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Prisons (Carter Review)

Volume 468: debated on Wednesday 5 December 2007

With permission, I should like to make a statement on the report of the prisons review carried out by my noble Friend Lord Carter of Coles. Copies of his report are available in the Vote Office and on my Department’s website. Lord Carter was asked in early June of this year to undertake his inquiry. He was asked jointly by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, as Chancellor, and my predecessor as Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Falconer. I am extremely grateful to Lord Carter, and his team, for all their time, expertise and professionalism.

Lord Carter’s report proposes a large increase in prison building. It says that there is an urgent need for an improved long-term mechanism for better balancing supply and demand for prison places. It puts forward far-reaching proposals for a judiciary-led sentencing commission, and for efficiency and organisational changes

Let me first give the context of the review. For more than half a century, from the end of the war, crime rose inexorably. As each successive Government left office, crime was higher than when they came in—significantly higher, in the case of the 1979 to 1997 Administration. In sharp contrast, we are the first Government since the war under whom crime has not risen, but fallen—and fallen by a third. Violent crime is down, burglary and vehicle crime are down, and the chance of being a victim of crime is lower than at any time since 1981.

Those improvements are due to many factors: the police, local communities, local authorities, industry, stronger powers to deal with disorder, substantial youth justice reform, and greatly increased investment in law enforcement, with 14,000 more police officers, bringing numbers to record levels. In turn, those improvements have led to many more serious, persistent and violent offenders being brought to justice, and being sentenced for longer.

The result has been a very rapid growth in the prison population, which is up by one third since 1997—from 60,000 to 81,500, last Friday’s figure. During the same period reoffending rates have improved, while the physical condition of prison has been transformed, as has security. I pay particular tribute to prison officers, probation officers and staff at all levels. They do a difficult job in difficult circumstances.

The whole House is agreed that, wherever appropriate, offenders should be punished in the community. Overall, investment in probation services has gone up by 72 per cent. in real terms over the last 10 years. We shall test intensive alternatives to custody, and provide sentences with more rigorous non-custodial regimes.

Of course, the House and the country are clear that prison has to be used for violent, serious persistent and dangerous offenders. With so many factors in play, forecasting future trends in the prison population has always been complex and uncertain. Predictions made over the previous seven years have put the prison population for this summer both at 20,000 above, and 12,000 below, its actual level of 80,600. However, there is no doubt that the prison population will continue to rise in the next few years, given the increasing effectiveness of the system in bringing more offenders to justice. To meet previously anticipated demand, a programme of 9,500 extra places is already under way. An extra 1,600 new places have come on stream in 2007, and a further 2,300 will do so next year.

In light of Lord Carter’s recommendations, I can now announce that to secure the long-term availability of prison places, I have agreed with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer additional funding of £1.2 billion, on top of the £1.5 billion already committed, to deliver a further and extended building programme that will bring an additional 10,500 places on stream by 2014. We will act on Lord Carter’s recommendation to build up to three large titan prisons, housing around 2,500 prisoners each. That extra capacity will help us to modernise the prison estate, close some of the older, inefficient prisons on a new-for-old basis, and reconfigure some of the smaller sites to accommodate female or juvenile offenders.

The building programme is aimed to bring overall net capacity to just over 96,000 places by 2014. To provide additional capacity within that total in the short to medium term, we intend to convert a former Ministry of Defence site at Coltishall in Norfolk into a category C prison, provide further places through expansion on existing prison sites, convert Her Majesty’s prison Wealstun, near Leeds, into a closed prison, and bring forward projects from the building reserve list. In addition, my Department is actively looking at securing a prison ship.

As for women in prison, the prisons Minister—the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson)—will tomorrow publish the Government’s detailed response to my noble Friend Baroness Corston’s report. Today I asked my noble Friend Lord Bradley to carry out a review, reporting jointly to the Department of Health and my Department, on diverting more offenders with severe mental health problems away from prison and into more appropriate facilities. Lord Carter has made important recommendations about the operation of the National Offender Management Service and the Prison Service, to improve the focus on service delivery and offender management. We will streamline corporate service costs in headquarters and regional offices in NOMS and the Prison Service, and we will establish a programme of performance testing.

