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Sentencing/Prison Overcrowding

Volume 456: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2007

I thank the House for letting me raise this issue. I do so because of the case of one of my constituents, Keith Morris. He is a convicted paedophile who has been released on bail while awaiting his sentence. Clearly, I cannot comment further on the offence, or his case, except to quote Judge Cottle, who said of Mr. Morris at Exeter Crown court on Friday 26 January:

“If this case had been here last week, it would be over by now and he would be in Exeter Prison.”

That was several days after the Home Secretary’s reminder to judges about the use of custodial sentences, which followed a lengthy debate in the media on our overcrowded prisons.

This is not the first time that Judge Cottle has shot from the hip in the media in the south-west of England. His quote has caused a great deal of consternation among my constituents, who believe that a judge’s first duty is to protect the public, not to make a political point, important though that political point is.

My hon. Friend makes a good and interesting point. I was not in the court, so it is hard for me to provide the full context of the judge’s comments, but it strikes me that either the Home Secretary was wrong in what he said to the judges or this judge has wrongly interpreted what he said.

Order. I caution the hon. Gentleman that the sentence in this case has yet to be handed down. General reference to it is acceptable, but anything else will be out of order.

Thank you, Mr. Taylor. I was referring merely to the bail that the judge gave, which is a matter of record. I was not talking about the sentence, which is yet to be determined.

Judge Cottle’s comments came the day after Judge John Rogers QC gave a man who was convicted of child porn offences a suspended sentence because he had to

“bear in mind the current sentencing climate”.

In Nottingham Crown court, Judge Richard Bray put a shot across politicians’ bows by claiming that prisoners were reoffending

“because judges can no longer pass deterrent sentences.”

The current situation is a crisis of profound proportions. It is a crisis for the Government’s credibility and for judicial impartiality. Most importantly, it is a crisis for which we need society’s help. We must help those with mental health problems, those who lack education and drug abusers. Instead of receiving an outstretched hand of support, they receive a shaken fist and end up in prison.

The Prime Minister said:

“Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.”

Well, he is certainly true to his word in the first instance. Some 80,000 men and women reside in prison. That number is up 2,000 on the number a year ago, and up almost 20,000 since Labour came into power in 1997. One could argue that new Labour brought in new police who have made more arrests and that more people have consequently been found guilty, but that is wrong. Criminal convictions have barely increased. There were 1,736,629 in 1993, and 1,816,676 in 2004. That is an increase of barely 80,000, but the number of people sent down by magistrates has more than doubled in that period from 25,016 to 61,384. The same number for the Crown court went up by about a third from 33,722 to 44,938.

One could argue that the type of crime has changed and that there were a greater proportion of violent crimes in that period, but that is wrong. In 1993, 38,923 people were convicted for violent crime. In 2003, that figure was only 39,257, but, again, the number of custodial sentences increased from 7,516 to 12,247. It does not matter where one looks, sentencing trends are on the up.

Crown court sentences have risen from 20 months to 27 months in those 11 years, and magistrates courts have increased their use of prisons. They have gone from using them in 6 per cent. of cases to using them in 16 per cent. The use of fines, on the other hand, has declined from 46 per cent. to only 30 per cent. Some 9 per cent. of shoplifters are now jailed for their first offence, whereas only 2 per cent. were in 1993. The number of life sentences passed is now 570 a year, which is double the number passed 10 years ago. Some 59 per cent. of those were mandatory life sentences. There is no question but that sentencing is leading to prison overcrowding.

Home Secretary after Home Secretary has talked tough on crime. Since Labour came to power, new prisons have been built to accommodate 19,000 extra prisoners. Another 8,000 places are to be constructed at an average cost of £99,899, but to what end? Last February, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) said:

“Prison does not work in stopping reoffending.”—[Official Report, 9 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 1033.]

He is right. Some 67.4 per cent. of prisoners are reconvicted within two years of being released. For young men aged 18 to 21, that figure rises to 78.4 per cent. In 1992, however, the overall figure was just over 50 per cent. The idea that by locking up all those people we will somehow rehabilitate them is clearly demonstrably wrong. The reoffending of ex-prisoners costs us £11 billion a year, according to the Government’s figures.

For a male born in 1953—incidentally, the year that I first popped into the world—there is a 7.5 per cent. chance that he has been to jail and a 33 per cent. that he has a conviction. I do not fall into either of those categories.

I am being heckled. I can tell hon. Members where the criminals are.

Someone born in 1997 will, in 33 years’ time, have been more likely to have spent time inside, and more likely just to have committed an offence. We have to accept that crime is falling, but of the 30 per cent. fall reported by the Prime Minister’s strategy unit’s Carter report, only 5 per cent. was due to the 22 per cent. increase in the prison population at that time. The report states that

“there is no convincing evidence that further increases in the use of custody would significantly reduce crime.”

If sending people to jail does not help, why do we keep doing it? Clearly, we need to keep some people locked away, such as murderers, rapists, paedophiles and serious repeat offenders. No one is going to argue with that, but what about people with mental health problems and drug dependencies? In his evidence to the all-party group on penal affairs, Dr. John O’Grady, a consultant forensic psychologist, said:

“When you start looking at things like being taken into care, in the general population it’s about 2 per cent., but in the prison population it’s 27 per cent. If you start looking at people being excluded from school, that runs at about 2 per cent. of the general population, but for male sentenced prisoners it’s almost 50 per cent., for female prisoners it’s about 33 per cent. When you start looking at numeracy and literacy below the age of 11 that runs at about 20 per cent. or so of the general population but about 65 per cent. of the prison population. If you look at IQ it’s skewed towards the lower end of the intellectual spectrum. Looking at things like unemployment, that’s about 5 to 7 per cent. in the general population currently, but 65 to 67 per cent., before imprisonment, in the prison population. Homelessness (on a fairly wide definition) runs at about 1 per cent. in the general population, but about 30 per cent. in the remand population in particular. Add to that mental disorder and it’s overwhelming. About 5 per cent. of people in the general population have 2 or more mental disorders—but this rises to 70 per cent. or so in the prison population.”

Clearly, tackling the issues facing children in care and those excluded from school will reduce crime in future years, but do the latter group need to be in jail or in a mental health institution?

