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Volume 468: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2007

I beg to move,

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

This House debated the prisons crisis four months ago. We said then that the Government’s management of overcrowded prisons was a national disgrace. So what has changed since then? The prison population has risen by over 1,200, but capacity has risen by less than 200. Some 4,600 prisoners have been released early on to the streets—a policy described by the previous Lord Chancellor as “simply wrong”. More than 800 of those criminals have been violent offenders, and 26 went on to commit new offences when they should have been behind bars.

Millions of pounds have been wasted on accommodating prisoners in police cells. A Victorian wing of Norwich prison was closed by health and safety inspectors because sewage was leaking from broken drainage pipes. Prison vans are arriving late at night to drop off remand prisoners from courts hundreds of miles away because there are no spare cells anywhere closer. Twice as many prisoners are doubling up in cells as when the Government came to power. Nearly a quarter of the entire prison population is now housed in cells designed for one fewer person. Prisoners, as the Minister of State told us this week, are taking up drugs when in jail. Last Friday, the jail population was just 93 below the all-time high, recorded a week ago, and only 300 short of capacity, and that was excluding nearly 200 prisoners locked in police cells.

So four months after the last debate and five months to the day since the Lord Chancellor took office, the Government’s management of prisons continues to be a disgrace.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the reasons for more individuals being in prison is that more offenders have been brought to justice by this Government?

If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will come to that issue—[Interruption.] No, I do not accept that point. More offenders have been brought to justice because of the huge increase in the fixed penalty notices that the Government have introduced in an attempt to take cases out of the courts and deal with them in a summary way—although it is in fact an administrative way.

One of the reasons for prison overcrowding is the reoffending rates, which are high, because overcrowding means less training and education. People are leaving prison less qualified and more drugged up than before. It is a scandal.

My hon. Friend is right. A reconviction rate of two thirds of adult offenders after two years means that offenders are cycling back into the criminal justice system. Our goal should be to drive down reoffending rates and so reduce crime and the prison population in the long term. I shall argue that it is wrong to set out with the direct objective of reducing the prison population by shifting people wholesale out of prison whose sentences suggest that they should be there.

The problem is that the Government will not listen. They have ignored every warning about prison overcrowding. They have ignored warnings from prison governors and probation officers. They have ignored warnings from prison officers, who yesterday said that the Prison Service is in meltdown and that it will not be able to cope much longer. What is the Government’s excuse?

This week, a shadow Minister said that if the Conservative party were in power, it would build new prisons. How many prisons, at what cost and how would that be accommodated in the £6 billion spending black hole?

That was not a very sensible intervention. If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will come to the answer in my speech, but my premise will be that the demand for prison places has to be met. We will take no lectures from the Government about spending on such matters when they have wasted billions of pounds in their management of the criminal justice system.

The cost of reoffending, estimated by the Government, is £11 billion a year—simply to the criminal justice system, let alone to wider society. The cost of accommodating prisoners in police cells could have provided prison accommodation for 250 people. The Government have wasted hundreds of millions of pounds in the management of the criminal justice system that could have been better spent on providing sufficient accommodation.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to the Lord Chancellor. My hon. Friend has just heard scorn poured on the proposition that we should both build more prisons and control public spending. Will he confirm that under the previous Conservative Administration we had the biggest capital prison building programme since Victorian times at the same time as we cut taxes?

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s intervention. If we incapacitate offenders and improve rehabilitation we will be able to drive down reoffending rates and in that way deal with the problem of crime. The Government are in the worst of all worlds, with a seriously overcrowded prison population and extraordinarily high reconviction rates. As a consequence, prisoners are cycling back into the system and adding to the costs.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not keep us on tenterhooks about the answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine). The hon. Gentleman is obviously familiar with other expenditure issues, so perhaps he can answer the simple questions: how many prisons does he propose to build and at what cost?

I will do a deal with the Lord Chancellor. When he has published the Carter review, which is an attempt to answer those questions, we will publish our proposals. However, as the Government will not answer any of those questions, how can we reasonably be expected to do so?

What is clear is that the current situation is untenable, as the Lord Chancellor knows. We cannot go on with a system in which prisons are full to the gunwales. That places strains on prison staff and does not allow the proper rehabilitation of prisoners. It results in all the movements of prisoners around the country to which I have referred, and in prisons that are awash with drugs. We have two choices. Either we can accommodate the demand for prison places that the Government’s projections have identified, or we can work to reduce that demand. I shall deal with that second option in a moment.

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) is that we will build the extra prison places that we need, using the money for ID cards that we do not need?

My hon. Friend is right. We have said already that we would scrap the ID card scheme and use the proceeds to fund emergency accommodation. In that way, we can then scrap the emergency release scheme, which we consider to be entirely wrong.

What is the Government’s excuse for the problems that I have identified? First, they say that they did not expect the increase in the number of prisoners. Last week, a spokesman said that

“the Secretary of State was, and is, faced with an unanticipated and unprecedented increase in the prison population.”

However, it is simply not true that the rise was unanticipated. In 2000, when the current Lord Chancellor was Home Secretary, his officials predicted that the prison population would be at current levels by this year. Two years later, the lowest Home Office projection for today’s prison population was 5,000 above current capacity. So let us nail the canard that the Government were not able to anticipate the current demand for prison places: they did know; they were told that greater capacity was needed, and they simply ignored the projections.

We all know why too few prison places were provided. It was because the current Prime Minister did his level best to prevent that happening. As Anthony Seldon states in his new biography of Tony Blair:


that is, between the then Prime Minister and Chancellor—

“over Home Office spending were even more intense”.

Seldon says that Blair’s

“priorities were for prison financing…The atmosphere was vitriolic. Number 10 accused the Brown camp of trying to destabilise them, Mandelson was going around spreading poison and loyalists on both sides were briefing and counter-briefing against each other.”

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

The Government claim to have provided an extra 20,000 prison places, but 3,000 of those places arise from doubling-up in cells. In 2005, the number of new prison places provided by the Government was just one fifth of the number provided in the year that they came to power. During the Lord Chancellor’s previous watch, prison building capacity fell by 86 per cent. over three years. Only three of the new prisons built in the past 10 years were commissioned by the Labour Government; the rest were commissioned by the previous Conservative Administration.

The Government now say that they will build 9,500 new prison spaces in the next five years, and they claim that that is the largest prison-building programme ever in the UK, but that would be news to the Victorian social reformers. Under the premiership of Lord John Russell, eight new prisons were opened in just five years, and they are the ones that remain in use. The claim is looking distinctly shaky: the Government have admitted that 1,000 of the 9,500 promised places are currently unfunded. They have also said that 2,500 new places would be delivered this year, but that was downgraded yesterday to 1,400.

We have to hand it to the Lord Chancellor—he is right back on form. As Home Secretary, it took him two years to cut prison building by 65 per cent., but as Lord Chancellor, it has taken him just four months to scale back the number of places by half. Now we know the Government’s strategy for dealing with prison overcrowding: release criminals more quickly and build prison places more slowly. The Government will not face up to the fact that even if they deliver the promised extra places, total prison capacity will still be 4,000 places short of their medium-term projection for the prison population. That is assuming that prisons are still full to the gunwales with doubling-up in cells.

Ministers tell us to wait for the Carter review. We shall not be holding our breath. We have already had two Carter reviews. The first, six years ago, called on the Government to look at radical reform of the prison estate to create conditions better suited to delivering effective rehabilitation. Lord Carter said that the prison estate

“comprises buildings which are worn out, poorly located, offering inadequate regimes and which are expensive to maintain and operate”.

That was six years ago. Nothing happened. Lord Carter tried again. In his second report, he said the Government should replace “old and unsuitable prisons”. Again nothing happened.

Every time the Government get into a hole on prisons, the message goes out—“Get Carter”. Then they ignore him. The one time they paid attention was to Lord Carter’s disastrous proposal to create the National Offender Management Service, which has since wasted hundreds of billions of pounds. As the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), now Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, said:

“As for the choice of Lord Carter for the prison inquiry—he was the man who completely mucked up our legal aid system. Putting him in charge of the prison system was the wrong decision. If that is what the Lord Chancellor is proposing to do on prisons, he is in for a rough ride.”—[Official Report, 9 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 179.]

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

Is my hon. Friend aware of an article in Inside Time, a national newspaper for prisoners, which tells us that NOMS is to be scrapped after three years at a cost of £2.6 billion? Is there any prospect of getting an update from the Lord Chancellor when he makes his speech?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Perhaps the Lord Chancellor will answer that question when he replies to our motion. It is widely believed that NOMS, having been set up at a cost of billions of pounds, is to be scrapped. The effective shelving of CNOMIS—the IT system that underpins NOMS—which the Government said was essential to secure end-to-end offender management, means that NOMS cannot operate properly.

I shall be grateful if the hon. Gentleman will tell us on what basis he asserts that CNOMIS is to be scrapped—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has just mentioned CNOMIS—the computer system. On what basis did he make his allegation?

On what basis does the hon. Gentleman make that allegation? Can he give me evidence? The system is not being shelved, as he should know if he is a responsible Front-Bench spokesman.

I am astonished by the Minister’s intervention. Back in August, although the Government did not condescend to update the House on the matter, the Minister announced a moratorium because there had been a serious cost overrun and it was felt that CNOMIS would not deliver. An internal memo in the probation service made it clear that CNOMIS had effectively been shelved. What is more, an internal memo on the reconfiguration of the Ministry of Justice conceded that one of the options—the preferred option—for internally splitting the Ministry will, in effect, mean the demise of NOMS. If none of those things is the case, the Government have an opportunity properly to update the House, but they have signally failed to do so.

I agree that we need a debate on these matters; both inside and outside the prison and probation services there is much concern about the NOMS system and its inadequacies. There is huge concern that the Government are failing to deliver the key objective of end-to-end offender management. If the Minister wants to update us, I hope he will do so, but so far all we have heard is that these matters will be attended to in the Carter review. I hope there will be no attempt to smuggle out the review over Christmas, and I should be grateful if the Lord Chancellor gave us an indication of when he intends to publish the report.

Last week, the Minister said:

“Lord Carter of Coles is undertaking a review of prisons that will look at options both for increasing supply of prison places and for reducing demand for them.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 91W.]

How exactly does one reduce the demand for prison places? The Conservatives think that one does so by reducing crime; the Government believe that one does so by giving criminals a break.

What about restorative justice? It is reducing reoffending rates in Toronto. Is the hon. Gentleman going to talk about that?

Yes. I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention and I will be happy to talk about restorative justice in a moment.

How exactly does one reduce the demand for prison places? The Government have shortened prison sentences by introducing automatic release at the halfway point. They have transferred unsuitable prisoners early to open prisons. They have released more than 4,000 prisoners on tags, who have committed more than 7,000 crimes, including more than 1,000 violent offences. On Friday, according to the current trend, we expect the 10,000th prisoner to be released early on to the streets. One prisoner is let out of jail early every 20 minutes.

