Skip to main content

Prison Estate

Volume 450: debated on Monday 9 October 2006

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement updating the House on developments in the prison population over the summer recess, and setting out the steps that I am taking to ensure the necessary prison capacity now and in the future.

The Government have kept and will continue to keep our commitment to tackling crime—reducing it by 35 per cent. in nine years—and tackling the causes of crime. We have 2.5 million more jobs, the lowest level of unemployment for decades, 1,000 Sure Start centres and a significant reduction in social deprivation—attention to the early years of life, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has just outlined. We shall continue that commitment to tackling both crime and the causes of crime.

Public protection has always been our first priority. We have consistently supported tougher sentences in the course of protecting the public. Even today, in another place, we are tabling an amendment to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill to increase sentences for those caught in possession of blades or sharp instruments. That has been a constant message over the past decade and has been reflected in the growth in the proportion of people sent to prison and in the increase in the length of time for which they have been imprisoned—in short, making the sentence and the punishment fit the crime more appropriately.

To match that growth we have already built more than 16,000 prison places in nine years—approximately the same amount as the previous Conservative Government built in 18 years. Labour has built at twice the rate of the Conservatives. However, I have never hidden from the House our continuing need for more prison places to keep pace with the requirement.

In July, I published the document “Rebalancing the criminal justice system in favour of the law-abiding majority”, in which I said that

“we will now build an additional 8,000 places and will keep under close review whether more are needed”.

That was set out in terms in the document. I said, too:

“We already have an additional 900 places under construction which are due to come onstream in Autumn 2007.”

I also said:

“We continue to imprison too many non-dangerous people with mental health problems who should be more effectively diverted into appropriate treatments at an early stage.”

I said:

“We will focus prison places for remand prisoners on those with the highest risk of re-offending. And we will work with the Lord Chief Justice and sentencers to ensure probation resources are targeted on those who most need them.”

Of course, hon. Members will have studied carefully and remembered those words. I remind the House of them in view of the Lord Chief Justice’s remarks at the weekend. That remains my framework for addressing these issues in the medium term. However, it is the case that in the short term the prison population has risen sharply over the summer period and today stands at 79,819. I want to highlight two factors among others that specifically contributed to that increase over the summer and during the year.

First, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 is beginning to have a real effect. The House will know that the Act introduced tough new sentences—indeterminate sentences—to answer the public demand that life, where appropriate, should truly mean life for those judged to be a danger to the public. It also introduced more flexible community orders which would be a more effective alternative to prison for lower level offenders. The evidence so far is that our courts are making good use of indeterminate sentences so that dangerous people are staying in prison for longer, but they are not yet using community orders as fully as they might. That was the point emphasised this weekend by the Lord Chief Justice. That leads to increased pressure on prison places above that anticipated in the short term.

Secondly, I made a commitment to the House to consider, find and detain as many of the previously unconsidered 1,013 foreign national prisoners as we could. In addition, I made a further commitment: I said that we would not release those foreign national prisoners who ought to be considered for deportation before such consideration had been completed and we would continue to detain them until that was done. Working through that process of dealing with the backlog while maintaining the deportation consideration for everyone who is released from prison will obviously contribute towards a higher prison population until the position is fully resolved. I shall return to details of that later in my statement.

I want now to set out some of the actions that have been recommended to me since July to alleviate the pressure, and my response. It has been proposed to me that I should agree to the early release of prisoners into the community. I have considered that carefully, but I do not believe that it is appropriate at this time and I have rejected it. My view is that it should be used only in the last resort. I have, however, accepted the recommendations of the prison authorities in a number of other ways: first, in the re-roling of two women’s prisons to take male prisoners, which is a sensible use of resources; secondly, in providing maximum flexibility within the prison estate to allow transfers to the open estate under severe restrictions in addition to those transferred as a matter of course. That measure was focused on lower-risk offenders serving short sentences for non-sexual or non-violent offences. Prisoners have been transferred only after careful risk assessment.

Thirdly, we will improve processes for dealing with foreign national prisoners. I hope that by the spring of 2007 we will reach the position where the consideration of deportation for all foreign nationals will begin six months before the end of their sentences. We are making steady progress towards that as we deal with the backlog. That would ensure a reduced requirement for detention after the normal release date and therefore a reduced pressure on the prison population.