Some 80,000 people are in prison; the annual turnover is twice that, at 160,000. In 2004, only 831 people were transferred from prison to health authority care. Some £500 million is spent on securing prisoners, but only £25 million is spent on “in reach”, according to Dr. O’Grady, who likens prison to a third world country: impoverished, with few facilities and where it is impossible to move to a first world country for health. He describes sections 48 and 49 of the Mental Health Act 1983 as being like “visas”; impossible to get. Section 37 does allow movement, but few people get it.

In the same evidence session, Dr. David James argued that it was possible to divert some people with psychotic disorders out of the prison system at the police station or the magistrates court. He spoke of encouraging pilot schemes being set up to do that. Such schemes increased the recognition of mental illness at the magistrates court by 400 per cent., leading to a speeding up of admission to hospital, and were encouraged under the national service framework for health. Indeed, there are supposed to be 150 such arrangements around the country, but reports by National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders showed that, as funding declined, so did the success of those schemes.

The number of court-to-prison diversions fell by 29 per cent. over the period 1993-2004 whereas the total number of people formally admitted to hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983 increased during the same period, so the fall in diversions is surprising.

On the subject of severe mental health problems for prisoners, Dr. Adrian Grounds stated:

“The scale of the problem is huge. Based on the best research we’ve got, it may be about 4 per cent. of the prison population that need to be in hospital beds and in current terms, that means something in the order of 3,000 prisoners, possibly up to 3,700.”

If the people with mental health problems who are currently residing in prison were diverted towards health care, an additional number of places would instantly be available in prisons. Instead of sending missives to judges, the Home Secretary might be better talking to his colleagues, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Health, in order to put more money into mental health and into schemes to prevent people from going to prison at the court stage and at the police station.

If we put funding into drug rehabilitation units, alcohol misuse centres, quality care for children in care and education to deal with excluded pupils, we might not need so many prison places. We should put funding into those things and spend less on spin doctors fabricating headlines for the tabloid press.

All of this is very serious, but the bizarreness of the statements made by judges is highlighted by the fact that, at the same time as Keith Morris was released on bail, another gentleman in my constituency, James Short, was released on licence from Exeter prison. According to our local paper, the Herald Express:

“He was given a place at the Amber Foundation in Barnstaple but was told to leave three days later after he had sex with a female resident. Short set up an alternative address near relatives in Newton Abbot and informed the Probation Service”.

Having spent some time away from female company, he was surprised that when he found some and he had sex, he was excluded and ended up back in jail. That situation seems severe.

Someone found tapping in to the Queen’s text messages, would also find themselves in jail, yet other people have been released, released on bail—[Interruption.]

On 29 January, Harry Woolf stated in The Times:

“I retired from the office of Lord Chief Justice more than a year ago and have since avoided being drawn into the debate about sentencing. Recent events have made me decide to do so. The prison system is in crisis.”

That echoes the words that I used at the beginning of the debate. He continued:

“Overcrowding in prisons corrodes standards. At that time the prison population was 43,000 and falling. It is now almost double that and is expected to continue to rise. Overcrowding makes it almost impossible to tackle effectively the causes of offending…The only possible solutions are either to reduce the numbers in custody or increase the proportion of the nation’s wealth devoted to providing the accommodation necessary.”

Lord Woolf’s letter is long, but worth reading. At the end of it he makes a number of points that relate particularly to the Home Secretary’s actions and why he, among others, is culpable for the current crisis in our prisons. Lord Woolf states that in order to deal with this we need

“action to include the repeal or suspension of statutory provisions that force judges to use more and longer sentences than are necessary for the public’s protection”.

I do not think that any of us could put it better than that.

I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Taylor, and to the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) for securing the debate on this important subject. I shall not speak for long, but I want to put a couple of things on the record and ask the Minister some questions.

First, I should say that our courts must be seen to be dispensing fair and even-handed justice. I hope that we would all agree on that. Judges are obliged to pass sentence in accordance with guidelines in order to ensure consistency in punishment. As a nation, we have held that close to us for many a year. If two offenders who have committed the same offence in identical circumstances can be given vastly disparate sentences based solely on political pressures, such as prison overcrowding, clearly justice will not be seen to be served.

I would be grateful if the Minister told us what evidence his Department has that judges were failing to follow the guidelines, as we are told that it prompted the recent letter from the Home Secretary. Will the Minister also tell us how many times in the past 10 years, and when, Home Secretaries have written to judges to remind them of sentencing guidelines? As it happens, I have tabled parliamentary questions to obtain the answers, but I would be grateful if the Minister would spend a moment answering those points. He adequately answered all of our questions in the Chamber last week, and my colleagues and I are enormously grateful for his time and tolerance in dealing with them.

It would also be helpful if the full text of the Home Secretary’s letter were put in the Library, if that has not yet been done. I personally have not received a copy of it and I would like to see it. His letter dealt another serious blow to the morale of police forces across the country. That is particularly so in Norfolk, but I imagine that forces throughout the country are dismayed by what is happening. Despite facing cuts in numbers, Norfolk constabulary continues to do all it can to find and arrest those who have committed crimes. Officers are furious that they risk seeing many of those that they have arrested walk away from court, despite the fact that, under normal circumstances, those found guilty would face custodial sentences.

What message does the current saga send to our police forces? They rightly feel that they have again been badly let down by the Government. Most importantly, what message does the current saga send to criminals and those who have received lighter sentences as a result of the Home Secretary’s interference? We need some straight answers to those questions because we are in a difficult position. As the hon. Member for Teignbridge said, we face a serious situation and we owe it to our constituents—they rightly raise those subjects week in, week out, at our surgeries—to feel safe in their own homes and, most importantly, to know that the judicial system in this country and our sentencing regime are fit for purpose. If that means prison overcrowding, we must consider proper funding for more prisons to cope with it. I am sure that the Minister takes the matter seriously and I hope that he will respond to some of my points.

I begin by posing a question: are we, the inhabitants of the British Isles, so intrinsically bad that we must lock up many more people per capita than our European neighbours? Some hon. Members might say yes, but the question is a proper one. It is especially apposite since we have had prison overcrowding every year since 1994, according to Home Office digest 4, which was published in 1999. However, I differ slightly from the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) in not laying all the blame at the door of the Home Office, because the problem has been going on for a long time.