Another way to reduce the demand on prisons would be to focus much more heavily on getting young people—young criminals—off drugs and into residential rehabilitation. The more we reduce dependence on drugs, the less we will have drug-fuelled crime, which is so bad at the moment.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, who, as a recorder, speaks with great personal knowledge and with a great interest in these matters. My right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary proposes that we move from drug treatment orders, which have a high failure rate, towards secure drug treatment centres and abstinence-based programmes. We have also proposed that there should be specialised, secure drugs treatment units so that we can get offenders off drugs when they are imprisoned. Unless we are able to do that, I do not believe that we will tackle the problem of drugs in our prisons, which is now endemic. The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), said last week that not only do drugs exist in prisons, but prisoners are ending up on drugs while they are in prison. Surely that cannot be acceptable in a secure environment.

Can the hon. Gentleman give an example of a country where the system that he proposes is in place and working?

If the hon. Gentleman reads the excellent report from the social justice commission, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), he will find lots of examples of extremely successful drugs treatment programmes. I agree: we should look at international experience.

I suspect that I have read the document more thoroughly than most in the House and I cannot see a single example of anywhere in the world that uses the system that the hon. Gentleman proposes. I repeat my question: can he give a single example of any country in the world that uses the system he proposes?

As I said, the hon. Gentleman will find those examples in the report from the social justice commission of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. It is a counsel of despair to suggest that it is not possible to introduce specialised treatment centres that will get offenders off drugs—either as an alternative to failed drug treatment orders or when offenders are sentenced to custody. That is exactly the kind of issue that my party and the commission set up by my right hon. Friend seek to look at. Both of them will consider how we can improve treatment for offenders who are on drugs.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that in 1996-97 spending on drug treatment in prisons was £7.2 million and that in 2007-08 it was £79 million? That represents a 997 per cent. increase during the 10 years of our Government.

That is a typical response from the Government, who think that quoting a spending figure makes everything all right. The Minister of State admitted in a written answer published this week that offenders are getting on drugs while in prison. He should know as well as anyone else that prisons are awash with drugs, and that the current systems are simply inadequate to deal with that, both in terms of security and in terms of the treatment programmes being offered to offenders. One of the reasons for that is serious prison overcrowding. As I pointed out in a speech on Monday, spending on such programmes is a tiny proportion of the overall prisons budget. It is simply no answer to say, “We have increased spending, so the Government are entirely happy with everything that is going on.” Frankly, that is a complacent response.

Does the hon. Gentleman not think that there might be a contradiction in saying that more people should be put in prison, but that people get on to drugs in prison? Surely the example that he was looking for when he failed to answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is that of the community court in Brooklyn, New York, where the whole object is to get people off drugs without putting them in prison.

First, there are successful examples of drugs courts in this country—[Hon. Members: “Where?”] Hon. Members should know about the drugs court run by Judge Philips; it is a successful pilot, and it could be extended. I do not think that there is a contradiction in what I said. First, we argue for earlier intervention before offenders get into prison, with a treatment centre alternative to the drug treatment order programmes, which are failing. Secondly, if people are imprisoned, the most serious drugs offenders should be treated in units that are separate from conventional prisons. I do not believe that there is a contradiction, contrary to what the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) says. I will go on to argue that it is simply not acceptable to suggest that because prisons are overcrowded we should empty the prisons. That is what concerns me about the Government’s position.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most unacceptable statistics underpinning the overcrowding debate is that 15 per cent. of the prison population are foreign nationals who have abused the hospitality of this country and exhausted their right to its future hospitality?

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. When the Government talk about prison overcrowding, one of the issues to which they should attend is the growth in the population of foreign national prisoners, whom the Prime Minister said he would remove. Nevertheless, only 4,000 will be removed this year—a small proportion of the total population. That places enormous additional pressure on our system, and it is now resulting in the creation of dedicated prisons for foreign national prisoners. If there is a group of prisoners that we could all agree should be removed from prison, it is surely foreign national prisoners, who could be returned to their country of origin, as the Prime Minister promised.

The Government want to reduce demand by preventing the courts from sending people to jail. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill proposes removing the right of magistrates to impose suspended sentences, even though suspended sentences are usually given out by magistrates to those who have received every other possible disposal. As one magistrate said,

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

The same Bill also plans to restrict to 28 days, without exception or discretion, the time that an offender has to serve in prison after being recalled for breach of his conditions. The Magistrates Association has described that proposal as “a licence to re-offend.” The Government want to restrict the open-ended indeterminate sentences for public protection that Tony Blair paraded as a badge of honour. We know what the Government are up to. Legislation has already been prepared for Northern Ireland to implement the new rules on indeterminate sentences, whereby judges may give an indeterminate sentence only where the offence would have carried a fixed-term sentence of four or more years. As the Lord Chancellor confirmed this week, they want to reduce demand by

“linking resources to the setting of the sentencing framework.”

If, by that, the Government mean preventing the courts from passing sentences if there is insufficient prison capacity, it would represent a profound shift in criminal justice policy, and it would be profoundly wrong. An offender could be sent to jail one month, but someone committing precisely the same offence a month later could escape a custodial sentence, simply because the Government had failed to provide enough prison cells. It would result in great inequity in the operation of the criminal justice system. The effect of Parliament’s decisions on the sentencing framework must be understood, because there are resource implications. The Government should be given a formal, independent warning before they pass ever more criminal justice legislation. They should be required to ensure that there is prison capacity to deal with the new offences that they have created—something that has not happened under the successive criminal justice Bills that they have introduced.

That is entirely different from proposing that sentences should be limited by the resources made available by the Government after the framework is set. That is the fundamental difference in approach between the Government and the Opposition. They believe that sentences should be watered down to fit a limited number of prison places; we believe that sentences should fit the crime, not prison capacity.

I have followed the hon. Gentleman’s argument carefully. Does he therefore propose that the resources for prison places should be unlimited?

There is no need for resources for prison places to be unlimited. The Lord Chancellor knows the prison projections perfectly well, and the issue is whether he will meet the projected demand. He is 4,000 places short. No one has suggested that there should be unlimited resources to meet unlimited demand other than the Lord Chancellor, who produces ever more fanciful suggestions that somehow we will move to US-levels of incarceration, with 400,000 offenders being locked up. That is simply nonsense. The Government’s own projection shows that by 2012 prison numbers will be 4,000 higher on the median projection than the number of prison places that they have provided. The question is whether they will meet that demand or not, and whether they will adjust the sentencing framework to try to shift prisoners out of the jails to which they would otherwise be sent.

The Government have effectively accepted the latter option: they will weaken sentencing rather than send to jail people whom we would prefer to sentence to jail. That is the choice they will offer the country at the next election, and it is a choice on which we are happy to fight that election. The Government believe that sentences should be watered down to fit a limited number of prison places. We believe that sentences should fit the crime, not prison capacity.

The Lord Chancellor has another idea to reduce the demand on prisons. Last week, he said that for people serving prison sentences of less than 12 months,

“community sentences will, in many cases, be a better alternative.”

That is an interesting proposal, because last summer, he told “The Andrew Marr Show”:

“I wish it were possible to deal with criminals outside prison. But most people who end up in prison go there because community punishments have failed.”

Prison is largely reserved for serious, violent and persistent offenders. Contrary to popular myth, our jails simply do not contain vast numbers of non-violent, first-time offenders doing time for licence fee evasion or summary motoring offences. The Lord Chancellor himself said last month that the

“bulk of the additional prisoners”

in jail over the past decade were

“more violent and serious offenders”.

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

No, I will not.

Community sentences cannot be used as an alternative to prison if they are not robust. The Government's latest wheeze is “community payback”—unpaid work for offenders. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) said that it was a

“powerful, effective and tough punishment”.

However, four out of 10 unpaid work requirements for male offenders are not completed. The attendance rate is no better than 60 per cent. In other words, this so-called tough punishment is optional for offenders. That is no punishment at all—it is a farce, and it cannot be a substitute for a custodial sentence in any criminal justice system that has the interests of victims at its heart. At least in prison offenders have to be there 24/7 as part of their sentence unless, of course, they have been moved to an open prison. Attendance there is optional, too. They could just abscond, as they do from open prisons in my constituency. They could even do so in their own car, which the Government allow them to have while in an open prison serving their sentence.

The previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), promised “high visibility” community payback, with offenders wearing fluorescent jackets. What happened to that idea? One report claimed that the scheme had foundered after probation staff warned that it might compromise the health and safety of offenders. So much for high visibility, tough community sentences.

The Government’s flagship intensive supervision and surveillance programme is officially described as

“the most rigorous non-custodial intervention available for young offenders”


“unprecedented levels of community-based surveillance”,

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

A leaked memo revealed that in May, the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts

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

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

So that is what it is all about—no money for prisons, just spin to persuade the public that community sentences will do as an alternative. No money, yet Government incompetence has wasted billions of pounds on national programmes when the money could have been invested in prison accommodation and rehabilitation.

Since last October at least £29 million has been spent on Operation Safeguard to use police cells for emergency prison accommodation—enough to build a jail for more than 250 prisoners. The use of every court cell is more expensive than a superior room at the Ritz. The prison ship Weare was bought by the Home Office for £3.7 million and sold off at a loss, and another one is expected to be purchased. Perhaps the Government will confirm that. If the Government want to reduce demand for prisons, why do they not focus on the 11,000 foreign nationals who are in custody and make up almost one in seven of the entire prison population?

We desperately need a new start to get offenders off drugs, to get them on work and education programmes, to help the mentally ill in prison, to unlock the development potential of our oldest and worst Victorian jails so that we can build new, smaller units, and to drive down reoffending, which costs the criminal justice system alone £11 billion a year. The Government’s approach to prisons is bankrupt. Their big idea this year was to let 25,000 prisoners out of jail early. Their next big idea is to give even more criminals a break by watering down sentencing.

The Government’s first duty is to protect the public, and that requires them to provide adequate prison capacity. They have failed in that duty, and they should step aside for a Government who have the vision and competence to manage the prison estate properly.

I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

‘welcomes the Government’s record which since 1997 has brought more offences to justice leading to a 32 per cent. reduction in overall crime and a 31 per cent. reduction in violent crime according to the British Crime Survey; welcomes the fact that the most violent and dangerous offenders are sent to prison for longer; also welcomes increased prison capacity by over 20,000 places and the commitment to building a further 9,500 prison places, of which 8,500 will be delivered by 2012; recognises that the Government has dramatically reduced the number of escapes and absconds since 1997; notes the increase in prison funding by 37 per cent. in real terms and probation service funding by 72 per cent., including a tenfold increase in funding for drug treatment in prison; recognises the improved links between custody and the community through end to end offender management and other measures; notes the introduction of a flexible and tough new community order which provides a real alternative to custody for less serious offenders; recognises the great strides made in improving the culture within prisons though the Decency Agenda; and further notes the reduction of the overall reoffending rate for prison and community sentences by 5.8 per cent.’.

