Opposition Day Debate on sentencing policy and the early release of offenders

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

That this House is concerned that a failure to plan adequate prison capacity has led to the End of Custody Licence scheme and the early release of 26,000 prisoners; notes that the current rate of prisoner release is running ahead of initial projections so that an additional 5,000 prisoners will be released early in a full year; expresses grave concern that no decision on whether to suspend this scheme will be taken until 2009, at the earliest, when prison capacity reaches 86,000 due to the Government's delayed prison building programme; agrees with the Lord Chief Justice that early release schemes erode the sentences originally handed down; further notes the low levels of public confidence in community sentences; recognises the objections of local communities that prisoners released early on home detention curfew are being housed in over 150 residential areas, without consultation, under the Bail Accommodation and Support Service scheme managed by ClearSprings; further notes criticism of the Youth Justice Board for failing to meet targets on youth crime; further expresses concern over plans to link resources to sentencing through the creation of a Sentencing Commission; and calls upon the Government to introduce honesty in sentencing, cancel the End of Custody Licence scheme, suspend the Bail Accommodation and Support Service policy and take immediate steps to ensure adequate prison capacity in the interests of public safety.

This is the third debate that we have called in the House within a year on the early release of offenders. Since we debated the matter in July 2007, the situation has deteriorated. Last July, the prison population was more than 80,000; now, it is more than 83,000-an increase of almost 3,000, even after factoring in the early release scheme that started in June 2007. Last July, the Government had released 3,800 prisoners early; now, they have released 26,300 prisoners early. The prison estate is running at 99.8 per cent. of total capacity. In July, 86 prisons were overcrowded; now, 89 are. In July, 60,337 prisoners were in overcrowded jails; at the end of May this year, there were 63,176-another increase of 3,000. Almost one year has gone by, and that is what the Government have achieved.

Sentencing policy and the continuing early release of offenders is a cause of real public concern, yet we return to the issue this evening because the Government simply are not listening. That is why the debate has had to be called. We have repeatedly asked Ministers to explain how they are going to provide the necessary prison capacity to hold all those sentenced by the courts, but instead of action, we have been presented with a litany of poor excuses. Ministers say that they have provided 20,000 new prison places, and I am sure that we will hear it said again this evening. They do not say that almost 17,000 prisoners are now doubling up in cells-twice as many as when Labour came to power; that those extra places have been provided by doing such doubling up; and that almost one quarter of the entire prison population are housed in cells that are designed for one fewer person.

Ministers say that they are embarking on a record prison-building programme, but the truth about their record is that after years of opposition from the former Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, they started the programme too late and it is already falling behind. Ministers say that they are tackling reoffending, but reconviction rates have increased. Even after the counting change, which Ministers are now so quick to fall back on, reoffending rates by ex-prisoners have risen since the Government came to power.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): indicated dissent.

Nick Herbert: The Secretary of State shakes his head, but in a letter on 27 November 2007, he confirmed to me that there was an increase in actual reoffending by ex-prisoners between 1997 and 2004. As the former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, said this morning, reoffending rates are "embarrassing".

After more than a year, what has the new Ministry of Justice, dedicated to protecting the public and reducing reoffending, actually delivered? It has managed to release a record number of prisoners early on to our streets. We have now had 10 months to evaluate the end of custody licence scheme: a policy that has greatly damaged public confidence in the criminal justice system, that was described by the previous Lord Chancellor as "simply wrong"-a month before he introduced the scheme-and that was dubbed a "very temporary measure" by the former Prime Minister.

On Friday next week, on the anniversary of the end of custody licence, we expect that more than 28,000 prisoners will have been released early on to the streets in 11 months. The rate of release is running well ahead of initial projections. When the latest figures were published, I wrote to the Secretary of State to ask for an explanation. He replied by saying that the original estimate was quickly updated after the scheme started-in other words, the Government got it wrong in the beginning. He now admits that revised projections after the first week of the scheme led to a projected one-year total of 28,600 prisoners to be released early. But that revised-and, I assume, current-projection is still a gross underestimate. We have looked at the rate of releases, and we expect the total to be more like 31,000 in a year-5,000 more than Ministers cited when the scheme was launched.

When will this so-called temporary scheme end? The Justice Secretary will not say, or pretends not to know. In an interview with the Press Association earlier this month, he said:

"If you ask me when it's going to come to an end, that depends on the availability of prison places and I'm afraid to say ‘not yet' is the answer."