Contrary to myth, there have been fewer criminal justice Bills in the last 10 years than in the preceding decade. [Interruption.] Well, I shall be happy to give the figures in due course. In the criminal justice field, it is inevitable that measures have to be kept under constant review. Indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection—IPPs—introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, have proved an effective way of dealing with the most serious and dangerous offenders. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the then Home Secretary, has confirmed to me, those sentences were never intended to target those who would have received tariffs of less than two years. Notwithstanding that, the drafting of the legislation has meant that they have been used for very short tariffs—in one case, for a tariff as short as 28 days. As recommended by Lord Carter and by the chairman of the Parole Board, Sir Duncan Nichol, we will introduce amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to establish a minimum tariff of two years, below which IPPs and extended sentences cannot be given.

I want to make a particular point about sentences for rape. It is very rare indeed for rape offences to receive less than a two-year tariff, which is well below the recommended guideline. Any sentence for a serious offence that is effectively below a two-year tariff will be open to appeal by the Attorney-General on grounds of undue leniency. All that will ensure that IPPs are focused on the most serious and dangerous offenders.

In addition, we are accepting Lord Carter’s other recommendations to align release mechanisms for offenders sentenced under the Criminal Justice Act 1991 with those sentenced under the 2003 Act. Offenders sentenced for non-sexual, non-violent offences committed since 2005 are now eligible for release at the halfway point of their sentence and remain on licence to the end of that sentence, rather than being eligible for parole at the halfway point, automatic release at two thirds, and being on licence until three quarters only. We propose to introduce a similar regime for prisoners sentenced for non-sexual, non-violent offences under previous legislation.

Decisions about the sentence to be handed down in a particular case must be a matter of judgment for the trial judge or magistrates. Respecting the independence of sentencers to pass the sentence that they believe is appropriate in the individual case is fundamental to the integrity of the judiciary in a free society. But Parliament has a critical role to play in setting the framework for sentencing and in deciding on the level of taxpayers’ money to pay for the prison places and probation services that arise from that sentencing framework.

Over the past decade much progress has been made to develop a more coherent and transparent sentencing framework, with the Sentencing Advisory Panel in 1999, and the Sentencing Guidelines Council in 2004. But Lord Carter now highlights the need for a mechanism—a sentencing commission—that will allow for the drivers behind the prison population to be addressed and managed in a transparent, consistent and predictable manner through the provision of an indicative set of sentencing ranges.

Such a commission would have an ongoing role in monitoring the prison population and reporting on the impacts on the prison population and penal resources of all national policy proposals and system changes. I wish to emphasise that the proposal has nothing to do with linking individual sentences to the availability of correctional resources. The debate relates to the linking of resources to the overall sentencing framework. I am pleased to accept Lord Carter’s recommendation to establish a working group to consider the advantages, disadvantages and feasibility of such a sentencing commission, which in our judgment will lead and inform the public debate on these issues.

Prison is, and will remain, the right place for the most serious offenders. Custodial sentences, and therefore prison places, must also be available for less serious offenders when other measures have failed or are inappropriate. And we must have in place a rigorous and effective framework of community penalties where they are the right course.

The measures that I have announced today will fulfil our aims in this important area. They will bring many more prison places on stream with agreed funding and a delivery programme. They will allow for a rational debate on sentencing that recognises that, as with any other public service, resources are finite. Above all, they will fulfil our commitment to provide a modernised prisons system that protects the public from the most serious offenders. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for sight of the report and his statement, just over an hour ago. All of us agree that the situation in our overcrowded prisons cannot continue. In calling for urgent action, is not the latest Carter report a devastating indictment of the Government’s failure to manage the prisons system? We have consistently called for an expansion of prison capacity to meet demand, so the Government’s announcement of additional prison places is welcome, but long overdue. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the additional 10,500 places that he announced today are in addition to the 9,500 places already promised?

At present 17,000 prisoners are doubling up in cells—twice as many as when the Government came to power. Will the Government’s proposals reduce that overcrowding, and will the Secretary of State reject Carter’s recommendation that there is scope for increasing levels of overcrowding? The Secretary of State says that he is actively looking at securing a prison ship. Why did the Government sell off their prison ship at a loss, if a new one is to be purchased?