I express my usual appreciation to the Opposition for laying on the debate, which gives us another opportunity to compare and contrast the Government’s excellent penal policy with the shambles of what passes for an Opposition policy.

I have been in the House for a couple of years, and I have noticed that various devices can be used to avoid answering difficult interventions. [Interruption.] The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) asks whether this is an after-dinner speech. I wish it was. The answer from the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) to almost every difficult intervention was that we should have patience and wait till the end of the speech. We waited till the end of the speech and, sadly, did not get the answer to many of them.

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend can provide the information that I was seeking: how many secure residential rehabilitation places would be provided by the Conservative party and what would the total cost be? I have studied the documents, but I cannot find a number, a definition or a cost. I wonder whether he can help.

Our Department has excellent researchers, but I am afraid that I have not got details of the costs. I suspect that developing examples of overseas comparisons will turn out to be difficult, but my staff will do their best. I shall then ensure that the information is placed in the Library for the better education of the Opposition and to provide my hon. Friend with the information.

The hon. Gentleman made an interesting speech to the Policy Exchange on Monday, and I am grateful to him for providing a just abridged version this afternoon. When I came to this post in June, I echoed Lord Falconer in saying that I hoped that there could be a vibrant public debate on prisons. He made his comments as he announced the establishment of a review of penal policy to be led by Lord Carter of Coles. Within the next few weeks I will be publishing that review to Parliament. I promise the hon. Gentleman and the House that there will be an oral statement in this House.

Lord Carter’s report is likely to be comprehensive and far-reaching, but I am not sure that he will be quite as extravagant as the hon. Gentleman has been recently. For those who missed his speech, I shall quote from it. He said:

“Jeremy Bentham, John Howard, Elizabeth Fry—these were the most progressive thinkers of their day. All of them were pioneers in the field of prison reform.”

That is true, but in The Sunday Telegraph he said:

“Our mission is to break the cycle of reoffending by redeveloping the prison estate in the most radical shake-up for two centuries.”

I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman’s speech would provide further and better particulars of this radical shake-up. I was not asleep during his speech, far from it—[Interruption.] I invite the Whip to remember that he gets his salary in order to remain silent. Almost nothing in the speech indicated that this would be the most radical shake-up for two days, still less for two centuries.

I also say to the hon. Gentleman that wrapping himself in the mantle of Elizabeth Fry is one thing, but to cite Jeremy Bentham is another. After all, he said:

“All punishment is mischief: all punishment in itself is evil.”

I assume that that is now Conservative party policy. That Benthamite view of punishment might have informed the approach of the Conservative Front-Bench team, which, in Committee, signed a Liberal Democrat amendment proposing that the punishment of the offender should be removed from the criteria for determining sentences for under-18s. They then got cold feet about whether or not punishment ought to be one of those criteria and abstained during the vote.

I know that the Lord High Chancellor—the Secretary of State—even devoid of his robes, enjoys a good turn. He must apply his mind to the Hansard record of that particular Committee debate if he is to be taken seriously. We do our best to take him seriously but it is difficult to do so when he makes that type of point. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will confirm, the debate that we had was not the one that the Secretary of State would like to portray it as. It was a serious debate about the nature and purpose of sentencing. If he wishes to misdescribe it in the way that he does, he is abusing this House and the intelligence of its Members.

The hon. and learned Gentleman protests too much. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice will quote from Hansard when he sums up, so we shall see.

An effective policy on prisons must be part of a comprehensive approach to tackling crime, and our record on both has been good. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs scarcely mentioned the crime figures in his Policy Exchange speech or in his speech this afternoon. I am not surprised, because crime doubled under the Conservatives, whereas under our Government it has fallen by a third. We have the best record of any post-war Government.

The Conservatives also attack us for using a few hundred police cells to manage the prison population. The hon. Gentleman omitted to say, however, that the Conservative Administration used police cells year after year—and not a few hundred. In 1982, they used 3,500 police cells, and such was their incompetence that even 10 years later, in 1992, after numerous riots in prisons and indiscipline of a kind that we have not, thank God, had since 1997, they peaked again at 1,800.

As for early release, yes, we regret the fact that we have had to use end of custody licence releases to release short-term prisoners 18 days earlier than they would be otherwise, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that in 1987, 3,500 prisoners were released virtually overnight as a result of the then Home Secretary’s concern about the rising prison population—it was much lower than it is today—which the then Government had taken no steps whatever to deal with.

Why is there pressure on the prisons estate? It is principally because of the effectiveness of our investment in the criminal justice system, with an extra 14,000 police officers and a toughening up of criminal law and, crucially, court procedure, better to favour victims and their communities. That has led in turn to more serious and persistent offenders being convicted and then sentenced to prison for longer terms. We have not had that much help from Opposition Members, who have been absent from the Lobby to vote for these measures, as much as they have been in favour of them.

I asked how many prisons the Conservatives were going to build and at what cost. Does my right hon. Friend have any indicative cost of setting up a prison?

I do indeed. We have already announced plans and we have others under consideration. The average running cost per prisoner for one year is £37,000 and the average cost of building a prison place is £150,000.

More offences than ever before are being brought to justice—1.4 million last year, up 41 per cent. from even five years ago. Sixty per cent. more violent and dangerous offenders are in prison now than when we came to office, and they are staying there for considerably longer. Meanwhile, the enforcement of sentences has improved considerably, with the number of people being sent back to prison for breach of their licence up from a measly 300 in 1997 to 5,200 today.

Many of the offenders the Lord Chancellor is describing will have received indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection. Does he accept that in many ways those sentences contribute to the prison overcrowding problem? As he knows, it is necessary for offenders serving them to complete courses to demonstrate their suitability for release. As he also knows, those courses are not available in every prison, and transfers to prisons where they are available sometimes take a very long time. That means that people are incarcerated for longer than expected and longer even than the court that sentenced them intended. Does he accept that that is a problem? If so, did the Government consider it when instituting those sentences, and what is to be done about it now?

I acknowledge that there is an issue. When I gave evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Committee in early October, I discussed openly the question of IPP prisoners who are sentenced to short or very short tariffs. The whole House agreed that the indefinite preventive sentence should be available for medium and long-term prisoners who meet the appropriate categories. Having looked at the Hansard reports of the debates on the Criminal Justice Act 2003, it is clear that that was what was anticipated by all Members. As it has turned out, the sentence has not only been used for that category of prisoner but for some prisoners who have been sentenced for very short determinate tariffs, the shortest being 28 days but several being for a period of less than a year. That must be taken into consideration. I readily acknowledge that the problems that the hon. Gentleman mentions have been exacerbated by the pressure on numbers, but that would exist in any event because of the effect of sentences on very short-term prisoners.

Let me come to the centrepiece of the speech by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs—his claim that we have not taken into account forecasts of increases in prison population. We have. Any forecasts are inevitably just that, and vulnerable to predictions of sentencing and custody rates or, for example, unforeseen events such as prison flooding, which happened in Gloucester.

Let us consider the prison population for the summer of this year, which was 80,600, and look back at the projections of it over the previous seven years. The hon. Gentleman quoted very selectively on this. We see that there were predictions in 2002 and 2003 of a high end—and, in two cases, a low end—showing that the prison population would exceed the current level. The range of projections for this year during that seven-year period was 30,000. The projections produced in January 2005 gave a range of 76,000 to 82,000; in July 2005 it was 76,000 to 84,000; and in July 2006 it ranged from 78,000 to where we were in the summer. Projections cannot be decisions, as the hon. Gentleman would discover in the unlikely event of him ever being in my place. They have to be a basis for judgment and then Ministers have to decide.

It is palpably incorrect to suggest that there has not been an increase in the prison population. There has been a year-by-year increase. It was 65,000 in 1998. Then it stabilised, and went up to 66,000 in 2001. It was 71,000 in 2002, 74,000 in 2003, 76,000 in 2005 and 81,000 this year. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, ensured that money was provided for that. He has also ensured an additional 9,500 places, which are currently in the programme or being built. Under this comprehensive spending review there will be 8,500 places, of which 1,600 are being provided in the current calendar year.

In an earlier intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) referred to the number of foreign prisoners, which currently stands at 15 per cent. of the total. Does the Secretary of State agree that if we dealt with that issue more efficiently and effectively, several thousand prison places would be released in a very short period? That would assist him in delivering what he says he is trying to deliver.

Of course we wish to see the number of foreign national prisoners reduced. We are seeking to do that. However, if we are going to have a serious debate about prison policy, with the best will in the world—and the procedures and back-up for dealing with this matter have significantly improved—it is difficult to secure transfers in some cases. We have a large number of foreign national prisoners from Jamaica. We are working with the Jamaican Government to transfer those people back to Jamaica, but it is a relatively small country, which has been perfectly open about the fact that it is worried about having those nationals back. They ought to go back, but we cannot put them on a plane if it does not have landing rights at the other end.

We have another large tranche of such prisoners from China. When I was Home Secretary, I had constant negotiations with the Chinese Government. We believe that they should meet their obligations to take those prisoners back, but they are often rather less ready to do so in practice than they may be in principle. We have another problem with Nigeria. I love that country, but anyone who has ever dealt with it—it has a federal Government, 36 states and is slightly challenging in terms of its administrative standards—will know that it is extremely difficult to do so. Even if one can get the federal Government to agree to matters, it is then necessary to have them translated down to state level.

We have good relations with Vietnam, for example, as we have with those other countries, but those four countries account for a significant proportion of foreign national prisoners. We are working very hard to reduce the number, but it is no good just pressing the button, “They’re foreigners—we should get rid of them.” [Interruption.] I do not think that that is the hon. Gentleman’s approach. It is no good the Opposition saying that unless they can introduce serious proposals that can speed up the transfer of such prisoners faster than we are moving them at the moment. If there were a magic wand, I promise that I would use it. We all would. This is not a party issue. I promise the hon. Gentleman that all of us, from the Prime Minister downwards, are very anxious to see the maximum transfer of FNPs. The transfers have increased, but the numbers are still too high.

I agree with the Secretary of State about foreigners held in prison. Is not the problem that many people confuse deporting foreign prisoners at the end of their sentence—at which the Government have been notably incompetent—with holding foreign prisoners till the completion of their sentence, for which, as the right hon. Gentleman says, few options are available?