He has refused to say when the scheme might be suspended, but others in the Government have been rather more forthcoming. On 7 May, the Prime Minister said in the House:

"When we have built up the number of prison places from the 60,000 that we inherited-now 80,000-to 82,000 and then 86,000, we will make our decisions on the right thing to do about early release."-[ Official Report, 7 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 696.]

So now we know; end of custody licence will not be suspended until many thousands more prison places are brought on-stream. The Justice Secretary confirmed that in response to my letter and parliamentary question, perhaps unwittingly helping to clear up the ambiguity. He now estimates that prison capacity will reach 86,000 by "around September 2009". In other words, we should expect at least another 15 months of this policy, and along with it another 35,000 prisoners being let out early on to our streets. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that what the Prime Minister said was right, and that no decision will be taken on ending this disgraceful scheme until September next year?

We should reflect on the price of this policy, which is much more than mere numbers. More than 500 violent offenders were released early in March, taking the total number of violent prisoners released to almost 5,000. A total of 820 offenders have been recalled to prison while on end of custody licence, 144 of whom remain unlawfully at large. At least 451 crimes have been committed by prisoners who should have been behind bars. Almost every day, the media report another victim of a criminal who has, in one way or another, been released from prison early. The Secretary of State plays down the importance of this. He recently said:

"I understand public concern about it but it is only two and half weeks off a sentence."

Only two and a half weeks? Frankly, I find that response complacent. It is no consolation to the hundreds of unnecessary victims of crime. Two and half weeks was time enough in the case of Amanda Murphy, a teacher who was beaten to death by her violent partner just days after he was released early from prison. Only last week, we learned of the case of Derek Burns, a violent offender with a string of previous convictions, who stabbed his partner in the back with a 10-in meat cleaver when he should have been in prison. He told the paramedics:

"I cannot believe they let me out. I told them I would do it."

But let out he was, because early release under the Government's end of custody licence scheme is automatic-prisoners do not even have to apply. No individual risk assessments and proper accommodation checks are carried out.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): My hon. Friend is making some powerful and important points. Could he confirm that if he becomes Minister for Justice, as I hope he will shortly, he will end all forms of automatic early release and prisoners will be released only if they have earned the right to get out of jail?

Nick Herbert: I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that we will scrap the policy of end of custody licence and scrap the policy of automatic early release of offenders, to which I will refer shortly.

As I have already said, under the end of custody licence, no individual risk assessments and no proper accommodation checks are conducted. As the National Association of Probation Officers has warned, violent criminals are released early- often back to the homes of the partners they were in prison for beating up-getting out of jail before their victims expected it and with no warning. With this appalling policy comes a human price. The moral case alone demands its cancellation, but prison capacity apparently does not allow it.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that we should be having a very different sort of debate. In the Criminal Justice Act 2003, we had the much-vaunted custody plus-an entirely new form of sentencing for our courts that was trumpeted by the Government as a huge bonus to the criminal justice system, yet five years later they have not even introduced it into our courts.

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend, who speaks with great expert knowledge on these matters and sits as a recorder, is absolutely right. Perhaps the Justice Secretary could explain why, after five years, custody plus has not been introduced.
It is a measure of how serious prison overcrowding has become under this Government that a policy that in a full year saves only 1,200 prison places cannot be suspended because apparently there are not that number of places available, or likely to be available, in the near future.

There is a second question that I should like to put to the Secretary of State. The Government told us that 2,500 new prison places would be delivered in 2007.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): There is obviously a problem with prison overcrowding. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we could reduce prison numbers if those with serious mental health issues were identified and placed in forensic mental health institutes? Will his party commit to expanding that service so that it could take them instead of their being put in prison?

Nick Herbert: I agree about the problem of prisoners with serious mental illness, but there are two points to make. First, if, instead, they are put into places where they are treated, those are likely merely to be secure places of a different kind. Many of us-including, I suspect, the Secretary of State-would agree that that is a desirable thing to do. Secondly, the Bradley review is investigating how such people could be diverted to places where they can be treated properly. Although the hon. Gentleman might be able to say that that reduces the prison population, and it may be highly desirable that those offenders are not treated in prisons where it is not appropriate for them to be detained, it will not necessarily reduce the overall numbers of people in some form of custody.