Fourthly, I have today accepted the recommendation to implement the formal use of police cells, known as Operation Safeguard. Implementation will be on Thursday 12 October. The use of Safeguard is not ideal, but it is tried and it is tested. I am extremely grateful for the support that we have received from the Association of Chief Police Officers and from individual chief constables, as well from the Metropolitan police. Those measures should help to alleviate the position in the short term.

In addition to that, I can today tell the House that on top of the medium and long-term proposals that I set out in our July plans and to which I referred earlier, I am also developing further measures. Specifically, we are in negotiations and consultation to convert a former Army barracks into prisoner accommodation. Similarly, we are in negotiations to utilise a former secure hospital in Ashworth East near Liverpool. We are expanding our immigration estate by 300 places by March 2007 and by a further 400 places by 2008, and we are exploring further innovative ways of extending immigration detention capacity for those who are detained as a result of immigration considerations, thus releasing pressure on the prison estate. We will, of course, continue to work closely with the private sector to get the best of what it can offer us, and we are continuing to encourage the courts to make effective use of bail, taking advantage of electronic tagging and alternative accommodation.

I have also agreed an additional package of measures to improve the processing of foreign national prisoners. The immigration and nationality directorate has been taking a robust approach to the deportation of European economic area nationals, which has been defeated consistently in the courts. We will be changing the law to strengthen the link between criminality and deportation, but in the meantime we are no longer taking unproductive cases to the courts at the taxpayers’ expense, with negative results. We are introducing an incentive scheme to persuade prisoners to return voluntarily to their own country. As we have always treated Irish citizens in a way which reflected the close historical, community and political ties between the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the existence of the common travel area, we are considering treating those citizens as a special case. In addition, the director general of the immigration and nationality directorate, Lin Homer, is writing to the Home Affairs Committee today to provide a further breakdown of the progress made on the 1,013 prisoners released without consideration of deportation, and I will arrange for a copy of that to go into the Library of the House.

Finally, in the longer term, we have already outlined plans for a prisons building programme for 8,000 places by 2012, and what is required beyond that will be given further consideration. We have also outlined plans for the greater use of community sentences, a scheme for payback to the community, and the rehabilitation of prisoners. I hope the measures that I have taken will alleviate the pressure in the short term and will complement the measures that I outlined to the House in my statement in July. I commend the measures to the House.

May I start by thanking the Home Secretary for advance sight of his statement? May I also take this chance—my first opportunity—to congratulate him on his management of the alleged terrorist plot in August, which, if I may say so, I think he handled rather well? I am breathless in my admiration for the brazen way in which he claimed credit in his statement for the Tory initiative on increased penalties for knife crime, but of that more later.

As my hon. Friend says, it is called chutzpah.

Regrettably, I cannot say the same of the Government’s sorry handling of the crisis in our prison system. There is no excuse for the catastrophe facing the country.

In the past five years, the Government have received warning after warning that they were going to run out of cells—warnings from the Opposition, from the Prison Reform Trust, from their own advisers, and even from the chief inspector of prisons. In 2002, the lowest Home Office projection for the prison population by this year was 87,000, which is significantly higher than the capacity that it now has. When the Home Office could have acted to provide the necessary extra prison places, it failed to do so. Last year, long after it knew that it had a looming crisis, it even sold off a prison ship, cutting prison places by another 400.

Even on the current Home Secretary’s watch, the Department has been lackadaisical and slow to act. On 24 May this year, he was quoted in the press as saying:

“Protecting the public is my absolute priority.”

That is quite proper for a Home Secretary, yet I have a memorandum written by his private secretary only the day after, detailing a discussion of this crisis and considering the option of administrative release—the early release of prisoners to free cells. We know that that proposal was quashed by No. 10, but why were not all the proposals that the Home Secretary has put before us today initiated then, in May, before we had a crisis? Why do we have to have a crisis to get action out of this Government?

The Home Secretary’s predecessors attempted to head off this problem by way of a combination of early release and community sentencing. To justify that, they pretended that community sentences were equally tough as punishments, deterrents and methods of rehabilitation. None of that is true. Nine out of 10 of those who go through Labour’s flagship programme—the intensive supervision and surveillance programme or ISSP—reoffend within two years. The Home Secretary talked about more tagging: 75 per cent. of young criminals on tags reoffend within one year.