As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, the hon. Gentleman slightly spoiled his point with his remarks about foreign national prisoners whose sentence has expired. There are similar problems—they are not the same—with both. With great respect, the hon. Gentleman should not pretend otherwise.

None of us underestimates the pressure on the prison estate. Given that, we have done more than ever to tackle prisoners’ needs for effective rehabilitation—not to do them a favour but to get reoffending rates down. We have increased spending on probation by 72 per cent. in real terms and made a reality of end-to-end offender management.

We have increased investment in drug programmes tenfold, so that there has been a 64 per cent. reduction in drug abuse in prison. If the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs claims that the Conservative party will promise at the next election that there will be no drugs in prison, I wish it luck because nobody will believe that.

That was the whole burden of the contribution of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs on the subject. He suggested that drugs in prison were somehow our fault and that a Conservative Government would sort that out. When I became Home Secretary, the regime for checking and searching prison visitors was shambolic. We were left with that. The ingress of drugs into prisons was dreadful. It is almost impossible wholly to eliminate that, but we have significantly reduced the amount of drugs in prisons and greatly expanded the number of drug-free wings. We have also put experts in charge of providing health care, education and training in prisons, establishing more than 100 mental health teams and employing more than 350 mental health professionals who are now NHS professionals, not Prison Service health workers, to work directly with prisoners.

Despite everything, the Prison Service has met its targets. There has never been greater investment or more done to improve the nature of the prison regime so that it can be a constructive force for change and provide genuine rehabilitation. Today, conditions are far more decent and humane. Prisoners are treated with dignity, better to ensure that they treat others with respect.

Of course, there are concerns. One is prisoner suicides. Last year, suicide rates were at their lowest since 1996. However, this year, there has regrettably been an increase. In 2000, I set a target, as Home Secretary, to reduce self-inflicted deaths in the context of a national suicide prevention strategy. Most years, that target, which is based not on total numbers but on the number of deaths per 100,000 offenders, has been met. I do not believe that this year’s increase is a direct result of overcrowding. Frankly, the matter is far more complicated. The sheer volume of people sent to prison, many of whom are among the most vulnerable in society, has greatly increased in the past decade. Although we have greatly improved the care available—and sharing cells reduces the suicide risk—we are conscious, as are all prison staff, of the need to improve the way in which we continually check on potential suicide and do everything that we can to avoid it.

The way in which we have transformed prison has contributed to our central aim in penal policy: to cut reoffending thus cutting crime. We heard again the Opposition claim that reoffending rates have soared. That is not the case. I am happy to lay on a short seminar for the hon. Gentleman about reoffending rates. However, when considering reoffending, one has to examine the nature of the prison population, which has become more serious because we are locking up more serious and persistent offenders. Evidence from 2004 shows that the two-year reconviction data for prisoners released from custody in that year provides an indication of a significant positive treatment impact on actual rather than predicted reconviction rates. For prisoners serving more than four years, the improvement is 13.4 per cent.; for those serving two to four years, the improvement is 10 per cent., and for those serving one to two years, the improvement is 6.3 per cent. We have to do more, but that is an indication of how our overall effort is working. One thing that the hon. Gentleman cannot gainsay—indeed, he failed even to mention it—is the fact that crime has gone down, on the Conservatives’ measure, by at least a third.

I was in opposition for 18 years and sat on the Bench opposite for most of that time. I have therefore become something of a world expert on the issue. I fully understand the pressures on Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen to produce yet another initiative to impress their colleagues and get a line in the media, but there is always a danger with that rather breathless approach, which is that the Opposition may be playing catch-up, simply recycling what the Government have already done. So, a review of prison policy was announced last summer by the hon. Gentleman with bells and whistles, two or three months after we had announced a review of prison policy. He is now talking about new prisons for old, which is in fact a key part of Lord Carter’s review.

May I also offer a comradely warning to the hon. Gentleman about that part of the review being conducted by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)? If what the hon. and learned Gentleman has already said is anything to go by, the review could lead to embarrassing proposals under which prisons are emptied, rather than expanded. We all enjoyed the part in a previous speech by the hon. and learned Gentleman when he said that he had been to prison, saying that it was a “voyage of discovery”, and adding that prison—[Interruption.] It was not a joke; it was a speech by the hon. and learned Gentleman. He should not mock his own speeches. He added that prisons do not work and said that many inmates

“might more economically and effectively be managed outside prison without presenting a danger to the public.”

We look forward to the Conservatives’ proposals, because apparently they are now going to propose that the prison population should come down and not go up. We know that there are some serious arguments—Fraser Nelson of The Spectator introduced us to the arguments inside the Conservative party—and that must be one area.

Let us come to the issue of resources. The hon. Gentleman has gone on record as saying that he accepts that we do not end up in the same situation as the United States. I am glad about that. He then said in the House that no one was suggesting unlimited resources. That is also useful for him to have said and absorbed. The issue of resources must be taken into account. How resources should be best taken into account is one of the improvements in the system that Lord Carter is considering. Meanwhile, I do not believe that anyone will disagree with the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, who said:

“The scale of sentences is now largely determined by Parliament. Where within that scale the facts of a particular offence fall is the judge’s task. Parliament should, when altering that scale, have regard to the resource implications of the changes that are proposed.”

On the subject of Lord Carter, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that Lord Carter has completed his review, that it is on the Secretary of State’s desk, that it has been seen by the Lord Chief Justice and Sir Igor Judge, the deputy Lord Chief Justice, and that it is simply awaiting the Secretary of State’s signature for publication?

There have certainly been extensive discussions with Sir Igor Judge and the Lord Chief Justice, and with me. I have not yet received the final version of the review report. I have already told the House that there will be an oral statement, and of course I shall make myself available for questions on that statement, as I always do. The Select Committee on Justice has already asked to interrogate me once the report is made available and might even ask the business managers if we can have a debate on it, so there is no dubiety about that.

If I may return—[Interruption.]

To return to the point, I quoted Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice, and I do not think that anyone would disagree with what he said. Indeed, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, the shadow Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, said:

“The lord chief justice is quite right to say that when the sentencing framework is set, the impact on the prison population must be properly taken into account”.

The backdrop to this debate is a country where crime is down a third since 1997, on the measures set out in the British crime survey, which was established by the Conservative party. Our penal policy is part of that success. This drop in crime represents 5 million fewer victims now than a decade ago.

Let me give the House two further sets of facts. First, as the House of Commons Library has shown, between 1945 and 1997, crime consistently rose faster under Conservative Administrations than ever it did under Labour Administrations. Secondly, it is under this Government since 1997, alone among any Administration since the war, that crime on all measures has fallen. That is our record. We stand by it, we are proud of it and I commend the amendment to the House.

It must be a considerable relief to the Lord Chancellor, considering the events in other parts of his departmental responsibilities, to return to the chronic failure of the Prison Service. It is a safe haven of sorts for him. The decision to hold this debate today was timely, and I commend the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for having chosen this subject.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that our prison system is in crisis. The House needs to be aware of that and to look at the potential solutions. We should not be remotely proud, as a nation, of the fact that we appear to have the unique social conditions, unique criminality and unique culpability that result in our having a higher proportion of citizens in custody than any comparable country. That is a signifier of failure in the system, not of success. A good system would reduce crime, the number of criminals and the number of people in our prisons. The fact is, however, that we are seeing an ever-increasing number of people held in custody.

Beyond that failure is the failure to have a prison estate that is capable of holding the prisoners who are sentenced. The overcrowding and conditions, and the nonsense of police cells being used and of prisoners who have been sentenced by the courts being carted around the country in an effort to try to find a place are all an indictment of how the system is working. The fact that it is beyond the scope of the prison system to house the present prison population presents a problem: it makes prisons more and more ineffective at performing anything other than the basic function of holding someone in custody to prevent them from committing a crime. It makes them ineffective at providing prisoners with any education, training and skills opportunities, or any other useful activity. It also results in a lack of effective rehabilitation. The consequence is a high rate of recidivism; people constantly reoffend on release from prison. That means that the enormous amount of money that we are investing in our penal system is having no effect. When people are released from prison, what do they do? They go out and commit another crime, and the public are once again put at risk.

We can add to the waste of money incurred by putting people into prisons that do not work the even higher cost of putting them into police cells. That also has a detrimental effect on police effectiveness and efficiency, while offering no possibility of any educational or rehabilitative work, even if people want it. That can have even more serious consequences.

There was a famous instance of people being sent around the great city of Liverpool in taxis delivering redundancy notices, but I think that it is nonsense that prisoners should be taken from one prison to another in taxis, simply to find a cell in which to hold them for the night. Yet we know that that is happening on a daily, and nightly, basis.

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that prisons around the country should have surplus places just in case somebody needs to be moved into them, or does he disagree with the idea that prisons should be managed in a way that maximises their use? I am not quite sure where he is coming from when he talks about surplus places to accommodate people in prison.

That is a novel idea—that we should have a just-in-time prison delivery system in which there is no spare capacity anywhere and wait for one person to be pushed out the back door before we put the next prisoner in through the front door. The hon. Gentleman really needs to think through the implications of his comments, as it is very difficult to understand exactly what he is suggesting.

One of the effects of the kaleidoscopic movement of prisoners around the country is that there is no continuity of care and effective rehabilitative prison work. That has all sorts of consequences, including the prison system’s inability not only properly to discourage reoffending, but to provide basic continuity of health care, particularly mental health care, to which I shall return in a few moments.

We all acknowledge—at least I hope we all do—the problem of the prison estate’s capacity to deal with prisoner numbers. Where I part company with the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, however, is on the competition of incompetence involved in saying that the answer is to build more and more places for more and more prisoners, so that failure begets failure and we spend more and more money on a system that does not provide effective rehabilitation. I simply do not believe that building more and more conventional prison spaces is the answer to the problem. That approach is simplistic and ineffective, and in the long term it can only exacerbate the problem.

Does that mean that I would refuse to build any new prisons at all? No, because I share the view of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs that we could manage the prison estate more effectively. There is far too much real estate in the form of old Victorian prison blocks, taking us back to the panopticon, Jeremy Bentham’s great invention in prison design. We do not have the right prisons in the right places, and if we were to dispose of some of that prison estate, we could reinvest in smaller units more suited to task and in the right places. One of the objectives of the Prison Service, particularly for lower-risk prisoners, should be to provide prisons where the prisoners come from.

One of the objectives of planning policy in guidance and elsewhere should be for the services provided to a community to include sufficient prison capacity to deal with the offenders likely to originate from that community, particularly in respect of large-scale developments. People should reflect on that point more, particularly in the south-east, which is currently underprovided for its prison population.

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that there should be a prison in every constituency, which is what his line of argument would amount to?