Richard Younger-Ross: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the recidivism rate for those who are treated in mental health institutions is only 10 per cent., compared with the figure for those who have been in prison? In time, therefore, the prison population would be reduced because recidivism would be reduced.

Nick Herbert: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Indeed, a reduction in reoffending is an important way of reducing pressure on prison population growth in the long term, and the point that he makes may represent one means of achieving that. I doubt that there will be disagreement between hon. Members of any party about the desirability of removing offenders with serious mental illness from our prisons. The issue is one of resources and potential expense. It is true that there has been a big displacement of prisoners from former mental health institutions into the criminal justice system; it is not just the prison system that has picked up on that, but the police. We all recognise that problem.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Would the hon. Gentleman tell the House what his first priority would be? Would it be to obtain more secure mental health facilities, or would it be simply to build more conventional prisons?

Nick Herbert: I will come on to explain to the hon. Gentleman, if he has not read our policy document, that we propose an increase in capacity above what the Government propose to deal with overcrowding. On the question of how to deal with mentally ill prisoners, we shall await the outcome of the Bradley review, and if the hon. Gentleman is sensible, he will do the same. I must make progress, but I hope that I have answered the many questions put to me by the Liberal Democrats.

I have a second question for the Justice Secretary. The Government told us that 2,500 new prison places would be delivered last year, but they comprehensively missed that prison-building target. They managed to increase capacity by just 1,367 places-just over half their target-and there is no sign that things will be better this year. Since January, there are nearly 3,500 more prisoners in our jails, but far less than half that number of new places. Let us remember that most of those new places are just last year's new places delivered late. Strip those out, and prison capacity this year has increased by fewer than 300 places.

With prison capacity and early release, the familiar pattern of this Government's policy continues: release criminals more quickly and build prison places more slowly. The Government will not admit that even if they deliver the promised extra places by 2014, total prison capacity will still be many thousands of places short of their own median projection for the prison population by that time. They published a consultation paper on titan prisons, and they say that they intend to press ahead with plans to build three massive prisons-in the north-west, London and the south-east. Those prisons will take up 50 acres, which is a footprint larger than two Wembley stadiums. They will be the biggest prisons in Europe, in the face of all of the evidence that smaller prisons are more secure and superior for the purposes of rehabilitation. After all the urging by prison reform experts about the importance of local family links to the reduction of reoffending, why are the Government pursuing the policy of titan jails?

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Given the Government's record of not consulting local communities, even over bail hostels, does my hon. Friend expect them to consult local communities on titan prisons? Does he agree that there should be a full local planning consultation process involving local councils? Titan prisons should not be driven through by the new planning infrastructure commission.

Nick Herbert: I agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that the Government have pursued the policy of titan prisons-a name that they chose-because they wish to subvert local planning procedures and thereby increase capacity without having to obtain the consent of local people. That is wrong, just as the policy of siting very large prisons away from the prisoners' local communities is wrong.

The Government's paper trumpets the potential efficiencies of titan jails, but admits that the Ministry of Justice has not done enough research to present a cost-benefit analysis. If these monstrous warehouses ever get built, projections show that they will be overcrowded by almost a third from day one. Old habits certainly die hard. In the short term, prison capacity pressures were going to be addressed by the acquisition of a prison ship. Whatever happened to that? What happened to that ghost ship? Perhaps the Secretary of State could update us. The Sun is certainly keen for an update.

Years of failure, and today's belated and inadequate prison-building programme have come at a price. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in May, the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, clearly warned of the dangers when he said

"The present situation is extremely worrying. I don't think prisons will blow up tomorrow or next week but there is certainly a danger of that. The prison service is very good at handling prisoners, but they are at bursting point. We are getting into the danger area."

Can the Secretary of State tell the House what the current state of the prison-building programme is, how many new places will be opened this year, and why the prison-building programme this year and last year fell so far behind plans?

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The hon. Gentleman just quoted the previous Lord Chief Justice and his motion ill-advisedly quotes the present Lord Chief Justice. I say ill-advisedly because it is not good to draw judges into debate in that way. Does he recognise that both of those learned judges have considered a wider range of issues at length, including the effect of heavy spending to meet growing prison numbers on the very expenditure that could be used to keep people out of prison?