We have called for more appropriate security provision for prisoners with severe mental illness, so we welcome a review in this area. Should not serious drugs offenders also be treated in separate secure units? In two previous reports Lord Carter proposed replacing unsuitable prisons. That is long overdue. Can the Secretary of State say how many of those prisons will be closed? Is he sure that Lord Carter’s recommendation to build large titan prisons is right? Would it not be better to build smaller, local prisons where offenders could be closer to their families to aid rehabilitation? Is it not clear that although there will be some increase in capacity, the Government are choosing to release more prisoners early and water down sentences to moderate demand?

We Conservatives believe that sentences should fit the crime, not jail capacity. Will not any proposal to fetter the discretion of judges and magistrates to hand down sentences as they see fit cause the gravest concern? The Government already propose to remove magistrates’ right to suspend sentences; now they want to link sentences to the resources available. The Secretary of State claimed that that had nothing to do with linking individual sentences to resources, but is it not the case that sentences as a whole could be shortened if Ministers failed to provide enough capacity?

The Secretary of State proposes greater use of community sentences as an alternative to prison, but prison is already largely reserved for serious, violent and persistent offenders. Is it not the case that 70 per cent. of prisoners released have 10 previous convictions? Prison is already the last resort, when community sentences have failed. Some 40 per cent. of unpaid work requirements for male offenders are not even completed. How can the public have confidence in community penalties as an alternative to prison when the sanctions are so weak and unenforced?

For the past five years, the Government have paraded as a badge of honour their indeterminate sentences for public protection. Why, then, do they now propose to limit those sentences for criminals who, by definition, pose a significant risk of causing death or serious injury by reoffending? The Secretary of State proposes a minimum tariff of two years for indeterminate and extended sentences. Can he confirm that in the first year of operation, 26 indeterminate sentences for public protection with a tariff of less than two years were given for sexual offences against children?

The Secretary of State’s statement said almost nothing about improving the rehabilitation of offenders. What do the Government plan to do about the fact that prisoners still spend fewer than four hours a day engaged in purposeful activity? Any Government’s first duty is to protect the public. How can the Government claim to have done so, given that they have released 11,000 offenders early on to our streets in just four months? The Carter report assumes that the end-of-custody licence will continue indefinitely. Will the Secretary of State now confirm that that measure is to become permanent?

The Prime Minister took office promising to punish offenders, but is it not the case that we now have overdue additional places for prison, but no serious action to reform our jails? We have weak community penalties for offenders who should be sent to prison and early release for criminals who should have served their sentences. Far from honouring their promise to punish offenders, the Government’s agenda is to give thousands of criminals a break.

That was nonsense from beginning to end. I note that the hon. Gentleman did not dispute the fact that crime had risen inexorably for 50 years under one Government after another. Recorded crime doubled under the previous Conservative Administration. The Labour Government have been the first since the war under whom crime has gone down—and it has gone down by one third. One of the reasons for that has been provided by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), the shadow prisons Minister, who said just last week:

“The Government’s policy on sentencing is to send more people to prison for longer…That is why more people have ended up in prison.”—[Official Report, 28 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 375.]

That happens to be the truth, but it is totally inconsistent with what the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) has said, which is that we are somehow letting more prisoners out.

I am sorry to shoot the hon. Gentleman’s fox so comprehensively, but last week, anticipating the review, he said:

“So that is what it is all about—no money for prisons”—[Official Report, 28 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 361.]

I have just announced £1.2 billion extra for prisons, on top of the £1.5 billion already announced. [Interruption.] I will come to the detailed points in a moment. The hon. Gentleman has repeatedly said that he accepts that resources are finite; if we are talking about a journey, that at least is a start—although his arm may have been twisted by the shadow Chancellor.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs recently told the media:

“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”.

I agree. I cannot for the life of me understand why he has come up with his synthetic criticism of a sensible proposal for a sentencing commission that will do exactly that.

Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. He asked whether the additional 10,500 prison places would be on top of the 9,500 that are already on the way. The answer is yes. That will provide a gross increase of 20,000 additional places. Our aim is that part of that increase should be taken up by closing some older, inefficient prisons so that the net figure is 15,000—provided, of course, that the prison population reaches the median target, which is 96,000, not the high target of 101,000. Those decisions will have to be made in due course, but that is the current position, as I spelled out in my statement.

The hon. Gentleman referred to 17,000 prisoners doubling up. Doubling up in cells intended for one person is not something that we wish to happen, but under this Government it has not, at any level, ever reached the 47 per cent. of prisoners who were doubled up in the 1980s—and that was with insanitary chamber pots, not internal sanitation. He should pay attention to what his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said about prison policy—that we have to look, if need be, at doubling up in some prisons. That is just a little bit behind the times.

HMP Weir was indeed sold off. It was intended to serve for three years but was used for eight years, and was not at the time regarded as fit for purpose.

The hon. Gentleman made a serious point about mental health provision in asking whether that should also be available for serious drug offenders. Yes, of course it should. Many, if not most of the mental health patients in prison—this is, in a sense, a semantic point—are also serious drug offenders, so we are in effect talking about the same population. Some drug offenders, particularly egregious drug dealers, do not have mental health problems; they are just straightforward serious criminals who, in my judgment, should stay in prison for a very long time.

As for how many prisons will be closed, the proposal is that some provision will be closed on a new-for-old basis. However, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a list, and I have no intention of compiling a list until we are clear about the development of the programme and capacity.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned having smaller local prisons rather than titans. There is a debate to be had about that, and I am not saying that there is a perfect answer. Our judgment, based on Lord Carter’s recommendations, is that a small number of large prisons sited in London and the south-east, where there is an urgent need for prison accommodation, will meet the needs of efficiency, better management of offenders, and reasonable closeness to their homes. However, we are happy to have that debate in due course.

The hon. Gentleman made some less serious points about community penalties. We have increased the use of community penalties, and their effectiveness has increased too. That is one of the reasons for the increase in the prison population, as is brought out in Lord Carter’s report. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of probation offenders who have breached their sentence and are therefore taken back to court, and often sentenced to prison.

I commend Lord Carter for his second report on this matter, and my right hon. Friend for his response. Given the substantial additional resources, will the budget of the Youth Justice Board also be protected? Will innovative schemes to keep young people out of prison but in secure and structured frameworks be put forward in the consultation, particularly in light of the suggested sentencing commission? The commission might then be able to deal with the situation alluded to by my right hon. Friend relating to indeterminate sentences—that what the House thinks that it is doing does not always come to fruition when the Sentencing Guidelines Council or the courts take a different view of how it can be applied.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support, and for all the work that he did in developing a more coherent framework in this field. The sentencing commission builds on the excellent work that he did, if I may say so, in setting up the Sentencing Guidelines Council. This money is new money; it will not touch the Youth Justice Board budget. I agree with him about sentences of imprisonment for public protection. The framework was set out and, as I understand it, Members on both sides of the House agreed its purpose, which is that such sentences were for much more serious offenders who would typically get a tariff of two years or much longer. However, it has not quite worked out like that. It is entirely appropriate that we should accept that the system has not operated as intended, and amend it.

I thank the Lord Chancellor for early sight of the statement, and I echo his tribute to prison officers and probation officers. I also thank Lord Carter, that most prolific of reviewers, for a thorough report.

I welcome the recommendations on improved efficiency in the service, on stronger alternatives to custody, and on modernisation of the prison estate. However, in the latter case, why cannot the Lord Chancellor put forward, after, presumably, due consideration over some years, concrete proposals to dispose of antiquated prisons—I almost said Victorian prisons, but we now know that some of them date back to 1500—which would enable those prisons to release capital that could then be reinvested? Do not the plans for emergency places smack more of desperation and panic than proper forward planning?

The Lord Chancellor announced yet another review, under Lord Bradley, on diverting those with mental illness from prison. That is welcome. However, why is there no commitment in his proposals to build more secure mental health provision, as well as drug centres, within the estate, to ensure that those who should not be in prison are not held in standard prisons but in alternative accommodation?

I note that Lord Carter agrees with the recommendations of the Corston review on women prisoners, but there appears to be no incorporation of those recommendations into his recommendations. Is not that an omission, and will the Lord Chancellor rectify it in the statement that he is to make in response to the Corston review?