The Government’s strategy for rehabilitation is not only failing outside prison; it is also being destroyed inside prison. Owing to prison overcrowding, in order to create places in individual prisons, vast numbers of transfers occur. Last year, there were 98,000 transfers between prisons among a population of 80,000. That means that prisoners are frequently uprooted before they complete courses designed to rehabilitate them and to equip them for an honest life in the outside world. As a result, under this Government reoffending rates for prison have gone up from 56 to 67 per cent. Does the Home Secretary accept that that increase in reoffending rates—the greatest in the history of our prison system—is a direct result of the Government’s neglect of this area?

The various proposals that the Home Secretary has detailed might now be unavoidable, but only two—the action to remove or swap out foreign prisoners, and the re-roling of women’s prisons—are relatively low risk and low cost. Both of them should have been done months or even years ago.

Using police cells will be costly and will probably also be counter-productive. The last time this Government implemented Operation Safeguard, it cost more than £10 million, tied down policemen who should have been catching criminals rather than acting as part-time prison warders, and clogged up the police cells so that there was nowhere to put criminals who were caught. Does the Home Secretary accept that that will happen again this time, and if not why not?

Does the Home Secretary recognise that by accepting the transfer of category C prisoners to open prisons he is sanctioning an increase in risk to public safety? He might talk about risk assessment, but he must know, even now, that this is a very imprecise technique. Otherwise, how does he explain the rash of murders committed by prisoners on probation and parole? Does he recognise that each of his proposals will buy him only a matter of weeks or perhaps months? Even his conversion of an Army barracks will buy him only just over one more month.

The programme that the Home Secretary has laid before us today might get him to just past Christmas, but what will happen then? Will there be even more inappropriately given, non-custodial sentences or even earlier releases? Does he accept that the prison capacity failure has harmed every stage of the criminal justice system? It will handicap policemen from catching criminals. It has meant that criminals who should be in prison are either not sent to prison or released too early, and even when some criminals go to prison, the process has been rendered so chaotic that reoffending rates are climbing to record levels.

The Home Secretary must recognise that he cannot blame this on the civil servants, prison officers or judges. This crisis—this catastrophe—has arisen because this Government, by the policy that they have chosen to follow, have been derelict in their duty to protect the public.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about the events of August and the counter-terrorist measures that were taken. Far from in any way attempting to lay blame today with any officials or with anyone outside those who are responsible—i.e., me—I would much prefer to join him in laying some plaudits at the door of those who worked on that counter-terrorist operation. As I said, that is not a reason for complacency, but all of us should take all opportunities to put on the record our thanks for the dedication of those people who work night and day to protect this country from terrorism, and I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman allowed me the opportunity to do that.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned statistics and inadvertently illustrated just how difficult it can be to judge the trend. He said that the lowest estimate for this year was that 87,000 prison places were needed, but in fact, that is some 7,000 places above the capacity and the requirement at which we are operating. So it is not an exact science, but I have, I think, been quite straight with the House in three areas. First, I accept responsibility, because I am the Secretary of State for home affairs. Secondly, I have not hidden from the House that there is pressure on prison places, which is why I have not only discussed this issue in detail here, but within six weeks of coming in, discussed it with our colleagues at the Treasury and got agreement for another 8,000 prison places. Thirdly, and as I have said today, I have been considering further measures to deal with this issue. It is not true to paint this as a crisis; we did not discover it over the weekend. I have known since we went in about the pressure on places, and I have tried to manage the short, medium and longer term, and to outline these issues before the House with as much honesty as I can.

Let me then ask for a little honesty on a couple of subjects that the right hon. Gentleman raised. He was very selective in his discussion of reoffending rates. He chose to discuss the intensive supervision and surveillance programme because he knows that the hardest category of people to prevent from reoffending is young people, and that the hardest category among young people to prevent from reoffending are the worst offenders among young people. That is precisely why he chose to discuss that category.

Let us deal with some other reoffending categories, such as home detention curfew. The right hon. Gentleman is prepared continually to run down anything that happens outside custodial sentences, but the reoffending rate for home detention curfew while tagged, since it began in January 1999, is only 4 per cent., which is an unparalleled low level of reoffending. More than 130,000 people have been released on home detention curfew, and given the low reoffending rate of 5 per cent., I should have expected that extraordinary statistic to fall from the right hon. Gentleman’s lips while he was at the Dispatch Box.