I shall ask one or two questions and suggest one or two ideas that may find favour with the Home Office. Over the past year or so, more than half of prisons have been overcrowded according to the National Offender Management Service’s bulletin of January 2006. The problem is long standing and I recall serving on the Standing Committee of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, 10 years ago, and saying that as a direct result of that legislation everyone knew that there would be a substantial influx of new prisoners and that if the Bill was going to make any sense it would have to be matched with a substantial increase in prison places. That was evident to many of us, but very little provision was made and the situation was exacerbated by further legislation.

I venture to suggest that one of the complicating features is that the criminal justice system in general and sentencing in particular is and always has been a political football. Every now and then, the Tories and Labour get into a bidding war about how to be beastly to offenders and that is normally to the background music of the tabloid drumbeat. If the matter were depoliticised—if that is possible—the system could be greatly improved for the benefit of society and, crucially, the taxpayer. Terrence Grange, chief constable of Dyfed-Powys Police put it very well when he said:

“Instead of careful planned thinking we respond, respond, respond. We get into the male thing, my chest is hairier than yours…which bedevils this whole arena of crime prevention”.

Many of those involved in the criminal justice system have long concluded that for the vast majority of offenders prison simply does not work. Even before the 2003 Carter report, it was clear that policy was wrongly directed. That report was stark in its findings and said that a 22 per cent. increase in the prison population since 1997 is estimated to have reduced crime by around 5 per cent. The report concluded:

“There is no convincing evidence that further increase in the use of custody would significantly reduce crime”.

Indeed, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) said:

“More than half of all crime in this country is committed by people who have been through the criminal justice system. Prison does not work in stopping reoffending.”—[Official Report, 9 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 1033.]

Surprisingly, that was not an ex cathedra statement, but was made during a debate on the Floor of the House when the right hon. Gentleman was very much in harness. If that was the Home Office’s thinking then, what has happened since? Not a lot, to use a phrase.

Two contrasting factors continue to predominate: the political imperative to which I alluded, and the fact that the vast majority of prisoners—67 per cent.—are reconvicted within two years of release. The figure for prisoners between the ages of 18 and 21 in Wales is 78 per cent. according to Home Office digest 2005, which gave results from the 2002 cohort. If there were a complete change of heart about custody it would be like an ocean-going vessel, which takes a long time to stop or turn round. The rehabilitation element of prison is severely undermined by gross overcrowding and by cutbacks in training and education, which may contribute to the statistics. It is becoming plain that if prison does not make a real difference to an individual's life chances on release, it is merely an expensive revolving door that is costly to society and useless to the offender.

The hon. Gentleman refers to overcrowding and its impact on the ability to rehabilitate offenders. Does he realise the scale of that overcrowding? The certified normal accommodation at Swansea prison is 240 places, its operational capacity is 428, its current population is 428, so it is overcrowded by 178 per cent. Many other prisons are in exactly the same position with nearly double their capacity.

To make matters worse, the worst overcrowding is often in old Victorian prisons. I have visited many of them professionally and the position is often dire.

I shall speak briefly about the situation in Wales and the need for another prison facility. I am not a “lock ‘em up” person, but there is, sadly, a need for such a facility for north and mid-Wales. The Minister will know about the current discussions and the unhappiness, particularly among the North Wales Criminal Justice Board partnership. It is desperately unhappy about another prison in south Wales, which would leave north Wales without any kind of facility.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge mentioned the crucial drugs issue. We all know that two thirds of property crime is drugs-related in some way, so it is clear that prisons should have a considerable drugs rehabilitation capacity. That is nowhere near true and the stark fact is that it is easy to obtain illicit drugs in prison. An offender sentenced to 12 months or less is unlikely to receive any drug rehabilitation treatment while serving their sentence.

The situation is sporadic, and there are beacons of good practice here and there in the prison system. The drug rehabilitation scheme at Altcourse prison, in Liverpool, is an interesting initiative. Its supported detox programme is aimed at new admissions who are identified as needing assistance with withdrawing from drugs, including alcohol. The programme lasts 14 days and is based on a gradually reducing dosage of medication. It requires prisoners to participate in various activities, such as drug and alcohol misuse groups and healthy living and relaxation classes. A qualified substance misuse nurse is based at the unit to provide ongoing support, including advice on harm reduction, hepatitis B and C, HIV, diet and healthy living. Crucially, however, that support is also available when offenders are released from prison. That initiative could well be followed elsewhere.

If prisons are to be made “fit for purpose”, to quote the Home Secretary, we need to have a fundamental rethink about issues such as who should go to prison, mental health facilities, drugs intervention programmes, education and training and, crucially, reducing overcrowding. There is a vast amount of work to be done, and I repeat that it is not all down to the Home Secretary, but the clock is ticking. We require something to be done fairly quickly, because prisons are a powder keg at the moment, and there will be problems sooner or later with inmates attacking each other and staff.

As I said, there is a vast amount to be done, but many of us believe that the National Offender Management Service will not be of much assistance. Clearly, we cannot run the prison service on the cheap; if we do, the current wasteful spiral will continue unabated, with awful results.

Like many others, I believe that there must be a complete and detailed overhaul of prisons and our approach to the prison population. For many months, if not years, I and others have called for a full audit of the prison population because many thousands of people undoubtedly should not be in prison. Such people may have alcohol or drug addiction problems, may not be dangerous to the public and may well require medication and back-up support when they come out of prison. Such an audit is the way forward; without it, we will perpetuate the current revolving-door policy, which is no use to individuals or society and which is ultimately extremely expensive.

Incidentally, that view is supported by Lord Woolf, who, according to The Times of 29 January, urged the Home Secretary to adopt the

“‘nuclear option’ of releasing thousands of non-dangerous prisoners to ease overcrowding.”

That cannot be done overnight; if it were, there would complete anarchy on the streets—that is patently obvious to all. However, that call should be heeded, and urgent work should be done on the issue. Indeed, the Minister may advise us that work is being done, and that news would be gratefully received.

The call to look again at non-custodial sentences and at decreasing the current prison population has been supported by Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. As we know, non-custodial sentences can be just as effective as custodial sentences, and they can also be made socially and politically acceptable. If we had a mature debate, as opposed to the current hanging and flogging discourse, we could tell the public that non-custodial sentences were, for example, cost-effective, that they were a form of redress in which the transgressor gave something back to the transgressed and that they were far more effective at addressing reoffending. The widespread use of properly structured and supervised community sentences would take great pressure off the prison estate. Surely, the public would buy those arguments; if they were properly put, common sense dictates that people would accept them.

