Opposition Day Debate on the Prison System

This House considers that the Government's management of the prisons system continues to be a national disgrace; notes that within the last two weeks the prison population has reached a record high of 81,547; further notes that a quarter of all prisoners are in cells designed for one fewer person; is gravely concerned that numbers of suicides in custody are rising; notes that the large majority of people in prison are serious, violent or persistent offenders who need access to effective rehabilitation which is not generally available; notes that two thirds of prisoners re-offend within two years of their release, resulting in substantial cost to the criminal justice system; is concerned that at least 8,500 people have been released early from prison under the End of Custody Licence Scheme; notes that the Government has scaled back the prison building target for 2007 from 2,500 new places to only 700; expresses concern that the Government may be planning to link resources to sentencing as a means of reducing the prison population; disapproves of proposals to abolish magistrates' powers to impose a suspended sentence; and calls upon the Government to introduce honesty in sentencing, halt the End of Custody Licence scheme and take immediate steps to ensure adequate prison capacity to hold all those sentenced by the courts in the interests of public safety.

Mr Speaker, this House debated the prisons crisis four months ago.

We said then that the Government's management of overcrowded prisons was a national disgrace.

So what has changed since then?

The prison population has risen by over 1,200.

But capacity has risen less than 200.

4,600 prisoners have been released early onto the streets.

A policy described by the previous Lord Chancellor as "simply wrong".

Over 800 of those criminals have been violent offenders.

26 went on to commit new offences when they should have been behind bars.

Millions of pounds have been wasted on accommodating prisoners in police cells.

A Victorian wing of Norwich prison has been closed down by health and safety inspectors because sewage was leaking from broken drainage pipes.  
Prison vans are arriving late at night to drop off remand prisoners from courts hundreds of miles away, because there are no spare cells anywhere closer.
Twice as many prisoners are doubling up in cells as when this Government came to power.

Nearly a quarter of the entire prison population is now housed in cells designed for one fewer person.

Prisoners, as the Minister of State told us in a Written Answer this week, are actually taking up drugs when in jail.

Last Friday, the jail population was just 93 below the all-time high recorded a week ago, and only 300 short of capacity.

And that was excluding nearly 200 prisoners locked in police cells

So, four months after the last debate, five months to the day after the Rt Hon Gentleman took office, the Government's management of prisons continues to be a disgrace.

The problem is the Government simply won't listen.

They've ignored every warning about prison overcrowding.

They've ignored warnings from prison governors.

They've ignored warnings from probation officers.

They've ignored warnings from prison officers, who yesterday said that "The prison service is already in meltdown ... [it] will not be able to cope much longer."

So what is the Government's excuse?

Their first excuse is that they didn't expect the increase.

Last week, a spokesman said that "The Secretary of State was, and is, faced with an unanticipated and unprecedented increase in the prison population."

But it is simply not true that the increase was unanticipated.

In the year 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.

So let's nail this canard that the Government couldn't anticipate the current demand.  They did know, they were told that greater capacity was needed, and they simply ignored the projections.

We all know why insufficient prison places were provided - because the current Prime Minister did his level best to prevent them.

As Anthony Seldon says in his new biography of Tony Blair:


that is, between the then Prime Minister and the Chancellor,

"over Home Office spending were even more intense ....  [Blair's] priorities were for prison financing .... The atmosphere was vitriolic: Number 10 accused the Brown camp of trying to destabilise them, Mandelson was going around spreading poison and loyalists on both sides were briefing and counter-briefing against each other."

What happy days those were.  The Lord Chancellor must be relieved that everything is back onto such an even keel.

The Government claims to have provided another 20,000 prison places - but .  3,000 of those ‘new' places are actually from doubling up in cells. 

In 2005, the number of new prison places provided by the Government was a just fifth of the number in the year when they came to power.

During the Lord Chancellor's previous watch, prison capacity building fell by 86 per cent over three years.  Only three new prisons in the past 10 years were commissioned by the Labour Government; the rest were commissioned by the previous Conservative Administration.

Now they say that they are building 9,500 prison spaces in the next five years.  They claim it's "the largest prison building programme ever in the UK."

That would be news to the Victorian social reformers.  Under Lord John Russell's premiership, eight new prisons were opened in just five years - and those are just the ones that remain in use. 

This "largest ever prison building programme" is looking distinctly shaky.

The Government has admitted that 1,000 of the 9,500 promised places are currently unfunded.