I do not think that we need to go that far. There is a prison on the fringe of my constituency, so perhaps I have done my bit. No, we do not need 639 prisons; what we do need are enough regional prisons in each part of the country to deal with the prison population likely to derive from each region. If the hon. Lady looked at the present disposal of prisons across the country, she would find that there is a mismatch. There are far too many inner-city hulks of prisons that are often at too long a distance from the people using them. That applies particularly to prisoners with relatively short sentences for whom visiting and maintaining contact with families needs to be a very high priority if we are to secure a proper rehabilitative effect. The distance makes visiting that more difficult and it is ineffective in terms of simple unit costs. I think that we could do a better job, which is my answer to her intervention.

Women’s prisons are one particular aspect, and we hope that the Government will respond positively to the Corston review, as one of the main issues is the patchy provision of women’s prisons and the fact that they are often in the wrong places. Many women are serving relatively short sentences, and many have family commitments. Imprisonment away from their families can be extremely deleterious to those families, and according to all the evidence, to those women’s mental health. I think that they would be much better served by smaller units scattered around the country and closer to where they live. There are other issues in connection with the number of women in prison who do not pose a risk to the community, but I will not go into them now.

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest. I understand the logic of the proposal for more prisons spread over different areas, but has he assessed the cost of such units in comparison with that of slightly larger regional prisons? It seems to me that the staffing implications of requirements for specialist care would be very major.

The honest answer is that the cost would vary according to the class of prison. The cost might well be greater in the highest security prisons, with a high staff-to-prisoner ratio, while the smaller, low-dependency units might be more cost-effective. An enormous amount of capital is tied up in some of our older prisons, however. Once it was released, the prison estate would benefit from a substantial capital receipt and the capacity would be available. The building of new prisons costs much less than the capital value of the estate.

A good many people want to speak in the debate, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman briefly.

Given the high price of land in the south of England, would the prisons that the hon. Gentleman would like to locate there be at the more expensive end of the spectrum?

The south-east has higher land values than the north-east. That is a fact, and I cannot get away from it. However, we have some inner-city properties on the prison estate that would be worth many millions of pounds if their value could be realised, and on the outer fringes there are a number of greenfield sites that could be used for new prison build. [Interruption.] Please let us not be—

I certainly hope that we do not descend into the futility of the argument of the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane).

Once we have divested ourselves of some of the assets and rebuilt some conventional prisons, we shall be in desperate need of more secure mental health provision. We know that that is a major problem in our prison system: 90 per cent. of prisoners show some symptoms of mental illness. I do not suppose that all those prisoners require secure mental health provision, but I note that one in 10 is functionally psychotic. It strikes me as extraordinary that when the prison population contains so many people who need mental health provision in our conventional prisons there are only 1,150 secure mental health places in Ashworth, Broadmoor and Rampton. Surely a sane way of dealing with that issue is to build more secure mental health provision rather than more conventional prisons. The same applies to drugs rehabilitation centres.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. The Conservative party earlier today changed its policy from one of residential rehabilitation to secure residential rehabilitation, which would probably double the cost per centre. Will he confirm his policy of drugs rehabilitation centres? Will they be secure or not? Has he costed them? Can he give an example of any other country in the world where such a policy works?

On the latter point, the United Kingdom is one; we have 2,500 secure drug rehabilitation places. Unfortunately, they are very often not filled because of resourcing issues, but that is part of the disposal at the moment. There are many people within our prison system who have a serious drugs problem. We know that drugs are a major motor of acquisitive crime. I am not talking about the three quarters of male prisoners who have used drugs in the 12 months or so before they enter the prison estate, and neither am I talking about the 10,000 drug offenders. I am talking about serious drug users who need rehabilitation within the prisons estate, but are at the moment held in conventional prisons. Those prisons are not the right places for such people.

I always listen to the hon. Gentleman with great care, but I think that he may be mistaken in saying that there are 2,500 secure residential rehab places in the country. I think there are 119 English residential drug rehab units with a total of 2,530 beds; that is in my pamphlet, “Crackpot.” But those beds are not secure, which is the problem; anyone can come in and out when they want.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for correcting something I said that was misinterpreted. Certainly that was the point I was trying to make.

The third category of people in our prison system who should not be are those serving short-term sentences. I make this point strongly. There is very clear evidence that recidivism among those serving sentences of three months or less is almost 100 per cent; there is more than 90 per cent. recidivism among young males in that category. We are using prison spaces for a system that is almost completely and utterly useless in preventing crime. My belief is that there are better disposals, and here I must differ from the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, who appears to think that community sentencing could never do anything positive and should be shunned at every opportunity in place of real punishment in prison. Prison does not work for short-term sentences. It does not deter, rehabilitate or stop people reoffending. What on earth is the point of using expensive prison places when there are more effective disposals elsewhere in effective community sentences?

This is my last point. If we want effective community sentencing—I do and I think the Government do—that can and will reduce the number of people in custody, we have to have an effective probation service. At the moment we have a probation service that is being brought to its knees by the demands put on it and the funding that it is not being given. That is why the National Association of Probation Officers is lobbying us and holding a rally in this House and why its members are so concerned about what is being done to the probation service.

The NAPO lobby is organising its approach on the basis of a flat cash settlement. I am proposing—I have written to chief probation offers to make this offer—between 2 and 3 per cent. for next year. The figures on which NAPO is lobbying are not correct.

I have seen the letter from the right hon. Gentleman and I accept that he has written in those terms. The resource that he is putting into the probation service is not adequate, however, to meet the demands that we are placing on the service. The reality is that probation offices throughout the country are facing increased work load, reduced staff numbers, unfilled vacancies and training places that are not being filled. We cannot deliver effective community sentencing without the people who are expert in providing probation services.

I say plainly that one cannot both cut costs in the probation service and deliver community sentencing as an alternative to prison. Community sentencing costs money to be effective. I think that it works, and I have evidence to support that view. However, it is a scandalous waste of human resource and energy to send a young lad into prison to watch television all day every day, perhaps acquire a drug habit and come out as a confirmed criminal, instead of setting him the task of clearing up graffiti in his community or doing other work that restores what he has broken or destroyed. That is also an ineffective way to deal with offenders.

It is easy to talk tough about prison, but it is much more difficult to be effective. I have argued, and will continue to argue, for a penal policy that is effective in cutting crime and reducing reoffending. The prison system is failing on those scores, and one of the reasons is that we simply have too many people in our prisons.

Order. We have limited time left for the debate, so I suggest that hon. Members limit their contribution to six or seven minutes so that they more may be successful in catching my eye.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I am also pleased that the debate has become more civilised in tone after we had high volume from the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), but not much sense. Having listened to his speech, I am still unclear about whether it is the Conservatives’ policy to have more people in prison or fewer.

Does my hon. Friend see a theme emerging? Yesterday, we asked about Conservative housing policy, and they said that they did not want any targets for house building. That has been repeated today, and they have not given any targets for prison places.

If my hon. Friend will allow, and in view of the time constraints, I shall stick to the debate at hand.

I would like to see fewer people in prison, and that should be the aim of a civilised criminal justice system. The problem is that Governments do not send people to prison: courts do. One of the central difficulties of penal policy is a constant tension between Government and the courts. It is probably magistrates courts rather than Crown courts that send young and other offenders to prison for short sentences.

I am a former solicitor and I have practised in the criminal courts, albeit some time ago, and in my experience courts are reluctant to send people to prison, and Opposition Members who have more recent experience accept that. So why are more people going to prison?

The Government’s policy on sentencing is to send more people to prison for longer. The Government have, for example, created some 3,500 new offences. That is why more people have ended up in prison.

With respect, I am talking about short sentences and individuals who are given short sentences and who may never have been in prison before. Some of those people must be in the category of offenders who have been brought to justice by this Government’s penal policy but might not have been brought to justice in the past. It is for that reason that those people have gone into prison for the first time.

Certainly, some individuals are in prison for longer and for more serious matters. I welcome that: such people are a danger to the public, and it is right and proper that they should be in prison for a considerable period. I welcome a policy that means that they are not released until they pose no threat.

However, given the constraints on time in the debate, I shall concentrate on the need to focus on those who are sent to prison for short sentences. I always like to see the good work that the probation service does with restorative justice in my constituency. Some excellent local projects have clearly imposed serious burdens on the people involved. The projects have been a real punishment and I welcome that, but it is clear that my constituents have no perception of restorative justice. They do not appreciate the burdens that it imposes on those who commit offences, and their perception is that criminals can be dealt with effectively only if they are sent to prison.

I have held meetings with my constituents to explore the nature of the sentences imposed for specific serious offences, and it has been made clear to me that people have no appreciation of how long such sentences can be. The fact that they believe that inmates serve shorter sentences than they really do shows that the criminal justice system is a lot tougher than most people think. If the Government are to deliver an effective criminal justice system, it is crucial that they focus attention on educating the public about it. People must be made aware that community sentences can be effective, and that they can impose substantial burdens on those punished by the courts.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Government policy should focus also on tackling the causes of crime, through initiatives such as Extended Schools, the Youth Opportunity Fund and the Youth Capital Fund? In my constituency, the Not Another Drop campaign has caused crime to fall by 12 per cent. Does he accept that we should adopt that approach more widely?

My hon. Friend mentions another crucial area. As I said, I worked in the criminal courts in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the vast majority of my clients were unemployed. Thankfully, unemployment has fallen over the past decade, and there is no doubt that that has had a substantial impact on the commission of crime. All the programmes to which she referred need to be continued and developed, and I especially welcome the commitment to youth services that the Government have evinced in the past few months. I know that my hon. Friend is very interested in such services, as they play a crucial role in our efforts to reduce crime and lower the prison population.

There is ongoing discussion in north Wales about having a prison there. At the moment, the prison population from the area is usually held at the Altcourse prison in Liverpool. That is a long way away from north-west Wales and Anglesey, for example, and I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that, if we are to have any sort of end-to-end criminal justice system, prisons must be located near the geographical areas in which prisoners live. They must also recognise the cultural distinctions in communities, and that is why I support the principle of a prison in north Wales.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a small unit in north Wales for women prisoners would be much more effective, as Baroness Corston recommended in her report? Traditional women’s prisons or a women’s wing in a prison are a backwards step.

I was interested in the comments about small prisons made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, and I certainly agree that it would be sensible to take the line suggested by my hon. Friend. In principle, I would support a prison in north Wales, hosted in the community, and I hope that an announcement will be made in the Carter review, and that discussions will take place early in the new year.

In view of the time, I shall conclude my comments. We need to conduct a sensible and temperate debate on the subject. I hope that tone will continue.

I shall try to be brief. As always, I begin by declaring an interest as a Crown Court recorder and a part-time district judge.