I endorse the comments that the present Lord Chief Justice made in his recent paper “Alternatives to Custody—the Case for Community Sentencing”, which was issued by Oxford university. I also applaud the recent experiment in which he spent time at the coal face, as it were, with people on non-custodial sentences. In his report, there is vital sentence:

“First and foremost we need the appropriate resources”.

I recently attended a short conference held by the Coalition on Social and Criminal Justice, and the coalition’s wholehearted endorsement of the greater use of community penalties is welcome. In particular, its local partnership approach to bringing in social services, the probation service, the health service and magistrates is a helpful contribution to the debate. However, such suggestions presuppose that there is adequate investment in the probation service, because it is key that we have properly trained probation officers in the field.

When I began as a young and, I hope, idealistic solicitor in north Wales in the early 1970s, there were four probation officers in my local town of Dolgellau. Now, however, their work is done by one probation officer, who is situated 50 miles away. Of course, less work may now be going through the magistrates court, but those probation officers worked tirelessly with individuals and achieved great results. I saw young people who had offended and who were at a crossroads in their lives. I also saw dedicated probation officers working with those young people and disciplining them, but they also befriended them.

Now, those same ex-offenders are respected members of the community and proud parents and grandparents; they hold down good jobs and are on town and community councils. I shudder to think what would have happened to them if they had offended now, rather than then. Would they have gone to a young offenders institution? Would they have taken the wrong route at that crossroads in their lives? Sadly, I think that the answer is yes, and it gives me no pleasure at all to say so.

We therefore need far greater investment in the probation service to make sure that it is there not only to discipline people and ensure that community penalties are properly carried out, but to befriend people and provide back-up with other agencies so that medical health, mental health and/or drug problems can be addressed by other colleagues.

Finally, let me say a word about the ongoing debate about the need for a prison facility for north Wales. I began arguing the case for such a facility back in the early 1990s, when I was first elected. That was not because I wanted to send more people to prison, but because, at any given time, about 650 or 750 people from north and mid-Wales are held in Manchester, Shrewsbury, Liverpool and beyond. That is wrong in principle because a person who is in custody or on remand is entitled to be a reasonable travelling distance from his or her family. Indeed, it is part of rehabilitation to maintain good family ties and ties with friends.

I might also mention the Human Rights Act 1998, although that might annoy the Minister—the last time I referred to it, he got up and started insulting me, calling me a little backwoods solicitor who knew nothing about human rights. As it happens, I am a member of the Bar—not that it helps me very much.

I thought that I would get that insult in before the Minister gave it to me. However, on a serious point, we are all becoming more aware of human rights, and there is an important human rights point here. It is unreasonable for friends and relatives to have to travel half a day to a prison facility and half a day back, because they are less likely to maintain contact with those who are on remand or in custody. I therefore seriously urge the Minister to enter that debate.

There has been talk of a prison facility coming to Wales, but the talk is about south-east Wales. As we know, however, south Wales already has Parc prison near Bridgend, Swansea prison to the west, Cardiff prison and the prison at Newport. All those prison facilities are within easy travelling distance of the M4. There is nothing in mid-Wales and north Wales. It is wrong, if a prison facility is to come to Wales, for it to be situated anywhere but in north Wales, to serve north and mid-Wales. It is an important point and I urge the Minister to deal with it. I know that the National Offender Management Service and the criminal justice partnership in Wales are unhappy about it. I ask the Minister whether he will think about the situation and consider whether he can lend his support to the establishment of a prison facility in north Wales.

Incidentally, the talk is of a prison facility in Cwmbran on the site of the old police college, which of course is owned by the Home Office. The local Member of Parliament is the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who is adamantly against such a facility. He, in fairness to him, pleads the case for a facility in north Wales. I should be much obliged if the Minister dealt with this matter when he responds.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on giving the House an opportunity to discuss an extremely topical and worrying area of Government policy. Let us after all remember that what brings us here this morning is a state of affairs in which the Home Secretary is reduced to writing to judges reminding them of the political need to do their best not to send to prison serious offenders who in the past, or in different circumstances, might well have been given a custodial sentence. I agree with what other hon. Members have said, including the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), who asked what that approach tells the police force who work bravely and tirelessly to catch and convict criminals, and what it tells the criminals; the latter now realise that the Government’s mismanagement of the situation has made justice arbitrary—a moving target—so that their sentencing expectations depend on the ability of the Home Office to predict and provide prison places, something it has been shown to be incapable of doing.

I have some sympathy with the Minister. I am not sure that everyone in debates such as this sets out with that viewpoint, but I think that he is a victim of a style of government pioneered by the Labour party after it won the 1997 general election. Almost 10 years into that period of government, we can make a mature assessment of how effective new Labour has been at reinventing the way in which the country is governed. One of the greatest failings and the commonest traits of the Labour party in government is the confusion of media stunts and talking about effective action with carrying out effective action. The greatest myth that needs to be exposed about the Labour party in government is that it is masterful in the black arts of media manipulation and presentation. Looking at each day’s headlines about the Home Office, I can only say that if that is a masterful display of media management I should not like to see a Government who were incapable of managing the media.

Yesterday’s Daily Express, for example, has the headline: “Now we let rapists and child sex offenders go free: Yet another scandal rocks beleaguered Home Office.” That kind of thing is in the newspapers every day. The Sun on the same day had the big headline: “Violence rockets in crowded jails”, with the subheading: “Reid’s brain is still missing”. That gives a flavour of the present situation. It is the Minister’s misfortune to have to come to the House and try to make the best of a bad job against such a background of criticism of his and his colleagues’ management of Home Office policy.

Like my party and I assume most hon. Members, I start from the belief that there is a legitimate and important place for prisons in our criminal justice system. First and most obviously, prisons are a punishment for people who have committed an offence and transgressed the rules of society in a particularly serious way; a prison sentence is thought appropriate in such cases to reflect the views of the public about what those people have done. Secondly, prison protects the public, in some circumstances. The person in prison may of course be a direct threat to wider society, so that it is in the interest of society to keep that person out of the main stream of interaction with other people. Thirdly, prison can serve as a deterrent, as can other forms of punishment.

All those are reasons for considering prison appropriate in some circumstances. I should not want anyone to think that my party does not want serious and in some cases persistent offenders to spend time in prison. It may be that people who have committed particularly abhorrent crimes should spend more time in prison than they now do. What horrifies so many people about the current state of affairs is the potential for some people who have committed serious crimes to spend less time in prison than they might, because of capacity being taken up by other people, some of whom might be better dealt with elsewhere in the criminal justice system. I start, therefore, from the assumption that prison is an important tool at the disposal of any Government in trying to enforce the collective rules of society.