The House will also be interested to know that for adults—not youngsters—the overall community sentence reoffending rate is too high, at 53 per cent. over two years, but that is 14 per cent. lower than the figure for those who serve prison custodial sentences. So probation is not obviously and self-apparently worse in all circumstances, and the right hon. Gentleman would do better to give a balanced view. Moreover, the overall reoffending rate is not 90-odd per cent. for juveniles; it is some 41 per cent. over one year. So it is wrong to take one specific area and to suggest that everything is the same.

Let me deal finally with prison building. It is absolutely true that we are under pressure, which is the reason why I am bringing in these measures. I hope that the situation has been managed over the past five or six months in a way that copes with the present pressures on prisons, as well as with the foreign national prisoner crisis. I hope that the hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches—and they are all gentlemen[Hon. Members: “No!”] I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who is very obviously a lady, was hidden by the desk; I must have it moved. My profuse apologies, Mr. Speaker. Re-roling prisons is one thing; re-roling ladies on the Front Bench is quite another, more offensive, thing.

I hope that those on the Opposition Front Bench will support me in my attempt to ensure that no foreign national prisoners are released from prison before they have been considered for deportation. If that is the case, while we work to the early lead time that is necessary in order to ensure that we can give six months’ notice so that people will be considered before release, there will be pressure on prison places. I would have hoped that the Opposition would accept that. But the truth of the matter is that while the right hon. Gentleman has been making a dreadful, dreadful fuss because we are a couple of hundred short of maximum capacity—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) shouts, “A crisis.” Let me give the figures for April 1997, which we inherited. In April 1997, after 18 years of Conservative Government, the total capacity of our prison system was 60,353. The actual prison population was 60,131. They were 223 short of absolute total capacity after 18 years. We will not take lectures from them on this.

As a staggering total of one in seven of our prison population are foreign nationals, will the Home Secretary tell us a little more of his conversations with other Governments about our wish to deport those people who are clogging up our prisons? Would it not be cheaper wherever possible to pay the country of origin to look after these prisoners so that they serve their sentence there, not in this country; and is not a real test of whether people should be in this country whether they have committed crimes?

To start with the second part of my right hon. Friend’s question, my view on that is known. Foreign nationals who come to this country, take its privileges and demand the rights and hospitality that it bestows upon them, should match that by showing responsibility, and failure to do so is clearly signified in the breach if they commit a serious crime. That is why anyone who is in that position should be automatically presumed to face deportation.

With regard to the first part of my right hon. Friend’s question, yes, I agree. At the moment there is a series of obstacles to asking foreign prisoners to go back to their country of origin. We are examining all of those obstacles in detail to see how, either by persuasion or by the obligation of law, we can overcome them. As part of that I have been discussing with my European colleagues, as late as Thursday of last week, this very issue. That would be an additional weapon in our armoury to ensure that we keep in prison in this country those who ought to be there for as long as they ought to be there, but remove from prison those who ought not to be there, either because they need treatment or because they should be back in their country of origin.

I too thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement and for dealing with the unprecedented events of this summer on behalf of us all, and I thank him for keeping me and, I know, other Opposition Members informed of events as they unfolded.

All Governments get caught on the hop by unexpected events. It is in the nature of things that disasters creep up on Ministers with little warning. It is also in the nature of things that that happens to Opposition parties too. Any reasonable observer will forgive a little Government panic when unpredictable events take over, but what possible excuse is there for a Government to fail to heed not one, not several, but continuous and repeated warnings of crisis in our prisons stretching back several years? Listening to the complacency of Ministers, the public would be forgiven for thinking that it is just a matter of a little temporary discomfort for prisoners themselves. The truth, of course, is altogether more serious. Overcrowded prisons prevent prisoners from being rehabilitated and so have a direct effect on increased levels of crime in our villages, towns and cities, inflicted by ex-prisoners who now reoffend at an historically unprecedented rated. No one should be under any illusions: public safety is yet again at stake because of Government incompetence. The Home Secretary has come to the House today in an attempt to camouflage a series of stop-gap, emergency measures as a carefully considered package, yet his proposals have raised more questions than long-term answers.