The Government has also told us that 2,500 new places would be delivered this year.  Yesterday that number was downgraded to 1,400.

Well, we should hand it to the Rt Hon Gentleman - he is back on form.  As Home Secretary, it took him two years to cut prison building by 65 per cent.  As Lord Chancellor, it has taken him just four months to scale back the number of places built by half.

So now we know what this Government's strategy is to deal with prison overcrowding - release criminals more quickly, and build prison places more slowly.

The Government will not face up to the fact that, even if it delivers the promised extra places, total prison capacity will still be 4,000 places short of their own medium projection for the prison population by that time.

And that's assuming that prisons will still be full to the gunnels, with prisoners continuing to be doubled up.

Ministers tell us to wait for the Carter review.

We won't be holding our breath.

We've had two Carter reviews already.

The first, six years ago, called on the Government to look at radical reform of the prison estate to create conditions better suited to delivering effective rehabilitation.

Lord Carter said that the prison estate: "comprises buildings which are worn out, poorly located, offering inadequate regimes and which are expensive to maintain and operate." 

That was six years ago.

Nothing happened.

Lord Carter tried again in his second report.  He said the Government should replace the "old and unsuitable prisons."

Again, nothing happened.

Every time the Government get into a hole on prisons, the message goes out: "Get Carter."  And then they ignore him.

The one time they paid attention, it was to Lord Carter's disastrous proposal to create the National Offender Management Service.

Which has since wasted hundred of millions of pounds.

As the Rt Hon Member for Leicester East - now Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee - said:

"As for the choice of Lord Carter ... for the prison inquiry - he was the man who completely mucked up our legal aid system.  Putting him in charge of the prison system was the wrong decision.  If that is what the Lord Chancellor is proposing to do on prisons, he is in for a rough ride."

Perhaps the Lord Chancellor will tell us when the next great Carter review is to be published.

I hope there won't be an attempt to smuggle it out over Christmas.

Last week, the Minister of State said:

"Lord Carter of Coles is undertaking a review of prisons that will look at options both for increasing supply of prison places and for reducing demand for them."

How, exactly, do you reduce the demand for prison places?

We on this side think you reduce the demand for prison by reducing crime.

The Government believes that you reduce the demand for prison by giving criminals a break.

They've shortened prison sentences by introducing automatic release at the half way point.
They've transferred unsuitable prisoners early to open prisons.

They've released more than 4,000 prisoners on tags who have committed more than 7,000 crimes - including over 1,000 violent offences.

On Friday, on the current trend, we expect the 10,000th prisoner to be released early onto the streets.  That's one prisoner let out of jail early every twenty minutes.

But that hasn't succeeded in emptying the jails fast enough, so now the Government wants to go further.

They want to "reduce demand" by preventing the courts from sending people to jail.

The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill proposes to remove the right of magistrates to impose suspended sentences, even though suspended sentences are usually given out by magistrates to those who have received every other possible disposal.  As one magistrate said:

"How are we supposed to sentence the sixth-time driving while disqualified, or the third-time drink driver?  Common Assault is the usual charge in Domestic Violence cases, and that too is summary-only.  Take away the deterrence and what do we have?"

The same Bill also plans to restrict the time that an offender has to serve in prison after being recalled for breach of his conditions to 28 days without exception or discretion.  The Magistrates' Association has described this proposal as "a licence to re-offend".

The Government wants to restrict the open-ended sentences which Tony Blair paraded as a badge of honour.  We know what the Government is up to.  Legislation has already been prepared for Northern Ireland to implement the new rules on indeterminate sentences.  Judges would only be able to give an indeterminate sentence where the offence would have carried a fixed term sentence of four or more years.

They want to "reduce demand", as the Lord Chancellor confirmed last week, by "linking resources to the setting of the sentencing framework."

If by this the Government means preventing the courts from passing sentences if there is insufficient prison capacity, this would represent a profound shift in criminal justice policy - and it would be profoundly wrong.

An offender could be sent to jail one month, but then someone committing precisely the same offence a month later could escape a custodial sentence, simply because the Government had failed to provide enough prison cells; so it would result in great inequity in the performance of the criminal justice system.

Of course, the effect of Parliament's decisions on the sentencing framework must be understood, because there will be resource implications. 

I have said that there should be a formal, independent warning to the Government before it passes more legislation so that it would be required to ensure sufficient prison capacity to deal with the new offences which it has created.