We have, however, got into an extraordinary situation. It has been mentioned that the United Kingdom now has the highest rate of imprisonment per head of population in western Europe. The problem is acute. Reoffending seems to me to be an obvious measure of prison success, because it affects everyone. It is not just a matter of the well-being of the individuals concerned. It affects everyone in this Chamber, through the likelihood of our becoming victims of violent crime or having our houses burgled. It is of interest not only to those who follow criminal justice debates closely. Perhaps we might consider the reoffending rates in this country, which show that 82 per cent. of relevant teenage boys, 75 per cent. of burglars and 79 per cent. of thieves reoffend within two years. In our system, more than four out of five teenage boys who go to prison reoffend. That is not an abstract figure. It means that more than four out of five of those teenage boys commit crimes against my constituents and those of the other hon. Members present. More than 60 per cent. of prisoners are convicted again within two years of release. Reoffending is rife. We must ask why, and what we can do about it.

I suspect that one of the problems is that people in prison are not equipped to manage life outside prison when they leave. We are all familiar with cases of people who were persistent truants at school and perhaps left school prematurely, because their truancy had developed to such an extent that they were effectively no longer attending; people who cannot read or write properly or add up, and who have never held down a meaningful job or any job at all; people with no fixed abode, who may have all kinds of family background circumstances that make it hard for them to settle in mainstream society. Those people end up in prison. Prison becomes the dustbin for people who have not managed until then to succeed in any other part of society, or engage with public service provision.

Many such people spend a reasonably short time in prison; it is rare that their first serious offence is so serious that they are likely to spend decades there. Then they are released. It would take an extremely enlightened employer to choose from a competitive list of job applicants the person with an inability to read or write, who did not attend school properly as a teenager, has never done a job, did not have a fixed abode before going to prison and has just been released from prison.

The question is what can we do to deal with that malaise. More than half of men in prison—52 per cent.—and 71 per cent. of women, which is almost three quarters, have no formal qualifications. Some 65 per cent. of prisoners have a numeracy level below that of an 11-year-old child, and 82 per cent. have a writing ability below that expected of an 11-year-old child.

Currently, people are incarcerated for a period, after which they leave and we and the Government know that the expectation—it is not just a possibility—is that they are ill equipped to manage in society and will commit another offence. We let teenage boys out of prison with the expectation that we will welcome back more than four out of five of them, because the system will have failed to deal with the underlying causes of their offending. I want serious measures introduced to address that problem, and I shall return to that in my comments about possible solutions.

I talked about prison being a dustbin for people who are unable to manage in society. Some prisoners do not have mental health problems, but many do. One can bandy about different estimates, but about one in 10 prisoners has severe mental disorders. I am talking not about problems that are more easily treatable, but about severe mental disorders, and we must ask ourselves whether prison is conducive to treating and rehabilitating those people. How can we look after them better and try to help them while protecting the public? Is the place to do so a severely overcrowded prison? Most people would accept that it is not. People with severe drug addictions also often end up in prison, because no other service is likely to help them, and that fails the public at large, too.

Another category of people in prison is minor offenders. I accept that all crimes have victims, and that if one is a victim of crime involving such an offender, it may not feel like a minor offence. However, some people are going to prison at huge cost. The more secure prison places cost more than a year’s education at Eton, and we must ask ourselves whether that provides the taxpayer with value for money. Offenders go to prison at huge cost when we know that in more than four cases out of five, they are likely to return to prison. They may return again and again, and the sentences may stretch to longer and longer terms as they go to prison initially for minor offences, relative to other crimes, meet people who can teach them about more serious criminal activity, and fall into a life of more serious crime. We must try to break that spiral.

The final bleak assessment of the position into which the Government have managed to put this country concerns the amount of violence in prisons. It is a topical issue, because my party raised it only this week. Violence in prison has risen by an amazing 600 per cent. since Labour came to power. In 1996, the year before this Administration took office, there were 2,342 violent attacks in prison; in 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available, the number had risen to 13,771.

It is worth considering the breakdown of attacks against prison wardens. We owe a huge debt to people who work in difficult circumstances to protect the public. In 1996, there were 551 reported attacks; in 2005, the number had risen to 2,971. There are prisons in which drug taking is rife, and in many cases it can fuel violence. There is heavy overcrowding, with its resultant unease, and there is also violence not only from one offender to another, but against prison staff.

That is the state of prisons. I shall offer some thoughts about how we might address that sorry state of affairs. First, we must introduce more effective and secure mental health treatment. Huge numbers of prisoners suffer from mental health disorders. The statistics that one picks depend on how one measures the disorders, so people can offer whatever numbers they like. However, a sizable minority of prisoners suffer from severe mental disorders, and many more besides them suffer from lesser mental health problems. The Liberal Democrats argue that money must be put into finding more secure and semi-secure mental health treatment for offenders.

Many speakers in the debate have used figures, but I shall cite a particular case. Erwin James, in his foreword to “Troubled Inside: Responding to the Mental Health Needs of Men in Prison”, wrote:

“On the wing there was plenty of evidence of behaviour brought on by mental distress. One young man only ever wore the same pair of jeans and a green nylon cagoule. He never wore shoes or socks, never went out on exercise, hardly ever spoke to anyone and was understood to have been taken advantage of sexually by predatory prisoners. He was in his early 20s with many years of prison ahead of him. Another had a habit of”—

Order. Interventions should be brief. I plan to call the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) at 12 o’clock.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge paints a bleak picture that I fear is all too typical of the experiences of people with mental health problems in prison today.

My party would also increase the amount of drug treatment that is available. Some 66 per cent. of male and 55 per cent. of female sentenced prisoners have used drugs in the previous year. Drug taking is rife in prison, and the problem must be tackled.

I have talked about literacy and numeracy problems in prison. The large number of prisoners who have a background of debt is also a problem, as well as prisoners who were dependent on benefit payments before entering prison being, in many cases, ill equipped to adjust to a normal working and law-abiding life after they leave prison.