Nick Herbert: The plans that we have set out effectively propose diverting resources spent on reconvicting prisoners in order to try to prevent them from reoffending, which would be the transfer of resources that the right hon. Gentleman seeks. All of us want to see a reduction in the long-term growth of the prison population, but the question is how that is to be achieved. The Government's approach is wrong, as I am about to set out, and those who believe that there is an easy way of preventing the sentencing of prisoners in the first place by diverting prisoners into community sentences in which the public have no confidence are misguided.

Faced with the reality of their failure, the Government are trying a new tack. Since they do not have the prison places, they want to fetter the ability of judges to hand down custodial sentences. They call it, in the words of their amendment to our motion, "a structured sentencing framework". The new device is a sentencing commission. They pretend, in the words of the amendment, that it is about delivering "greater consistency in sentencing", but there is already a statutory duty on the Sentencing Guidelines Council and the Sentencing Advisory Panel to promote consistency in sentencing. It is by no means clear whether the Government have any idea of how compliant judges are with the guidance of the Sentencing Guidelines Council at the moment.

The Government have never said that demographic or geographic sentencing disparity is a problem that a sentencing commission is designed to iron out. The idea that a sentencing commission would simply promote consistency is a canard. The Government's proposals are nothing other than a back-door attempt to manage down the prison population by fettering judicial discretion. As we have said before, linking sentencing to resources in that way is wrong in principle because it would provide a formal mechanism for the Executive to exert control over sentencing and the judiciary.

Lord Carter himself admits that there are many drivers of the prison population, not least the amount of violent crime, reoffending rates and the volume of foreign prisoners detained after their release date, awaiting deportation. The Government's record on those external drivers of crime and the prison population is frankly appalling, as we all know. In the light of that, any artificial method of linking sentences to resources would be dangerous and wrong. Violent crime has doubled under Labour. If that trend were to continue under a system that links resources to sentencing, we may find sentences for violent offenders would be shortened because of a lack of capacity.

Mr. Straw rose-

Nick Herbert: As the Secretary of State is about to intervene, I ask him whether that shortening of sentences is what he intends.

Mr. Straw: No, and I shall deal with that point later. The hon. Gentleman's claim that violent crime has doubled is untrue. He must know that two separate changes occurred in recording crime-one in 1998 and the other in 2001. Both increased the recording of all crimes. In 1998, the change increased the recording of violent crimes by 80 per cent. overnight. The problem that we faced, to which we have now adjusted, was that, under the system that the Conservative Administration used, an awful lot of crime was not properly recorded.

Nick Herbert: The Government always fall back on the defence of counting changes. As the Secretary of State knows, even with those changes, violent crime has increased under the Government. Does he at least concede that? A huge amount of crime continues to go unreported. If he is in denial about the amount of violent crime in our country or public concern about it, he is in an even more serious predicament than the Government.

Mr. Straw: I am in no sense in denial about the matter. When increases in crime occur, I am ready to admit to them. It is important in such a debate to deal with reliable statistics. One violent crime is too many, but does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, according to the British crime survey, which the previous Administration rightly established in 1981, violent crime has decreased by 31 per cent. since 1997?

Nick Herbert: The right hon. Gentleman knows that the British crime survey misses out swathes of criminal activity, including crimes against young people. The Government rely on it when it suits them. Indeed, some crimes have been increasing according to the British crime survey recently.

Mr. Straw rose-

Nick Herbert: Hold on. Instead of trading statistics across the Dispatch Box, let me make a proposal to the Secretary of State. The publication of crime figures should be on a basis that is wholly independent of the Government. They should be published by a body that reports to the House, not to the Government. Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that the Statistics Commission criticised the Home Office for its presentation and spinning of crime statistics, and that we cannot accept the defence of recounting from a Government who have been so quick to manipulate figures when it suited them?

Mr. Straw: I certainly do not concede that. The Government have progressively ensured that the Office for National Statistics is entirely independent-I personally supervised that policy over 11 years. I went to the launch of the Statistics Commission, which is independent of Government. I agree that there will be no public confidence in official statistics unless such bodies are independent. However, if, according to the hon. Gentleman, crime has increased, why did the Leader of the Opposition accept that

"crime has fallen dramatically under Labour"?

Who is right?