First, the Home Secretary’s statement does not explain why it is estimated that more than 500 foreign prisoners who should have been deported at the end of their sentences are still languishing in prison. The Home Secretary has said that he has set a target of spring next year to sort out the matter, but why take so long? Just a few days ago, a prison governor told me about a foreign prisoner who is desperate to be deported back to Asia and who has no idea why she is still in prison in this country a full nine months after her sentence finished. What possible explanation can the Home Secretary give for such woeful bureaucratic foot dragging?

Secondly, when will the Home Secretary not only, as he has done today, pay lip service to, but confront in practice, the fact that far too many individuals in prison have acute mental health problems—as many as one in 10 are estimated to be functionally psychotic? Rather than spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in a frantic effort to build prison cells as quickly as they are filled, does it not make more sense to invest that money in building more secure mental health treatment capacity?

Finally, is it not time for the Home Secretary to pluck up the courage to make the public case, beyond the few fleeting mentions here today, for non-custodial sentences as an effective alternative to prison for those who have committed lesser offences? I welcome his approach, but will he commit himself to do it again, to do it more and to do it in public? There is nothing tough in failing to take the political lead in advocating new ways to punish and rehabilitate offenders outside prison. Contrary to the assertion by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), there is plenty of good practice to build on. In Chard, the community justice panel pilot project has achieved reoffending rates as low as 5 per cent. In Scotland, reoffending rates for those on community service orders now stands at 42 per cent., which is well below the current 70 per cent. reoffending rate for young male prisoners in England.

Perhaps the Home Secretary will say it again and lead the public debate rather than merely making debating points in the Chamber. The sticking-plaster solutions that he has unveiled today are too little, too late, and he needs the courage and foresight to think anew.

I will say it again: the reoffending rate for home detention curfew is 4 per cent.; the overall reoffending rate for adult community sentences is 53 per cent., compared with 67 per cent. for prison; and the overall reoffending rate for juvenile community sentences is 41 per cent. As requested, I have said it again—I do not know why the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) thinks that he has made a case whereas I have merely mentioned something. I have made those remarks as part of what I hope is a balanced contribution.

Those who should stay in prison longer for the protection of the public ought to be retained in sufficient prison places, while others ought not to be in prison. The Liberals constantly demand more prison places and fewer people to fill them. I notice that the hon. Gentleman did not make a commitment on how many extra prison places the Liberals would build. I have already said 8,000 extra prison places, and I will continue to review the matter, but does he have a figure in mind? He would provide an unspecified number of extra prison places for fewer prisoners, although that is unspecified, too. That is a typical concoction from the Liberals, and “vacuous” is too substantial a word to describe it. [Interruption.] Conservative Members should not laugh, because they have not told us how many prison places they would provide.

In the summer, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said that the Conservative party would build more prison places, but he was immediately put back in his box by the shadow Chancellor, who told him that there would be no commitment. [Interruption.] If there is a specific number, I am waiting to hear it.

I have tried to be honest with the House in saying that there is pressure on prison places and explaining how we are going to manage that in the short term and the longer term. This is not a case of being caught on the hop by an unexpected event. The only unexpected event that caught me on the hop was being appointed to the Home Office, and I have already accepted that. Since I have been there, I have tried to ensure that we have a planned, progressive attempt to make sure that the sentence fits the crime and that the prison places available fit sentence lengths and numbers. That is what we will continue to do.

On foreign national prisoners, we are doing a considerable amount. Five hundred people are allocated to this to try not only to reduce the backlog but to deal with the cases that are coming up. Since we had our first discussion in this House, about 3,800 cases have been dealt with and 1,000 of those people have already been deported. Events continue to take place as we deal with the problems that arose in May or June of last year. I thank my officials for dealing with both those areas with dedication and commitment.

Order. This is a very important issue and an awful lot of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but we also have a lot of business to get through this afternoon and I must protect that. If hon. Members can possibly ask brief questions and the Home Secretary can perhaps make brief replies, fewer people will be disappointed.

My right hon. Friend will know that Armley prison in my constituency has struggled to cope with overcrowding for more than two decades, with more than 1,000 people locked up every night, 50 going in and 50 released. Even in those circumstances, the governor and staff have done a remarkable job in providing education and training and tackling drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is now well-established research saying that if a prisoner who has a family—that applies to 50 per cent.—gets more than six visits from his young children he is very unlikely to reoffend? When we tackle reoffending, will my right hon. Friend join together the programmes for adult literacy—

Order. The right hon. Gentleman clearly did not hear my earlier remarks.