A few years ago, I visited a young offender institution where I spoke to a young man aged 20. I asked, “What are you doing here?” He replied, “I’m in for four months for driving while disqualified. It’s the second time I’ve been disqualified.” “My goodness”, I said, “Are you a terrible driver?” “No”, he said, “I’m a brilliant driver—I’ve never had an accident.” “Then why are you in here for driving while disqualified?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “ I haven’t got a licence. I’ve never had a licence.” “Why?” I asked; and he replied, “I’ve never passed the theory test, because I can’t read or write.” In a debate such as this, we have no real opportunity for the thoughtful discussions that most Members want about prisons. That is a pity, because there are good ideas on both sides of the House about penal reform, but these debates are set-piece occasions when—perhaps—we do not think quite enough.

I want to say a few words about the subject of education in prisons, on which I have concentrated for several years. My young man could not read or write, so he was in prison. That is a crying shame. I have visited many young offender institutions over the past few years and I try to work out what the young men and women—mostly young men—are doing with their lives. How much time do they spend locked up in their cells? How much time is spent on serious education, and how much time do they have for playing sport? Those are good things in the young offender estate. I am sorry to say that for many years the situation in young offender institutions has been worrying, which is a criticism of us all, in all parties.

I asked in a written question about the steps taken to increase the time spent by young offenders in the youth prison estate outside their cells and on playing team sports and educational activity. The answer was interesting:

“Young people in young offender institution accommodation commissioned by the Youth Justice Board must be given 25 hours learning per week and spend less than 14 hours per day locked in their room”.—[Official Report, 21 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 985W.]

We might think that that was clear, but a careful study of what happens in practice illustrates that far too much time is spent locked up.

In July, I asked about the amount of time per day that young offenders spend locked up in their cells. In Reading young offender institution, the average time spent in cells is 17.1 hours a day. The figure for Rochester is 15.7 hours. In many of the young offender institutions, including Castington, people spend more than 15 hours a day locked up in a cell, and in Deerbolt it is 17 hours. That is not good news at all.

What about education? I told the House about the young man who was in prison because he could not pass his theory test. How many hours of education are people getting? They are not getting the 25 hours that they are meant to receive. I asked a question some time ago about the average number of hours spent on education per week. In Aylesbury and Glen Parva, it is only six hours a week. In Reading, it is eight hours a week. That is not long for a young person to spend on proper education at a young persons institution.

There is an additional concern: even people who do start a course in prison find it virtually impossible when they leave prison to complete that course and get the qualification.

That is absolutely right. The hon. Gentleman is interested in these matters and I respect his expertise, because we have been debating against each other for some years. He rightly points to the need for people to be able to continue with their education and get the qualification. Somebody who has a job—somebody who is educated—is less likely to go back to prison or a young offender institution than somebody who does not.

Let us concentrate on spending more time on education in young offender institutions. More time should be spent out of the cells. More time should also be spent on playing sport—team sport. I am old-fashioned. In the young offender institutions where there are plenty of team sports, there is a better chance of the young men being constructive when they come out.

What about drugs? The other day I asked what percentage of persons in young offender institutions are drug addicts. The answer is 76 per cent. Three quarters are drug addicts. That is a terrible state of affairs. The country is awash with drugs. I do not blame the Government for that. There is Afghanistan, Colombia and the rest of the world. The world is changing. Drugs are a terrible problem among young people. Believe me, while sentencing in the courts, it is pathetic to see nice young boys and girls, aged nine, 10, 11 or 12, who have started on skunk, and moved on through solvents to heroin and crack cocaine. Their lives are ruined by it and they end up in a young offender institution.

My final plea is this: all of us in politics must focus on trying to help young people—who are victims as often as not—off hard drugs. We must focus on ways of doing that. Residential rehab is cheaper and more effective than prison. We are talking about one of the worst problems facing young people today. If today’s debate has any result, I hope that it is that all of us in the House will try to use our brains as best we can to come up with better ideas and policies to look after young men in young offender institutions, both in terms of their education, their future and their propensity for drugs, which is so deeply damaging.

In the short time available, I shall concentrate on the issue of women in prison, which has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), and on how we might create a better system for women offenders. It is important that we both decrease instances of reoffending among women and make sure that women in prison, and their families, do not suffer unnecessarily.

The first thing to do is to look at the profile of the women who are imprisoned. It is fair to say that of the 4,000-plus women who are in prison, most are classified as very vulnerable and the majority are there for non-violent offences. The most common offences are theft and the handling of stolen goods. It is important to remember that eight in 10 are there for non-violent crimes. Some 70 per cent. of women in prison have mental health problems, 37 per cent. have attempted suicide, nearly two thirds have drug problems, one in three has been sexually abused, and more than half have suffered domestic violence. Some 20 per cent. were in the care system as children, compared to 2 per cent. of the general population. That is a grim picture.

It is disturbing that the number of women in prison has almost tripled in the past 10 years, even though the kinds of offences for which they are sentenced have not changed, on the whole. Due to the efforts of successive Prison Ministers to keep the women’s prison population down as much as possible, the population has stabilised in the past three years at between 4,000 and 4,500 people. What happens to women when they are released? Prison does not work for women: 65 per cent. of them reoffend. Nearly a third who lived in rented accommodation lost their homes. That is clearly not good for the women, and not good for society, because the root causes of women’s offending are not being addressed in prison.

Of course, prison does not just affect the women who are imprisoned. About two thirds of women in prison have dependent children. More than 17,000 children are separated from their mothers because of imprisonment. When a mother is sent to prison, only 5 per cent. of children remain in the family home. It is important to remember the misery caused to many children as a result of women going to prison. By way of contrast, when men go to prison, the majority of children stay in the family home. We cannot minimise the distress that is caused to the children in that case, but they do remain in the family home.

Women are frequently held more than 50 miles from their home, so it is often difficult to visit and to keep in contact, which is vital. So much more needs to be done for women prisoners who have not committed violent crimes, and who are not a risk to society, and that is why I particularly welcome the Corston report, published earlier this year. It is important that we try to do something radical with women prisoners, because although they are only a small number of those in the prison population as a whole, we can tackle that number. I think that we can actually make a difference.

I strongly support Baroness Corston’s recommendation that we move from traditional-style prisons for women to smaller units—some of them secure—much nearer women’s families and communities. Those units can address all the issues related to women’s offending, including the crime. They have offended against society, so we have to address the offending and there must be an element of punishment, but we also need to think of the other, wider issues and try to deal with them. We have models for such an approach in the Asha centre in Worcester, and the 218 centre in Glasgow, which address the punishment of women offenders for the crimes that they commit, but also look at the other factors. We also need programmes that consider women’s mental health—a subject that has been mentioned a lot today—drug and alcohol abuse services, and support for victims of domestic abuse. The aim should be to get women out of the cycle of offending, to try to keep families together, and to provide services that will help us to gain those ends.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) mentioned prisons in Wales. There is no women’s prison in Wales, and that causes the additional problem of women’s families having to travel outside Wales. In south Wales, that generally means going to Bristol. In north Wales, too, it means going over the border to England. I feel strongly that we need a facility in Wales, particularly in south Wales, but we do not want a traditional prison for women. There are not enough women offenders in Wales to fill such a unit. We want the sort of unit recommended in Baroness Corston’s report. I strongly hope that that will be considered for my area of south Wales.

I am delighted that the National Offender Management Service is setting up a demonstrator project to service Wales in Cardiff. It aims to turn around the lives of women offenders and women who are at risk of reoffending. NOMS reckons that there are about 779 women offenders in Cardiff and the surrounding areas. It is setting up the skeleton of a service that could address women’s offending, and all the problems affecting their lives. Work on a core unit in south Wales, which is similar to the units proposed in Baroness Corston’s report, has already begun. I hope that we can continue to develop such a unit in Wales and address the issue of women’s offending.

An encouraging ICM survey on Monday showed that the vast majority of people do not think that women should be sent to prison for non-violent offences. Some 86 per cent. of those surveyed said that they would prefer women to be given a community alternative to prison, so there is no public support for the view that women should be in prison for non-violent offences. The public are compassionate, and they understand the huge problems that prison sentences create for families and communities. They understand that prison is not effective for women, so I hope that the Government’s policy, informed by the Corston report and the response to it, will be a positive one.

According to my hon. Friend’s figures, a third of women prisoners do not have a child dependant with them in prison, so why should they be treated differently from men who have committed non-violent offences? Opinion polls and surveys would not be as sympathetic to men, but are there not men in prison who would benefit from a similar approach?

I agree that some men would benefit from a similar approach, but the evidence on women is clear and much stronger, and we should start with women.

I represent a constituency that includes two prisons—High Down and Downview—which over the past 10 years have provided repeated examples of the failure of Government policies to be other than reactive to predictable wider trends. They have enjoyed, if that is the right word, the consequences of an inept and ill-thought-out policy.

I have already put on record the shambles of the reroling of Downview some years ago from a men’s to a women’s prison at two weeks’ notice to the staff. High Down prison will contribute 360 extra places to the prison estate by mid-February, and a new wing means that 178 places are coming online now. Given the difficulty of recruiting prison staff, nearly 30 per cent. of the required prison officers will be detached from duty elsewhere, with a consequent risk for prisoner-prison officer relationships.

Another example of the inept way in which those matters are planned—that is not necessarily the right word—is the new educational facility, which will come on-stream after the new blocks are built. For an indefinite period, the facilities required to enable the rehabilitation and training of offenders in prison will not be available, even though there will be a 50 per cent. increase in the prison population.

To develop a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), the prison was established to hold 660 prisoners. Its operational capacity is 747, but it is increasing by 10 a day as the new block is filled. There are 98 men living in triple cells who should be in double cells. There is a proposal to put bunks into the single cells in the new block, which were designed to take ligature points out of the cell and reduce the risk to prisoners, and an assessment is under way of whether the new cells can be turned into double cells. That is the scale of the crisis in that prison in my constituency.

The crisis that has engulfed prisons is cruel not only to prisoners but stupid, because of the consequences for the rest of us. The overcrowding crisis is a fundamental problem and a consequence of the wider malaise in the criminal justice system.

Three aspects have contributed to the systemic failure, one of which is sentencing. It is clear that the Government’s obsession with sentences has been damaging. A custodial sentence has two elements—a prison sentence, the primary purpose of which is punishment and the protection of society, and a period of probation on licence, which should primarily provide prisoners with the opportunity for rehabilitation. That is not to say that rehabilitation should not start in prison—it should. However, the increase in sentence length under the Government, forcing judges to pass longer sentences, and the creation of thousands of new criminal offences, must have contributed to the overcrowding and the collapse of much serious rehabilitation work inside.

The failure properly to focus on rehabilitation means that far too many offenders are re-imprisoned while on probation. We already have some of the longest sentences in Europe, and more and more judges are handing out indeterminate sentences. The new system of imprisonment for public protection has exacerbated the situation. Britain is home to more prisoners on indeterminate sentences than the whole of the rest of Europe put together. I do not regard that as a mark of success.