Community sentencing and restorative justice must be used more intelligently. I do not mean soft options about which the public despair because they regard them as an inferior punishment to prison, but properly supervised and visible work in the community. I would be happy to see people on community orders dressed in a uniform to demonstrate to the public that proper activity is being undertaken to contribute to society. I should also like people in prisons to do meaningful paid work through which they can relate their activities to rewards. Such activity would prepare them meaningfully for life outside, and it would contribute to the victims whom they harmed, or more widely to the society against which they transgressed.

This Government too often mistake talking tough on crime for acting effectively on crime. They too often think that eye-catching initiatives that are designed to win headlines in the next day’s newspapers are an alternative to long, carefully thought-through and properly and meticulously prepared policies and administration designed to protect the public. They too often think that a legislative frenzy in this House, designed to show activity and to try to reposition the Government favourably towards Opposition parties, is likely to protect people in my constituency and elsewhere. In prison policy, as in so much of the rest of the Home Office’s responsibilities, I am afraid to say that that approach has been found desperately wanting. It is time that we tried the more constructive and enlightened policies that I have outlined this morning.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on initiating the debate. Since I am a friend of Jonathan Aitken, however, may I also invite the hon. Gentleman to recognise that the Erwin James quotation that he was trying to read into the record is in fact a quotation by Erwin James of Jonathan Aitken’s words, which were taken from his book about life inside prison? None the less, the facts lying behind the quotation are well worth bearing in mind when one considers an issue as difficult as prison overcrowding.

I want also to pay tribute to the contributions of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who is a noted contributor to debates on criminal justice, and I hope that his words have been listened to with care on this occasion, as they have on others, by those in the House and those on the Government Front Bench in particular. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) has a prison in his constituency—

It is in Griston, but it is called HMP Wayland and is named after Wayland wood, which I know very well. My hon. Friend pointed out with a great degree of accuracy the concerns that people have about the consequences of overcrowding in prisons, which ties into his plea for consistency in sentencing. That cannot be achieved if our prisons are overcrowded, the consequences of which are a demoralised public and a demoralised police force, who are doing their best to apprehend criminals and ensure that they are brought to justice.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) made, if I may say so, a speech that I could have made myself. Although much of what he said is uncontroversial—much of what I have said about prisons during the past 15 months or so is uncontroversial—it is difficult to get the Government to do anything more than say, “Yes, we hear what you say.” It is quite difficult to get the Government to deal with the facts and act on them. It is a pleasure, none the less, to have the Minister in our midst. Whether he has retaken this particular remit from the Home Office or he is merely substituting for the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), makes little difference to me. What is important is that he is here to respond to the debate. It is a debate to which we can give little justice in an hour and a half, but we must do our best.

Undoubtedly, overcrowding in the prison estate is one of the biggest problems facing the criminal justice system. At the moment, that system is probably at its lowest point in the public esteem and, within the whole criminal justice system, the prison system is in the most chaotic and troubled state. I am concerned that the inflated size of the prison population costs a fortune and causes difficulties by overburdening the prison estate. It inhibits the process of rehabilitation and thus also inhibits attempts to reduce reoffending, which are vital for an efficient criminal justice system and public safety.

Not only does overcrowding affect what I would call the regular criminal justice system but as we have learnt from the press today, it is affecting the Government’s ability to deal with illegal immigration. I make those remarks in the context of yesterday evening’s debate on the UK Borders Bill. According to today’s Daily Mail:

“Illegal immigrants are roaming the streets because there is no room for them at detention centres…More than 200 foreign prisoners who were taking up jail spaces have been dumped on immigration centres over the past two weeks.

This has left no places for illegals, who are now classed as the ‘lowest detention priority’. They are not being picked up and continue to walk the streets with little or no threat of being held.

There is also only restricted space for the 285,000 failed asylum seekers waiting to be kicked out of the country, supposedly a Government priority. In an ever-deepening farce, officials have to ring detention centres to check there is room before they can arrive with an illegal.

The emails to immigration staff even reveal details of officers being told there is a bed for a recently caught offender—only for it to be gone by the time they arrive…police cells—already full of criminals because of the prison overcrowding—are also being hit.

The report says that an e-mail sent within the Home Office dated 17 January stated:

“The detention estate remains full for today. You will have to check…before planning any detentions unless you can arrange detentions in police cells for the first couple of nights”,

while another e-mail sent the following day adds:

“We have a backlog of cases still in police stations due to no beds being available.’

The report continues:

“The Home Office normally has 2,680 detention spaces for holding illegals and failed asylum seekers, but capacity is currently down by 440 following last year’s…riots at Harmondsworth.

More than two months after the failed asylum seekers”

destroyed the centre,

“it is fit to house only 60 detainees.”

However, the e-mails that have been discovered

“reveal that, since the latest prison overcrowding crisis erupted, the situation has become even worse. Foreign convicts who have completed their sentences but were being held in jail pending deportation have been moved to immigration centres to create space in prisons.

They have been made top priority, with all categories falling in line.”

That shows how, as the Home Secretary tries to solve one problem, he only creates another.

The e-mails, which were sent to staff across the immigration and nationality directorate, sparked a degree of concern in the House last night. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who speaks for the Conservative party on immigration issues, said:

“The knock-on effects of having nowhere to detain people who have no right to be here are dangerous to the public, demotivating to immigration officers and destroy the credibility of all John Reid’s tough talk.”

So we can see that overcrowding in the custodial system affects not just the criminal justice system, but the proper running of our immigration system.

I want to concentrate on one or two of the effects of overcrowding. It has a dramatic impact on the operation of both prisons and prisoners in relation to conditions; the ability of prison officers to work effectively; inmates’ access to educational and training programmes; the number of disruptive transfers; the success of and access to mental health treatment, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Taunton; drug and other vital rehabilitative programmes; and prison standards in general. The Prison Service business plan for the year 2006-07 describes clearly the impact of overcrowding on the prison estate, saying that

“changes in the prison population can present major challenges for the Prison Service in terms of maintaining regime and settlement activity and meeting output targets. Significant increases in the prison population can also lead to real difficulties in matching prisoners to the most appropriate accommodation (in terms of facilities and location) and this can have an impact on efforts to implement the decency agenda.”

As the chief inspector of prisons said in her annual report, as long ago as 2004-05,

“wings that we have said are not fit for habitation are being kept open.”

Only last month, we learnt that a wing in HMP Norwich that was emptied because it was unfit for human habitation has had to be refilled with prisoners. When prisoners were decanted from that wing, they were living in their own sewage. Of course, the Minister is not responsible for the direct day-to-day management of Norwich prison, but that example illustrates the hideous nature of the problem that we face because of the overcrowded prison population.