Nick Herbert: I doubt whether the Leader of the Opposition said that. Of course, some crimes-for example, acquisitive crimes-have decreased, but the right hon. Gentleman should know about public concern, especially about violent crime. The publication of crime figures is not properly independent of Government. It is our policy that they should be independent so that they are not capable of manipulation and we have a proper index of the amount of crime in which the public and all hon. Members can trust. Unfortunately, the Government's consistent manipulation of crime figures means that that trust in the figures does not currently exist.

Let me revert to the issue of the proposed sentencing commission, because it is an immensely important matter that raises issues of principle about the relationship between the House, the Executive and the judiciary, which should be independent. I repeat the point that I made to the Secretary of State. If a sentencing commission is introduced, we may find ourselves in a position whereby sentences for violent offenders, irrespective of any decision by the House, could be shortened due to a lack of prison capacity. Indeed, I assume that that is the right hon. Gentleman's real objective. Ministers would avoid their responsibility to ensure public safety, and effectively outsource sentencing decisions to a quango. Linking sentences to resources will entail a massive reduction of judicial discretion.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Let me reassure him that what he has outlined is in no sense the purpose of the proposal. I shall explain it in more detail in my speech, and I hope that he and other Conservative Members will then be reassured about it.

Nick Herbert: We will wait and see. It is difficult to know why the Secretary of State is so keen to pursue the idea of a sentencing commission, if not with the express purpose of finding a means of managing the prison population down. However, I look forward to hearing what he has to say about it.

Linking sentencing to resources could entail restrictions on judicial discretion. To manage down prison populations successfully in the United States-an international example, which I know the Secretary of State and Lord Carter have studied-individual state sentencing commissions allow almost no room for judges to depart from the prescribed sentence range in any given case. The ability to treat cases differently must be severely curtailed for any such system to have a chance of working.

Perhaps the Lord Chancellor should remind himself that his statutory duty is to protect the independence of the judiciary. Even if the regime is restrictive, there is no guarantee that the prison population can be effectively managed down. As Nicola Padfield of the law faculty at Cambridge university said in her evidence to the Justice Committee,

"if we create something more rigid than we have at the moment, it is likely, on the evidence that we have, to talk up sentencing levels rather than talk down the sentencing levels."

The judiciary is deeply concerned about the proposal, as the Secretary of State must know. The most senior criminal judge in the country, Sir Igor Judge, remarked that

"the point about the judicial discretion is that a judge is trying to do justice in the individual case and that is what he must be allowed to do. If I may say so, it does not matter what guidance is offered, what framework comes up, if that is interfered with, then we are going down a very strange route."

The restrictions that sentencing commissions place on judges encourage them to game the system, which leads to manipulation and perverse outcomes. There is strong evidence that, in Minnesota, judges sentence offenders to local jails rather than state prison to keep the headline prison population low. That shows that prescriptive regimes may not even work as intended. Sentencing commissions manage growth in prison populations through artificial, arbitrary and dangerous methods.

Sentencing commissions do not reduce overcrowding and manage prison populations through some magic formula. They identify pressures on the prison population, caused by the external drivers, which Lord Carter cited, and then shorten prison sentences and reduce the impact of previous convictions on certain classes of offenders. That is how they work.
It would be no surprise if such an approach reduced pressures on the system, but that is no way to keep the public safe. It is no way to build public confidence, either. The Bar Council recently said that

"we believe that it is more likely to undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system".

I ask the Justice Secretary today to reconsider the misguided policy and to confirm that the working group that Lord Gage leads does not represent a commitment by the Government to introduce such a mechanism, come what may.

The Government have found another way to reduce the prison population by stealth. More than 500 early release prisoners on home detention curfew and criminal suspects are being housed by a company called ClearSprings in more than 150 properties in residential areas. In a letter to colleagues in April, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) stated:

"In acquiring the properties ClearSprings has a contractual obligation to consult with police forces, probation and Local Authorities so that local knowledge can inform the selection of addresses. This enables us to avoid inappropriate locations."
He omits mentioning that consultation is limited to those parties. It does not include the residents of streets where those de facto open jails are dumped on to local communities without warning.

Ministers have referred to residents being notified. Is the Justice Secretary aware of what notification by ClearSprings entails? For his benefit, I have a copy of the leaflet that ClearSprings put through the door of a local resident in my constituency, which was the only notification that ClearSprings gave the public when it attempted to open such a property in Arundel. It reads:

"Dear Occupants,
I am writing to you to inform you that the property next door...is now being managed by ClearSprings Management...as part of our supported housing programme."