But that is entirely different to proposing that sentences should be limited by the resources made available by the Government after the framework is set. 

And that is the fundamental difference in approach between the Government and our side on this matter.

They believe that sentences should be watered down to fit a limited number of prison places.

We believe that sentences should fit the crime, not prison capacity.

The Lord Chancellor has another idea to "reduce the demand" on prison.

Last week he said that for people currently serving prison sentences of less than twelve months, "community sentences will, in many cases, be a better alternative."

How very interesting that that was what the Lord Chancellor said.  Because last summer, the Lord Chancellor told the Marr programme:

"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."

And of course that's the case.  Prison is largely reserved for serious, violent and persistent offenders.  Contrary to popular myth, our jails simply do not contain vast numbers of non-violent, first-time offenders doing time for licence fee evasion or summary motoring offences. 

The Lord Chancellor himself said last month that the "bulk of the additional prisoners" in jail over the last decade were "more violent and serious offenders". 

Sentences of six months or less represent the majority of offenders sentenced.  Reducing the number of short-term prisoners, those serving less than six months, further would mean weakening 23,000 sentences - or nearly two thirds of all custodial sentences.

Community sentences cannot be an alternative to prison if they aren't robust.

The Government's latest wheeze is "Community Payback" - unpaid work for offenders.

The former Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Member for Norwich South, said that it would be a "powerful, effective and tough punishment".

But four out of ten unpaid work requirements for male offenders are not completed.

"Powerful, effective and tough"?

The attendance rate is no better than 60 per cent. 

In other words, this so-called "tough punishment" is optional for offenders.

That's no punishment at all - it's a farce.  And it cannot possibly be a substitute for a custodial sentence in any criminal justice system which has the interests of the victims at its heart.

At least in prison you have to be there 24/7 as part of your sentence - unless of course you have been moved to an open prison. 

In which case, attendance there is optional too.  You can just abscond, as they do from the prison in my own constituency.  You could even do so in you own car that this Government allows you to have while you are still serving your sentence.

The last Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Member for Airdrie and Shots, promised "high visibility" community payback, where the offenders would wear fluorescent jackets.

What happened to that idea?

One report claimed that the scheme had foundered after probation staff warned that it might compromise the health and safety of offenders.

So much for high visibility, tough community sentences.

The Government's flagship Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme is officially described as:

"the most rigorous non-custodial intervention available for young offenders ... [with] ... unprecedented levels of community-based surveillance."

Yet the programme has a failure rate of almost 90 per cent.

A leaked memo has revealed that in May, the former Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Member for Airdrie and Shots

"... said that the financial situation would not allow for the building of new prisons, so thought was needed on other alternatives. 

"The Home Secretary would consider community sentences if they were seen to be tough by the community, a strong handling strategy would be needed."

So that's what it's all about.  No money for prisons, just spin to persuade the public that community sentences will do as an alternative.

No money ... and yet Government incompetence has wasted billions of pounds that could have been invested in prison accommodation and rehabilitation programmes.

The National Offender Management Service, soon effectively to be scrapped, has absorbed hundreds of millions of pounds in a wasteful bureaucracy.

The IT scheme which was meant to go with it, C-NOMIS, which has already cost £155 million, has been shelved.
Since last October at least £29 million has been spent on Operation Safeguard to use police cells for emergency prison accommodation - enough to build a jail for over 250 prisoners.

The use of every court cell is more expensive than a superior room at the Ritz.

The prison ship Weare, was bought by the Home Office for £3.7 million, sold off at loss, and another one is expected to be purchased again.

And if the Government wants to "reduce demand" for prisons, why don't they focus on the 11,000 foreign nationals who are now in custody - almost one in seven of the prison population?

We desperately need a new start.

To get offenders off drugs

To get them on work and education programmes.

To help the mentally ill in prison.

To unlock the development potential of our oldest and worst Victorian jails so that we can build new, smaller units.

To drive down re-offending which costs the criminal justice system alone £11 billion per year.

But this Government's approach to prisons is bankrupt.

Their big idea this year was to let 25,000 prisoners out of jail early.

Their next big idea is to give even more criminals a break by watering down sentences.

The Government's first duty is to protect the public, and that duty requires it to provide adequate prison capacity.  It has failed in that duty.

It should step aside for a Government that has the vision and competence to manage the prisons system properly.

Nick Herbert