The prison estate is fit to accommodate approximately 79,500 individuals. As we know, it currently houses about 80,000. In addition, Operation Safeguard has had to be implemented, which allows the Home Secretary to keep prisoners in police station cells. We have seen the ridiculous farce of the Home Secretary having to negotiate the purchase of two prison ships, after his Government sold the last prison ship for something like £2 million—and they originally bought it for £10 million. I gather that they are having to buy one of those ships—I think it was HMP Weare—for something like the £10 million they originally paid for it.

We have seen not only a failure by the Government to plan sufficient accommodation to deal with the obvious consequences of their sentencing policies, but financial mismanagement, in that the Home Office, whose accounts have yet to be passed by the Comptroller and Auditor General, is piling further problems on an already stretched budget.

We see the Home Secretary turning disused mental hospitals in Liverpool into temporary prisons. We hear talk of him potentially using the police college in south Wales as a prison. We see also the constitutional problems, let alone the practical issues, that were revealed by the unedifying spectacle of Home Secretary having to plead with judges in mid to late January not to send to prison people who might in other circumstances be sent to prison, because of the overcrowded prison estate. I declare an interest in that context, in that I am a Crown court recorder and spend four weeks a year trying criminal cases with juries in London.

If we are to have both a criminal justice system and a Home Secretary whom the public can respect and have confidence in, it is essential that sufficient prison spaces are available for the consequences of the Government’s sentencing policy, so that it can be properly carried out. The Government have decided over the past 10 years that more people should go to prison for longer. They take great pride in the fact that the man in the saloon bar in Tunbridge Wells would be wholly satisfied with the tough attitude that they have taken towards penal policy.

Having demanded that Parliament should pass laws increasing the number of criminal offences—the Government have created about 1,000 new criminal offences since they came to office—and demanded that sentences for certain offences should increase, the Government then forgot to build or let contracts for the needed accommodation, despite the fact that civil servants in the Home Office predicted that if the policy were to continue, they would need 100,000 prison places by 2006. I accept that the Home Secretary said in October last year that he would ensure that there were 8,000 additional prison places by 2012. However, every prison place costs approximately £100,000 to build. Every adult prisoner in our prison system costs about £40,000 a year to house, while for the young offenders the cost is in the region of £75,000 a year.

The one problem is that, before the Home Secretary promised those additional prison places by 2012, he forgot to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s permission to spend the money, although he may have an understandable difficulty in asking the Chancellor such questions. We have a promise of 8,000 additional prison spaces by 2012, but we do not see the cheque from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to go with it. We have, if I may say so, an empty promise—or at least one that is unlikely to be fulfilled. That promise should be seen in the context of a Home Office official’s projection of a need for around 100,000 prison places by 2006, given the graph of the growing prison population. We are now in February 2007, and we see the Home Secretary scrabbling around and trying to find places here, there and everywhere, which leads to a ridiculous state of affairs.

However, we do not face just a ridiculous state of affairs, but a cruel and inhumane one. Most prisoners will at some stage in their lives be released. Very few people, such as the Yorkshire ripper, stay in prison for the whole of their natural lives. Yet we are not doing enough to ensure that those who will eventually be released to return to society will be in a fit state to become members of society. We put into prisons drug addicts, alcoholics, people suffering from mental illness and people who cannot read and write; and—surprise, surprise—as a consequence of prison overcrowding, people come out as drug addicts. Did you realise, Mr. Hood, that there is a thing in the prison system called the drug-free wing, into which prisoners can volunteer to go? If the public knew more about that, they would be a little noisier in complaining about the state of our prison system.

We put into prison people who are socially and economically inept and—surprise, surprise—we let them out again as socially and economically inept. We expect them not to reoffend, but if we put junk in, we will of course get junk out. They reoffend, and they do so in industrial quantities. Even the previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), said in a debate in the Commons in February 2005 that more than half of all crime is committed by people who have been through the criminal justice system before.

Order. I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that his time is up and that it is for the Minister to come back.

May I finish this sentence, Mr. Hood? Much of what I wanted to say is familiar—it was said in the Offender Management Bill Committee last week, and it has been said in other public places and by others today. I regret to say that the Government have a shameful record. I hope that the Minister will do rather more than simply say that the Government are doing their best, and will instead set out a practical programme of improvement to make our prisons better not only for the prisoners, but for us, who desperately need the security on our streets of having prisoners return to society and not reoffending.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing this debate and, in general, on the way in which he and others dealt with what are serious issues. I am grateful for that, because we are not just talking about the immediacy of overcrowding in the prison estate, but taking in the fuller context, in terms of sentencing and many of the other social and economic issues to which he referred. It is important that we should consider penal policy generally in that regard. I do not want simply to repeat everything that the Government have been saying over the past few days, but it is important to put in context where we are at, much of which has been alluded to by the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members.

Public protection is our top priority and we have achieved a great deal since 1997. We have legislated to give the courts the powers that they need to ensure that the punishment is appropriate for the offender and the offence. We have introduced tough new laws on the sentencing of violent and sexual offenders, including new tariffs for murder, and longer maximum terms for knife and gun crime, and death by dangerous driving. There are now 7,000 more seriously violent offenders in prison than in 1997. In addition, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced indeterminate public protection sentences, which mean that dangerous offenders are kept in prison for as long as they are a danger to the public—indeed, in some cases they may never be released. Currently, 2,000 offenders are in prison on IPP sentences.

Having said that, I take the general thrust of hon. Members’ contributions that questions must constantly be asked about whether the right people are in prison for the right length of time and whether they are treated appropriately while there. We have toughened community sentences and made them much more flexible, to deal most effectively with non-dangerous offenders. They can be made to pay back to the local community for the damage they have done, through enforced unpaid work, and at the same be required to address their offending behaviour.

The general thrust of what hon. Members have said is right: we need to consider both those elements. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who perhaps needs to have a word with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and see what she is doing on social exclusion. All the points made about education, early intervention and people in the care system are entirely fair. My right hon. Friend was lampooned in the press for the saying that it is possible at an early stage to look at some young people’s profiles, in terms of family structure, socio-economic background and access to education, and plot out their future in the care system—excluded from school—and subsequently in the judicial and custodial system. I agree that there should be prevention at the early stages.