Sadly, the probation service has been consistently undermined by the Government. On 11 June this year the service celebrated its 100th anniversary in a special service in Westminster Abbey. The Bishop of Selby, Bishop to HM Prisons, acknowledged

“the constant change and reorganisation . . . the struggle to get enough resources for a task which although hugely cost effective compared with custodial sentences seems to get a smaller share of the budget”.

It was for some a eulogy on the end of the national probation service as we know it.

Many prisoners now see the function of the probation service not as rehabilitation, but as re-imprisonment. Those sent back to prison include individuals arriving moments late for employment or carrying items that cannot reasonably be prohibited. In a case personally known to me, an offender was accused of using his electronic diary to access the internet, despite the fact that the machine had no such function. On that basis, he was re-imprisoned. We are told of people being re-imprisoned without being told why. The appeal process through the Parole Board is lengthy, and the Parole Board is itself a subsidiary of the Home Office.

The failure to rehabilitate and the propensity for punishment provoke anger and frustration among the prisoner population. Those emotions are prominent likely causes of re-offending. A prisoner in Belmarsh recently wrote:

“I consider there to be no real support or encouragement from probation, or indeed anything to do with effective rehabilitation, and rather than allow them to recall me on ridiculous grounds I believe the remainder of my sentence will be better utilised in prison.”

That is a common view in prison and a damning indictment of a failed policy. The solution is straightforward: support those keen to rehabilitate, and address re-imprisonment for ridiculous reasons that have much more to do with risk avoidance than with justice. With 10,000 prisoners being recalled the situation needs to be addressed urgently.

Finally, let us consider the role of the Parole Board in prison overcrowding. According to the High Court, the reason lies in the lack of independence for the Parole Board. Many who should be released to probation for rehabilitation are not released, and the Parole Board’s recommendations, such as proposals to move those serving life sentences into more open conditions, are ignored. It is perhaps typical of the controlling tendency of the Government that instead of granting the Parole Board the independence that it needs to function, they are instead launching an appeal against the High Court’s judgment.

Allowing our judges to judge, focusing probation on rehabilitation and curbing the Home Office’s draconian powers, and ensuring a truly independent Parole Board would help address the current crisis. Meanwhile, our prison service is swamped, unable to do its job of rehabilitation, and morale is at an all-time low. The Government say that their policy is focused on public protection, but all they are doing is putting the public at risk through overcrowded prisons and a failure to rehabilitate thousands of offenders, nurturing one of the highest re-offending rates in the world and breeding thousands of angry, bitter prisoners who have been unjustly and inhumanely treated.

I was a little disappointed when the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) opened the debate and started talking about the prison population. One thing that he left out of his speech was the contribution made by our police force to ensuring that more people are taken in for investigation, arrested, taken to court and sentenced. A huge investment has been made by our Government in the police force and community support officers. In my constituency, Perry Barr in Birmingham, Handsworth, Lozells and Aston, which had record levels of crime, now have one of the lowest crime rates in Birmingham and across the midlands.

The hon. Gentleman refused to take interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who has huge knowledge and understanding—[Interruption.] I say to hon. Members who wish to intervene on me that I have only a little time available to me, and I want to make a couple of points and then allow other hon. Members to speak. The work done by my hon. Friend has given him a huge understanding about drug rehabilitation.

If hon. Members want to examine these serious issues, they should visit Winson Green prison in Birmingham, where significant work has been done on getting prisoners off drugs and on to substitute drugs. Approaches such as rehousing them, reintegrating them into the community and getting Jobcentre Plus teams into prisons to speak to them about work opportunities when they come out of prison have been examined. All that work has been done in places such as Winson Green, and the Government have put huge resources into it. The venture taken by Winson Green is wholly positive, and much interesting work has been done.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs also refused to mention anything about restorative justice. A huge amount of work has been done on that, particularly in Liverpool. I believe that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned the Red Hook project, which is a fine example. I have had the opportunity to visit Liverpool, where work has been done and restorative justice has paid off. A full-time district judge is in charge of that system, and keeping people away from prison has worked quite effectively. A community court has also been secured in Lozells and Handsworth for my constituency. It started only this month and it has been a huge success. I have been campaigning for such a court in my area for the past two years. A huge amount of work has been done.

Many hon. Members have mentioned education. I shall limit my remarks because of the shortage of time, but I should mention Matthew Boulton college in Birmingham, which has won a contract for Prison Service education. It has done a huge amount of work to get prisoners back into education.

People must recognise the considerable work that has been done in all the fields that I have mentioned. Hon. Members sometimes come here to make speeches purely to knock the Government, but that is not a positive approach. We need to examine all the positive things that are being done and then continue the work. The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who is not in his place, made sensible arguments on this point. We should address such arguments rather than just listen to point-scoring from the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs.

In essence, the prison system is in crisis. As each prisoner costs the taxpayer £49,000 per annum, it is proving to be a rather expensive crisis. Given that the Prime Minister’s speech to the Labour party conference, which itemised his priorities, did not mention prisons or prisoners, it is clear that the trend of neglect will continue.

With a record number of prisoners, it is no good the Government boasting that they have provided an additional 20,000 prison places when some of that has been achieved by doubling and trebling the usage of cells. Nor is it any good their boasting that they propose to build 9,500 more places by 2012, when they have guaranteed funding for only 500 of those places.

The Government need seriously to consider the consequences of their decade of failure. There was a 64 per cent. rise in attacks on prison staff between 2000 and 2006, which was due in part to overcrowding. There has been a substantial increase in the number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults—444 per cent. between 1997 and 2006. The number of self-harm incidents has also increased by a staggering 1,500 per cent. in the same period. It is no wonder that the chief inspector of prisons, Ann Owers, drew a link between overcrowding and violence in prisons.

As well as punishment, one of the aims and objectives of prison is to rehabilitate prisoners, but that is becoming increasingly difficult. For example, in Belmarsh prison just under 15 hours a week is spent in productive activity. That sort of environment certainly does not assist rehabilitation.

As we have heard, prisons are rife with drugs—a fact that was aptly confirmed in a written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) confirming that one in five prisoners admitted that their first experience of drugs was in prison.

I am mindful that one other Member wishes to speak, so I will conclude by saying that the Government need to get their head out of the sand. So far, they have tried temporary measures such as the early release of 10,000 prisoners. Perhaps the Minister would like to enlighten us about what “temporary” really means. The tagging system has failed and there have been failures in all other measures. My advice to the Minister is that he should take on board the views of some of his colleagues in other Departments, who have been open to Conservative suggestions.

In the four minutes that I have, I would like to make a couple of brief points.

We have had prison overcrowding in every year since 1994. Part of the reason for the current crisis is the 50 per cent. breach rate of antisocial behaviour orders. Stringent breach rules have resulted in a rise in the number of breaches of more than 400 per cent. in four years, up to a monthly level of 1,200. Other reasons include increases in magistrates’ sentencing powers and the use of public protection sentences. If I had time, I would have referred to the Carter report of 2003, which concluded:

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

In other words, crime is not dealt with by imprisonment, which does nothing for the average offender, for various reasons. Rehabilitation is not good, and there are overwhelming drug problems. Similarly, the previous Home Secretary, 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.]

So why do we continue to send people to prison?

Let me pose this question to the Minister. Will the Government consider a new community penalty—a period of supervision where the conditions of the order were not all imposed at the same time? That has been put to me by a serious panel of senior probation officers. The major problems are, first, drug and alcohol misuse, secondly, literacy and numeracy deficiencies, and thirdly, lack of a path to employment. It is not possible to deal with all three at the same time, because people who are in the depths of drug or alcohol misuse cannot deal rationally with the second and third problems. The sentence could be for 18 months, with six months in the first phase and phased-in second and third phases. That would ultimately be cost-effective, although it presupposes investment in the probation service. I have always believed in the probation service. Far too many people in prison—I would venture to suggest up to 25 per cent.—should, strictly speaking, not be there. We could do without sending people to prison if we were to look creatively at community penalties. If I may, I would like to meet the Minister to discuss the idea of the phased community penalty, which is a good idea that might well work. Perhaps he will agree to that when he winds up.

I am pleased to have been able to speak for these few minutes. Often, the best fish that a fisherman would ever have caught is the one that got away. Likewise, alas, the speech that I had prepared would probably have been my best speech, which is why I was unable to deliver it.

I begin by commiserating with the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). He always has interesting things to say about criminal justice issues, and if he had more time, he would have had more of value to say. I particularly want to commend him for his idea—it is one I have thought of myself, if I may say so—concerning the sequential requirements under community sentencing. As he rightly says, many of the people on community sentences are not always able to organise their lives in a sensible way, and we end up with too many breaches as a consequence. I think that the Minister would be sensible to consider that idea further.

I do not have long, so I probably will not faithfully reproduce the contributions made by right hon. and hon. Members from all parties. I notice that the Secretary of State is not here; he did not rise to the occasion, which is a pity because those who spoke after him have done so. I have no doubt that the Minister of State will produce a better speech than his political master. He has done his best to make some interesting contributions to the question of prison overcrowding; I have listened to him with interest in the Committee considering the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which we have been toiling through during the past six weeks or so. I look forward to what the Minister has to say having real purpose. It seems to me that prisons should be prisons with a purpose. If we cannot provide purposeful prisons, we are wasting our time and the public’s money, we are abusing victims and we are not doing offenders any good.

A number of broad themes came out of the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) highlighted those in our motion. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), I must confess to being a recorder. I send people to prison and give them community sentences. I watch the carousel of offenders coming before the criminal court in London and wonder why this Government do what they do. They seem to have little understanding about why what is happening. As the shadow Minister dealing with prison matters since my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) appointed me to the post in December 2005, I have visited 30 adult prisons—those accommodating men and women—and I have visited young offender institutions and secure training centres. In each of those establishments I have met some dedicated and wonderful people, but all of them are working in dreadful, overcrowded prisons. Overcrowding is the crux. It is impossible to deliver sensible, humane and decent conditions in prison, for the inmates or for those who work there as officers and staff, in such grossly overcrowded conditions.

As our motion says, there are now 81,547 in prison. We are simply warehousing those people; we are not giving them the effective rehabilitation that they need if they are to come out of prison as responsible, law-abiding citizens. It is one thing to incarcerate people to keep them off the streets, and to prevent them from reoffending—that is a perfectly legitimate aim of sentencing. However, if that is all we do, and we release them through the back door so that they go back on to the streets, as illiterate and affected by substance abuse as when they went in, it is hardly surprising that they reoffend in the industrial quantities that they do. Of all adult prisoners released, 66 per cent. reoffend within two years, and the figure for young offenders is worse—about 75 per cent. If the Government think that spending £50,000 a year on accommodating every adult prisoner, between £70,000 and £90,000 a year on every young offender and about £150,000 a year on every teenage prisoners under 18, is good for the prisoners and the public when reoffending takes place at such a vast rate, we inhabit different planets. The reoffending rate is far too high and will not be tackled until the Government get to grips with overcrowding.

