at the same time that she was negotiating renewal of the agreement with the local authority. I think that the right hon. Gentleman should be careful before he asks other hon. Members about matters to do with their constituencies.

The Government's social exclusion unit has estimated the cost of reoffending to the taxpayer at more than £11 billion a year. It is essential that that depressing spiral is broken. Nearly one fifth of prisoners have been convicted of drugs offences, and drugs are rife in prisons. Ninety per cent. of prisoners have a significant mental health problem. Prison suicides have leaped this year, but we will never deal with such problems without adequate prison capacity.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Is not a significant part of the problem the fact that there are 8,000 foreign prisoners in British jails? The Government have not done nearly enough to ensure that they are repatriated to their country of origin, so that they can serve their full sentences in secure detention, at the expense of their own taxpayers.

Nick Herbert: I agree with my hon. Friend, and one of the ironies of the current early release scheme is that it does not apply to foreign nationals. One would have thought an obvious way to deal with the overcrowding problem would be to remove foreign national prisoners more swiftly, perhaps before the end of their sentences. That would be preferable to releasing domestic prisoners and putting them out on the streets, where they are able to reoffend.

As I said, 90 per cent. of prisoners have a significant mental health problem, something that we will never deal with without adequate prison capacity. Not only have the Government missed their own pitifully low target to reduce overcrowding, but they appear to be complacent about the situation. The Prime Minister was barely briefed on the matter last week, and the Minister with responsibility for prisons, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), told "The Westminster Hour" on Sunday that

"in general terms, the Labour Government has got it right now."

What could he have meant by that? What does he think is "right" about the prisons being at bursting point? Last year, the Lord Chancellor said that he was proud of the Government's record on law and order in that respect. Is pride what he feels when he learns that prisoners whom he has released have committed robbery?

In the biography of the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside, an "adviser" famously remarks:

"God alone knows what Jack Straw did for four years..."

He added that the Home Office was "a giant mess." Actually, we know what he did. He talked tough on sentencing, but he failed to build prisons. He promised action on violent crime, but it soared by a third. He said that he would protect the public, but he let prisoners out on tags, and they committed the most serious offences. In spite of my belief in rehabilitation, when it comes to his record, I am afraid that the Lord Chancellor is a serial offender who has no chance of going straight.

The Lord Chancellor should have begun his new role with an urgent meeting with the Prime Minister to review capacity. He should have looked at the thousands of foreign nationals who remain in our prisons and asked why more are not being deported. He should have asked what happened to the prison ship Weare, which was bought by the Home Office for £3.7 million, and skilfully sold off last year for a rumoured £2 million. Instead, within days of taking office, he released hundreds of violent offenders on to the streets. The Government's management of the prison system has become nothing less than a national disgrace. They are failing prisoners, who cannot be rehabilitated in overcrowded conditions. They are failing the staff, who are being asked to do an almost impossible job. Above all, they are failing the public, whom the Government are putting at risk.

Nick Herbert