Let me pay tribute not only to the staff at Armley prison but to prison officers throughout the country. It is true that rehabilitation is an important part of the purpose of prison. Articulacy—learning to read and write in some cases—is also important. In Armley, the learning process has been combined with visits by encouraging the prisoners to read and to help their children to learn. That requires the support of a dedicated prison service, and I should like to pay tribute to staff who are working very hard under very pressurised conditions.

May I ask the Home Secretary to distinguish between operational capacity and certified normal accommodation, the second of which measures overcrowding? Since he is so fond of comparisons with 1997, will he give us the percentage of prisoners sharing two to a cell designed for one, compared with 1997? Will he tell us whether there are any instances of three sharing a cell designed for two, which we had wholly eliminated; whether, as a result of bringing back into use discarded accommodation, there is any slopping out, which we had completely eliminated; and how many national vocational qualifications are being awarded, compared with 1997?

Because I did not anticipate that I would have the pleasure of a question from her. [Interruption.] I can approximate towards the answer that she is asking for, and I will certainly write to her afterwards. In 1997, the total crowded capacity in prisons was 60,353—that is, with people double-bunking as well—and the actual prison population was 60,131. In other words, even with massive doubling-up the prison population was only 223 short of running out of places. I will find the percentage figures, which I do not have available, and write to the right hon. Lady.

I am looking at the Home Office publication entitled, “World Prison Population List”. Do we have anything to learn from other countries in the European Union that lock up far fewer prisoners than we do?

I would caution the hon. Gentleman as he peruses world encyclopaedias to remember that different countries do not all measure by the same standards. For example, the measurement for people locked up per head of population is different from that for those locked up in proportion to offences detected. In this country, in proportion to offences detected, we are lower than many European countries. Secondly, there is a huge variation between European countries in how one measures offences detected and offences reported. Although international comparisons are useful, they are genuinely useful only if they are made on the basis of the same bottom line. That is rarely the case.

When the Home Secretary described the Department as not fit for purpose, I presume that he was referring to his predecessors’ failure in nine years to create a proper prison-building programme. Does he know that he will be judged on how many genuine extra prison places he creates in the next few months?

As it happens, I was not referring to my predecessors or prison places. One of the reasons for that is that my predecessors built almost as many prison places as the previous, Conservative Government in half the time. We have built 16,300 prison places in nine years. The previous Government built approximately 17,000 in 18 years. Far from believing that my predecessors did not build sufficient prison places compared with those who went before them, I know that they built many more pro rata.

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for agreeing to meet me and Dover district council to discuss his proposals to use Connaught barracks in Dover as a prison site. He knows that people in Dover are outraged and angry about the proposals, not only because of the site’s proximity to local schools and a local housing estate but because it is special and key to strategic redevelopment. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, when we meet, we have the opportunity to put those powerful arguments to him, as we did to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), and that he will take those points into consideration before making a final decision?

Of course I can assure my hon. Friend of that. He knows that I have said that I am more than willing to meet him. In the course of that consultation and negotiation I shall bear in mind factors such as local regeneration and opinion. He has already met my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary about the matter and I look forward to meeting him and his colleagues and listening to what they have to say.

What reassurances can the Home Secretary give the people in my constituency who live near Kirkham open prison that the category of risk for prisoners deemed suitable, under his proposals, for transfer to an open prison will not change until his additional prison places become available?

Actually, those prisoners who, for efficient management of the estate purposes, will go to an open prison system in addition to those who would normally go, constitute a lower risk. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, in the normal course of events under Governments of all persuasions, sometimes people who had served long sentences would go to an open prison before being released into the community at some stage. Those people would occasionally have committed violent offences, sexual offences or other offences leading to long sentences. That is not the case for those whom I have agreed can be moved for the additional management of the estate. I have insisted that that applies to people who are serving low sentences for non-violent and non-sexual crimes and that they undergo careful scrutiny before they go. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that anyone who goes under the latest decision making will be of a lower risk than those who have gone previously.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s proposal to look at what can be done to ensure that people who do not need to be in prison do not go there. Will he also examine what is happening now to people on parole who are recalled to prison? It appears that some are being recalled for the most trivial breaches of their parole conditions, and that no discretion is being given to probation officers to determine whether the problem is a serious or repeated breach.