The leaflet then supplied a contact number. In what way does that explain the role that the property will play? There was no explanation about early release prisoners or suspects being accommodated and no reassurance about the policing and security arrangements, just a flier and a national rate telephone number.
The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Delyn, has said:

"The service is proving a success".

On what grounds is the service proving a success? Here is the give-away:

"The service is reducing the pressure on prison places".

That is what the scheme is about. The Government have simply encouraged the courts to make more use of bail, as the prison overcrowding crisis has worsened. The bail accommodation and support service run by ClearSprings is the result.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making an appropriate statement to the House, and I totally agree with some of what he has said. Consultation with the local community has been rather thin on the ground, and it would have been infinitely better had it been more defined. However, he can take it from me that the relationship between that organisation and the police in my constituency has become very effective. There has been no objection in the community, because frankly there has been no reason to object. Does he accept that what we are attempting to do-reintroducing offenders into the community, which his party has said is an appropriate way of doing things-can have some beneficial outcomes?

Nick Herbert: The hon. Lady cannot have spoken to the many people, from all over the country, including from constituencies represented by hon. Members in all parts of the House, who have contacted my office to express concern about the policy. We are talking about effectively open jails, which open next to people in residential areas without their knowledge. ClearSprings does not provide active supervision of the prisoners concerned.
In many cases, the properties have been opened in wholly residential areas, where the prisoners or suspects have no access to any of the necessary support services. People who live next door to such properties have expressed concern about disruption, noise, the constant police presence and the potential effect on property values. The policy is, frankly, disgraceful, and it is made more disgraceful by the fact that an attempt has been made to conceal it from the local community.

The scheme has caused immense distress to local communities up and down the country. I might add that it was not debated in the House before it was introduced.

It is a discredited policy and it must be suspended, pending a thorough review and a debate in which hon. Members in all parts of the House can relay the problems that they have been experiencing with the operation of bail hostels by ClearSprings.

Prisoners released on end of custody licence and those let out on home detention curfew are not the only ones to benefit from early release. Under the Government who pioneered stealth taxes, we now see the stealth release of prisoners. Numerous measures in the recent Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 were explicitly designed to reduce pressures on the prison population. We had the failed attempt to abolish magistrates' powers to impose a suspended sentence, as well as measures to reward tagged prisoners with days off their jail term to take account of time that they had spent in bed at home while on bail. We also had measures to align release arrangements with a technical change, smuggled late into the Act, that allowed automatic release at the halfway mark to apply retrospectively for offences committed before 2005.

Now we have learnt of another stealth release scheme, in new guidance from the Prison Service on time unlawfully spent at large. The latest Prison Service instruction says:

"In exceptional circumstances, it may be appropriate to allow a period spent" unlawfully at large "to count towards completion of the sentence."

What circumstances? The instruction sets them out:

"For example, if the prisoner will lose irreplaceable employment and accommodation links"


"Where the prisoner is a primary carer".

In addition,

"short periods of UAL-up to a month-may be allowed to count at the discretion of the Area Manager".

That time is time unlawfully spent at large. It gets worse-the document says that the time counted may be

"Where a prisoner has escaped".

Prisoners who escape may be allowed to count the time spent on the run as having been spent in prison. This is what the latest Prison Service instruction says:

"Where a prisoner has escaped, both the day of the escape and the day of recapture will count as part of the custodial period of the sentence".

That means two days off automatically for any prisoner who escapes. Only this Government could give time off for bad behaviour.

Those policies of stealth release may save a few prison places, but they are no solution to the problems that we face. Stealth release does lasting damage to public confidence in the criminal justice process and sends the wrong message to criminals. If ever there was a time for new thinking, it is now.

We have set out plans to restore confidence in the criminal justice system, redesign prisons for the 21st century and launch a rehabilitation revolution. We would create prison and rehabilitation trusts with clear accountability. We would pay them by results, rewarding their success in reducing reoffending. We would trust professionals, giving governors new powers and freedoms to unlock the private and third sector to run rehabilitation services in and out of prison and give offenders the support that they need to go straight.

At the beginning of April, the Lord Chief Justice criticised early release schemes and the lack of transparency in sentencing:
"Where prisoners are released in these circumstances, that is to a degree-not a big degree-an erosion of the sentence that the judge imposed and anticipated would be served. I think it would be very much better if one had a clear sentencing structure, where if you imposed a sentence you could see how long that individual might spend in prison and when they would be eligible for parole."