The courts and the probation service are now rigorously enforcing sentences and bail conditions. Interestingly, fine collection rates are up, although the use of fines as an instrument has gone down. Offenders who breach their community sentences or licence conditions after release from prison are being dealt with robustly and the police and courts are cracking down on so-called bail bandits.

More offenders are being brought to justice. There has been a general tough response to crime, reflected by the courts in their severity of sentencing—the right people for the right sentences. There has been a significant increase in the proportion of offenders getting custody and in the average length of prison sentences across the board for all types of offence, as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said. However, the issue has to be seen in the broader context, as he suggested.

It is right that the most serious and violent offenders should receive tougher sentences, and we have taken account of the pressures involved. Since 1997, we have delivered an extra 19,000 prison places; spending on prisons has gone up by 35 per cent. in real terms in the past 10 years. As hon. Members have mentioned, we will spend more in the next five years to deliver a further 8,000 places.

Let me get some of my speech on the record; I shall then give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

However, the general rise in the length of sentences has included those for non-serious or non-violent offenders; again, a fair point was made about that. That was not our intention, but it has contributed significantly to the rising prison numbers. The point about the inter-relationship between, on the one hand, foreign national prisoners and the immigration estate, and on the other, the prison estate, was well made. That issue was discussed last night.

At Christmas, the expected seasonal dip in the prison population was not as deep or sustained as predicted. Projections at the beginning of 2005 on the impact of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 proved to have been over-optimistic. Members are right to say that, when legislating, we need to understand and try to judge the impact. At the time, it was felt that the Sentencing Guidelines Council recommendation would cut sentences by about 15 per cent., but they have not been cut by that much. Furthermore, there has not been the increased use of non-custodial sentences for less serious and non-violent offences that the Government had anticipated. Those factors mean that the prison population is significantly higher than we were expecting and that, as has been described, we face real pressures.

I am grateful to the Minister. I appreciate that he is not in day-to-day charge of the prisons aspect of Home Office policy. However, will he accept that the vast proportion of the new prison places to which he referred may have been built during a Labour Government, but were commissioned by the last Conservative Government? I am not making a party political point, but simply want the Minister to bear in mind that there is an awful lot that this Government have not done and that they need to do a lot more if they are to achieve those 8,000 additional spaces by 2012.

I certainly accept that many of the new prison places were initially commissioned under the last Conservative Government, but the subsequent PFI contracts that saw them all the way to fruition were carried out under the Labour Government. I do not say that in a partisan way either; that seemed appropriate at the time. All I am saying is that planning has been done, but all the various aspects have not come together quite as anticipated. That has got us to where we are now. The hon. and learned Gentleman’s point about having to plan and take full cognisance of the consequences of legislation is entirely fair. We have taken such things into account, but that has not worked out quite as anticipated in the context of the interlocking nature of all the elements involved, as hon. Members have said.

We cannot consider prisons without also considering the wider consequences of penal policy, sentencing guidelines and, as the hon. and learned Gentleman suggested, the wider societal backdrops. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman is not interested in having a to and fro about who started building what when and those sorts of things; nor am I. Some 19,000 places have been built, there are plans for 8,000 more and there are other elements that we need to take into account.

I want to touch on specific points made by hon. Members before concluding. I would say to the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) that there is not a letter as such to the judges. The statement to which he referred was made by criminal justice Ministers to the National Criminal Justice Board, not in a formal statement to Parliament or a formal letter. A senior presiding judge sits on the National Criminal Justice Board, and he agreed with the Lord Chief Justice that the statement should be sent to all judges and magistrates. However, I shall certainly arrange for it to go into the Library.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman and others outside the House that there has been a substantive blow to police morale and that the police have been badly let down by the Government. In fact, when the comments to which he referred were made, elements of the police force fully understood what was happening and what needed to be done to get out of it. They did not share in those rather stark claims. For example, the Association of Chief Police Officers knew and understood what the Government were doing. On behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), I should say that the police have been magnificent in supporting the reopening of Operation Safeguard.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) made a key point at the start of his speech in asking whether we were locking up too many people and the right people for the right length of time. Those points are entirely fair and need further substantial discussion. I agree in part that the criminal justice system is a political football that needs to be depoliticised. I do not mind politics, but the politics on this issue are always expressed in such a stark manner, as I think the hon. Gentleman was trying to say. They are hysterically driven, by not only the media but politicians as well.

I agree, too, with the notion that for every offender prison does not work or prison does not work for every single offender—whichever way it is put. That is also a fair point that we need to address. Hopefully, one point of consensus that can come from the issue is that community sentences and keeping people out of custody is not the soft option or almost a reward for miscreant behaviour. Carried out properly, they can be really effective, astute and work better to reduce rates of recidivism.

I shall not promise the hon. Gentleman a brand, spanking new prison in north Wales, although I take his point about travel distances. I think that the average distance home is 50 miles for prisoners in England; it is probably closer to 68 or 70 miles in north Wales. However, I shall take the hon. Gentleman’s point back to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South. I should have told the hon. and learned Member for Harborough that I am a mere substitute; prisons have not suddenly been added to my portfolio. My hon. Friend is in the United States considering various aspects of sex offending and that will feed into the review on sex offenders.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) for saying that I am a victim; I have never thought of myself in that way. He tried to make a point by quoting the press, but if we are serious about not only prison overcrowding but sentencing and the wider issues of penal policy, we need to get away from press stories that in some cases are entirely invented and in others have an inappropriate spin.

I should say to the hon. Gentleman that in no terms did the Home Secretary, through the statement with the Lord Chief Justice or others, say that serious offenders should not be sent to prison. The Home Secretary did not say that, and it is not reflected in the sentencing guidelines that he was reminding people about.

Equally, it is not right to exhort the Government and others to draw up carefully thought-through and costed policies and then to list blithely four or five policies with no notion of what they cost, what benefits they will bring or any other dimension. We should have a wider debate about penal policy, but it should not just be about getting out of the immediate situation of our prisons. There is also a third dimension, which is about considering the nature of people who end up in the custody system and what we should do with them after they leave and about what we should do in the wider sense of public protection. Those are key issues. I take the points about mental health, drug addiction, minor offences and drink-related issues, not least as the Minister with responsibility for police and crime reduction; I know that in many cases, people are in the system only because of those dimensions.

I am grateful for the broad treatment of this highly topical but very serious issue, to which we need collectively to find real answers.