I do not know any of the specific cases to which my hon. Friend refers. However, if people are allowed out of prison subject to not breaching the terms of their licence and they then proceed to breach them, they should go back in, and that is what is happening.

Is the Home Secretary aware that, in July 1998, the Home Affairs Committee published a report entitled “Alternatives to Prison Sentences”, which contained 47 recommendations? Does he agree that, if those all-party recommendations had been fully implemented, we might not be in the situation that we are in today? Will he also clarify precisely which garrison accommodation he is proposing to convert for prison use? His statement is silent on the location of that accommodation.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s second question is Dover, but if he knows of any other barracks, institutions or premises that might be suitable and available, I will of course look at them as well.

Many of the recommendations in the report that the hon. Gentleman mentioned have in fact been implemented. We commit people to community service where that is appropriate. However, the public will be more likely to accept a sentencing regime—including community service—if they know that it has not been dictated by a shortage of prison places. In other words, they want to be reassured that those who deserve to be kept in prison for longer periods are being so detained, rather than illegitimately being given a non-custodial sentence for the wrong reasons. I understand that feeling, which is why I want to ensure that dangerous offenders are kept away from the public if their offence merits that. On that basis, we can then argue that community service and other non-custodial sentences—many of which are referred to in the report—are appropriate, and they will gain public acceptance.

My right hon. Friend rightly stressed the importance of community sentences to reducing reoffending. Does he also agree that community and voluntary sector groups have a valuable role to play in working with prolific offenders and with young people at risk of offending, to ensure that the future prison population is kept down to a manageable level?

Yes, I do. I want to see more involvement of and partnership with the voluntary sector, as well as with the private sector, not only in this context but throughout the public services. That is not a particularly new thing; it is part of the very origins of the Labour party to work alongside those who believe that self-improvement and voluntary partnership are important elements of creating a better society. That certainly applies in the case of the Prison Service in regard to reducing reoffending, and it is central to the National Offender Management Service plans that we will develop over the next year.

Rehabilitation, literacy learning and detox programmes all require a degree of stability. Will the Home Secretary give the House an undertaking that the Prison Service will do all that it can to prevent the unnecessary movement of people around the prison estate, so that they have a chance to complete their literacy programme or their detox programme, or to get their NVQ? That is crucial for the men at prisons such as Bullingdon, if we are to reduce reoffending rates.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I know that that is the ideal, and the objective of those who work in the Prison Service, from the prison officers right up to the top management. It is one of the effects of the pressures on the prison population that we cannot always maximise the benefits of these programmes, but it is certainly our objective to do so. We want to do that, and we will do what we can.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. The issue of prison capacity was raised with me on many occasions while I was working with the West Midlands police this summer, and I believe that these proposals will help. However, I should like to raise the issues of the availability of drugs and the illicit use of mobile phones in prisons. As well as increasing prison capacity, will my right hon. Friend undertake to look into the recruitment of warders and the management of our prisons?

Both of those activities are important—not only drugs, which are an obvious problem, but the use of mobile phones—particularly where they are related to ongoing involvement in criminal activities outside the prison. My hon. Friend makes a good point; they are two priority areas for investigation.

Given that we get scandalously poor value for money from tens of thousands of people perambulating repeatedly through the revolving doors of our criminal justice system, when will the right hon. Gentleman be really brave and show foresight by making a firm commitment on the Floor of this House to substantial investment in education, training and therapy on the scale that alone might enable us to convert at least a proportion of career criminals into constructive contributors to our society?

That is precisely what underlines our approach in the National Offender Management Service. There is no question but that the range of rehabilitative courses and learning that goes on pays immense benefits, not only to the individuals concerned, but in terms of the protection of society when people are released. When I was at one of the London prisons recently, people were developing skills in bricklaying and plastering, related to the building trade and in anticipation of the building boom that will be necessary for the Olympics, and arrangements were being made with building firms outside to place the prisoners when they are released.

That is a huge advance, and I would guess that the probability of some of those people returning to prison is minimised precisely because of those arrangements, so I have no hesitation in saying that such learning is an essential element of why we have prisons in the first place—ultimately, reducing reoffending protects society—but it is obvious that we are not achieving that at anything like the rate that we ought to be.