We agree. That is why we want to see honesty in sentencing. A Conservative Government would legislate for minimum and maximum sentences, to create that honesty in sentencing. When handing down a sentence, the court would have to explain the minimum and maximum sentence, and also the rules according to which it would be implemented.

Under our policy of earned release, no prisoner would be released before the minimum had been served. Release after that point would be conditional on the conduct of the offender in custody. That means that both the victim and the public will know when the prisoner will be considered for release on licence, and also that the offender may serve longer than the minimum if he does not earn his release by fulfilling his conferred duties in the system.

For that reform, and to address the urgent need to reduce overcrowding, we recognise the need for additional capacity. That is why we outlined our proposal in March for 5,000 more prison places above the Government's plans-not to increase the prison population, but to deal with overcrowding-that would be funded by a redevelopment of the prison estate. Our reforms have at their heart the recognition that public confidence in our criminal justice system has been gravely undermined by the early release of prisoners and a failing penal system. That confidence must be restored.

But more than that, we recognise that in the long term, the right way to prevent the unsustainable growth of our prison population is to reduce reoffending. We all know that reoffending rates have remained stubbornly high. A leaked internal memo from the Government admitted as much. It said that recidivism rates for young criminals remain some of the highest in the developed world and that they "have not significantly changed" since 1997. Ministers will claim progress, but like so much from this Government, it is all about how we measure it.

The truth is that our prisons do not do enough to rehabilitate offenders. Indeed, in their current state of overcrowding, they are doing less now than they did 10 years ago. We cannot go on administering giant human warehouses, where nothing much happens except drug taking and bench pressing. We have to create regimes where offenders work hard, learn skills and get support to break their drug addiction, so that they leave less likely to reoffend. We need to create prisons with a purpose; reducing reoffending will help break the cycle of crime. We recognise that we will not make Britain safer unless we reduce reoffending; and we will not reduce reoffending without ending overcrowding and without constructing purposeful regimes. That is the only acceptable way forward to deal with the current problem.

The truth is that the Government are paralysed. There is total incoherence across Government policy. Ministers are constantly buffeted by events. We were the ones who led calls for stronger sanctions and robust enforcement for knife crime; then the Government followed us with calls for a presumption in favour of prosecution. We led calls to tighten the bail laws; and only now, four months on, do the Government bring forward their own narrow and rather unimpressive consultation document.

We have set out our ideas for reform, so where are the Government's? If Ministers are simply to attack every positive proposal for change, if they are going to resist every new idea and if they are just going to maintain their tired refusal to act, the future really is bleak: prisons in a permanent state of overcrowding; ever more desperate emergency measures to bring the situation under control; turf wars between Government Departments and conflict with the judges whose independence is threatened; the biggest jails in Europe warehousing offenders; prisoners transported hundreds of miles around the country in a search for available places; drugs freely available in jails, which should be places of security; short-term prisoners being released with little or no support in the near certainty that they will reoffend. Politicians should not use the word "crisis" lightly, but the prison system is in a state of crisis. If Ministers do not think so, they do not deserve to be able to continue to run the system.

Last month, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) received a letter from a 17-year-old prisoner in a young offender institution. I think that the House should hear what he had to say. He said that he had been in the young offender institution

"for the past seven months. I am currently serving 30 months; I have been in before and served an 18-month sentence; I am only 17 years old. I would like to get help to stop me reoffending in the future, but I would like to tell you that I received no help and do the same things, day in, day out. I attend gym in the morning for an hour and education in the afternoon for two hours and then one hour's association in the evening. I am locked up 19 hours a day during the week and 22 hours a day of a weekend. I want to learn new things, but there is nothing for me which I haven't already done. I want to learn new skills which will help me get a job when I leave prison, but I would like to say that the Government need to look at the way the prison system for young prisoners is run and do more to help people like myself. I might as well not be in prison; I might as well be at home and locked in".

What hope are the Government offering young offenders such as him? What hope for communities blighted by their crimes?

Let us hear no more excuses from the Government. Let us hear no more pointless attacks on what a previous Government did more than 11 years ago. Let us hear from the Justice Secretary what he is actually going to do about our penal system.

In the words of the Lord Chief Justice:

"We simply cannot go on like this".

Nick Herbert