The Government claim—the Secretary of State did so again this evening—that they have built and provided many additional prison places. It’s the way he tells ’em. The prison population has increased from 60,000 to 81,500, but the accommodation has not increased to meet that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said when he referred to the new block in one of the prisons in his constituency, it is already planned to put bunks into single cells so that two people can go into one-person cells. One of the unintended consequences of getting rid of slopping out over the past 20 years is that we are now in the revolting position whereby two or three men are in one cell, essentially living in a lavatory. They cannot go to the lavatory in privacy. That is a fact of the hidden world of the modern prison system. Not only do they have to go to the lavatory in front of their cell mates, but they have to eat their meals in those lavatories. Those appalling conditions prevail under the Government’s management of our prison system. That does not lead to better rehabilitation and inculcation of responsibility into offenders whom we release on to the streets.

Approximately 2 per cent.—probably 1 per cent.—of the prison population never leave prison. The vast majority go to prison and come out. If we put people in prison illiterate and on drugs, and allow them to maintain that state of affairs, it is hardly surprising that they reoffend when they leave prison. One cannot get a job if one cannot read. One needs a reading age of 14 or older to get a job. Even an unskilled job requires some reading ability. Approximately 65 to 70 per cent. of the prison population has a reading age of under 11. The Government appear to want to do little about that.

Yes, the Government have increased the number of pounds that are spent on education. However, they think only of input, not output. It is no good, as a Government Back Bencher suggested in the debate, simply increasing spending on drug rehabilitation. The Government may well have increased the amount, but they have not increased the benefit to the public or to the prisoners. [Interruption.] It is uncontroversial to say that there is no better place than prison to take drugs, pick up a drug habit and become a drug addict. If any Labour Members want to contradict me, I suggest that they visit as many prisons, young offender institutions and secure training centres as I have. They will soon learn different.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) was right that there is a need to consider whether a prison or custodial accommodation should be provided—for men and women, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) said—in north Wales. It is not right that people should be taken a long way from their homes so that their families are broken up and children lose touch with their parents in prison. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady may know—but the Secretary of State may not—that 150,000 children who go to bed tonight have a parent in prison. Broken families lead to repeat crime. Failure to be visited by their families just once a year has a correlation with reoffending by those who are released from prison. I urge hon. Members to consider that carefully as we watch the train crash happening. We have been watching it for the past few years.

Sadly, time does not permit me to give full credit to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking, who spoke with great knowledge and passion about education and drugs in prison. The average time spent on purposeful activity in our prisons is currently 3.6 hours a day. Given the time that prisoners are kept locked in doing nothing, cannot we get them to learn to read if they have 14, 15 or 16 hours in their cells alone? Cannot toe-by-toe schemes be spread more widely throughout the prison estate? Cannot we do something practical rather than simply allowing the Secretary of State to make a few feeble jokes about my being on a voyage of discovery? I have indeed been on a voyage of discovery. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Yes, I have been on a voyage of discovery, and the public and the Government would have benefited greatly if the Secretary of State had been on it with me. I do not say this with any sense of amusement or pleasure, but we currently have the blind leading the blind and it is the public who pay for it, in money and the huge rates of reoffending. Until the Government get their head round that, get a grip and really pull their socks up, I am afraid that we are in for worse.

We have had a productive debate. A lot of it was predictable, but in part it was also thoughtful. I pay tribute not only to my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood), for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) for their contributions, but to the hon. Members for Woking (Mr. Malins) and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), although less so to the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), but he is entitled to make his political points.

This has been a thoughtful debate, which has added to the need to look at some of the key issues. There are key issues—I share the view of the hon. Member for Woking on this—to do with numeracy, literacy, drug abuse, employment, providing people with accommodation post-prison, and rebuilding lives during prison, before prison when people enter the youth justice system and post-prison. There are real issues that we can address. There is even an element whereby, dare I say it, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) agrees deep down with some of the things that the Government are doing. Deep down, he knows that we are taking a positive approach and that we have matters in common on the way to tackle reoffending.

I pay tribute not only to the staff in the Prison Service, but to the staff in the probation service, who do an excellent job.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I represent a constituency with one of the biggest prison populations? The morale of the Prison Officers Association at Wymott, one of the two prisons in my constituency, is at an all-time low, but the governor is unhelpful. We need to consider what we can do. Will my right hon. Friend intervene to see what the issues are, so that we can help get that prison back on track, as its numbers are going to be increased and the current dispute is not the right way to go?

If my hon. Friend wants to discuss the situation in Wymott, as well as general issues, I should be happy to meet him, because I know that he will share my wish to see an effective Prison Service and an effective probation service that is committed to reducing reoffending.

We are having this debate against a background of reducing crime, and we must never forget that. Crime is down 32 per cent. over the past 10 years, burglary is down 55 per cent., vehicle theft is down 52 per cent., household offences are down 33 per cent. and all personal offences are down by 32 per cent. overall. I am not going to duck the fact—[Interruption.] I am grateful for the intervention of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). If only he had been here throughout the debate, he could have listened to all the thoughtful contributions. There are still some clear challenges for us and for the Prison Service in preventing reoffending.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North mentioned the Corston report. There is much positive policy promoted by Baroness Corston. I hope that I will be able to respond to that shortly. We have already given the process a positive response and I look forward to responding to the report in detail, I hope very shortly.

A number of hon. Members mentioned the Carter report, including my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor. Hon. Members will know that we have asked Lord Carter to assess the pace and scale of the current prison building programme, the management and efficiency of public sector prisons, the impact of recommendations for the prison estate on all parts of the criminal justice system, and the changes in the sentencing framework. As my right hon. Friend said, we expect Lord Carter to report shortly.

We have a big building programme of more than 9,500 places. I should point out to the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire that the funding is there for 8,500 of those 9,500 planned places.

We also have a positive programme of examining not only prison building but the reduction of reoffending. It is on that point that I wish to concentrate now. My hon. Friends the Members for Wrexham and for Birmingham, Perry Barr and the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Woking have all put their finger on the key issues that we need to address. There is an element of support across the House for those issues.

The Government have identified seven pathways that need to be addressed in order to prevent reoffending. They include accommodation, drug treatment, and education—the hon. Member for Woking mentioned support for education and training. They also include finding a better way of linking employment opportunities outside prison with training opportunities in prison. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr mentioned the scheme at Winson Green prison, which I happened to visit a few weeks ago, and the community justice scheme at Lozells in his constituency. Both are attempting to examine the key issues of employability, training and support for individuals. Self-evidently, there are three issues that are important to individuals in regard to the prevention of reoffending. They are employment, accommodation and support from family, friends and colleagues.

I refer the hon. and learned Member for Harborough to a document that I produced yesterday on the consultation on reducing reoffending, which contains our designs for tackling the issues of accommodation, drugs, debt, family, employment, literacy and numeracy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler) mentioned, we also need to look at the causes of crime before people even get into the criminal justice system. We have examined the work of the Youth Justice Board and I would like to tell the hon. Member for Woking that the Department for Children, Schools and Families is now working with my Department to examine what we need to do in regard to interventions on families, to young people identified as being a problem, to raising levels of literacy and numeracy and to supporting those key issues.

There are several things that we can do in regard to the prison programme generally, and I believe that we will do them. They involve not only increasing prison capacity but making prisons effective in tackling some of the long-term issues that have been mentioned.

The Minister has mentioned investment in the service. Some of the key people in it are the members of the Prison Officers Association, who do excellent work in the two prisons in my constituency. Will he put on record his acknowledgement of their work? Will he also dismiss the story that appeared in The Observer—on 18 November, I think—that said that drastic cuts in the membership of the Prison Service were being considered?

I will certainly put on record my support for the work that the prison officers do. Like the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, I visit prisons almost every week, and I meet committed staff who are working hard in challenging and difficult circumstances, with some very challenging and difficult people, to ensure their rehabilitation and the protection of the public.

My hon. Friend asked about future prison officer numbers. We are currently looking at the budget and we have yet to determine the budget for future years, but with an expanding prison programme, we need to take on more prison officers. We shall need to ensure that we have prison officers who are trained to the highest capacity and who can do their important job safely. We have a positive prison building programme and a positive programme for the prevention of reoffending. We also have positive views on the challenges facing the Prison Service.

The real question for the Conservatives is whether they will support our agenda to tackle the causes of crime and social exclusion, and whether they will work with us to tackle some of the other issues that drive people into crime in the first place. Would they put forward the necessary resources to fund the prison building programme and to secure the necessary investment in the Prison Service? I very much doubt it, given their tax-cutting proposals.

Judging by today’s debate, there is unanimity on the Labour Benches, and—dare I say it?—a common theme between ourselves, the Liberal Front-Bench spokesman and some Conservative Members on how we need to tackle these issues, but there is still a dichotomy that the Conservatives need to face. On the one hand, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) want to see more and more prisons being built, more and more people being put away and, in due course, more and more people being put in prison without any remission whatever. On the other hand, the thoughtful hon. and learned Member for Harborough wants to see rehabilitation, investment in training, education and support and all those other positive issues.

I commend the Government’s amendment to the House.

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments)—

Question accordingly agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House welcomes the Government’s record which since 1997 has brought more offences to justice leading to a 32 per cent. reduction in overall crime and a 31 per cent. reduction in violent crime according to the British Crime Survey; welcomes the fact that the most violent and dangerous offenders are sent to prison for longer; also welcomes increased prison capacity by over 20,000 places and the commitment to building a further 9,500 prison places, of which 8,500 will be delivered by 2012; recognises that the Government has dramatically reduced the number of escapes and absconds since 1997; notes the increase in prison funding by 37 per cent. in real terms and probation service funding by 72 per cent., including a tenfold increase in funding for drug treatment in prison; recognises the improved links between custody and the community through end to end offender management and other measures; notes the introduction of a flexible and tough new community order which provides a real alternative to custody for less serious offenders; recognises the great strides made in improving the culture within prisons though the Decency Agenda; and further notes the reduction of the overall reoffending rate for prison and community sentences by 5.8 per cent.



That, on Tuesday 18th December, the House shall meet at half past Eleven o’clock and references to specific times in the Standing Orders of this House shall apply as if that day were a Wednesday.—[Mr. David.]


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 25 (Periodic adjournments),

That this House, at its rising on Tuesday 18th December 2007, do adjourn till Monday 7th January 2008.—[Mr. David.]

Question agreed to.