Does the Lord Chancellor agree that, as is demonstrably the case, short-term sentences are almost completely ineffective in reducing reoffending? Would it not be sensible instead to impose more tougher community sentences, which are proven to be more effective?

As I think that the Lord Chancellor has said, no judge should be constrained by lack of capacity from imposing custodial sentences that are necessary to protect the public. Will he extend that principle to rehabilitative sentences such as drug treatment or probation?

Lastly, does the Lord Chancellor agree that the test of any penal policy is what works in protecting the public and reducing reoffending, and that the current system fails both those tests?

I agree that one test of sentencing policy is what works. I also agree that short-term sentences have often proved not very effective in terms of reducing reoffending. Offenders who get those shorter sentences are often those who have been convicted of what would be regarded as medium or lower-level offences but are persistent offenders, and the courts simply run out of patience with them. As I have often said, prison is often the sentence of last resort. We should do everything we can with such offenders, but it is for the courts to decide for how long they should go to prison. If it is just so that they can be locked up, at least that is a respite for their communities. That is the dilemma that we face.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the proposals. Let me run through his other points. In respect of closing some of the less efficient prisons, it should not be assumed that antiquity is of itself grounds for closure. Otherwise, a large number of Oxford and Cambridge colleges would be closed, as would many schools, which gave some of us a half-decent education, and even this place. The issue with buildings is whether they are efficient and providing a decent service. Some 1960s buildings should come down a lot sooner than some of those of greater antiquity.

On mental health, I am not personally in favour of putting within prison estates secure mental health provision where prisoners have been sectioned, because it will lead to a problem with the regime. I am happy, however, to pass on the hon. Gentleman’s support, along with mine, to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health in saying that we need more money for secure mental health provision outside prisons.

The Corston report will be published tomorrow in a written ministerial statement by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), and I hope that that will be welcomed.

I have to say that I found my right hon. Friend’s statement rather depressing in its assumption that we are going to carry on sending more and more people to prison when we already send more there than virtually any other European country. Although I welcome what he said about Lord Bradley’s review, surely we ought be putting far more money into keeping out of prison people who do not need to be there—those with serious mental health problems, fine defaulters and those in for minor breaches of orders. Does his statement on expansion and more resources imply a reversal in the budget cuts in place for the next year, which will affect the probation service and the Prison Service?

None of us wants to send people to prison just for the sake of it, but prison is there to deal with offenders who are sentenced properly by the courts. The increase in the prison population is one factor—we cannot say exactly what weight to give to it—that has contributed to the significant reduction in crime. We all agree that more should be done to move into the health service prisoners who suffer from serious mental health problems. A great deal has been done; we have abolished the prison health service and we now have NHS staff working on the issue. We hope that more work will be done in future.

On fine defaulters, I say to my hon. Friend that prison has to be available as a sentence of last resort if people refuse to pay fines. Other disposals are available, but if people go on refusing, they need to be locked up. There are no cuts in the Prison Service or the probation budget.

Does the Lord Chancellor recognise that short periods of custody are notoriously ineffective for dealing with fine defaulters, breaches of bail conditions or antisocial behaviour order breaches? All those things could probably be more effectively handled by community courts that had a consistent engagement with the offender and were able to keep the offender up to the mark. Will he deal with the tendency in our system to spend the vast resources that go into criminal justice on the most expensive measures, rather than the ones most likely to work?

If we can deal with offenders outside the prison system, we should, but I repeat that it is not for us to second-guess magistrates or judges when they are making a decision about what to do with a particular offender. Almost always, when they deal with an ASBO breach or a serious fine defaulter, they have been through a range of community sentences and then said, “We’ve had enough. We’re going to take you off the streets for a period.” It may or may not be that the person in question decides to get away from criminal habits, but the period for which they are locked up is at least a respite for those whom they have been penalising through their criminal behaviour.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and particularly the implicit recognition that offenders cannot carry on reoffending in the community while they are in prison. I also welcome Lord Carter’s proposal for a sentencing commission, which is a good way forward. However, may I ask my right hon. Friend to go a little further still? Does he agree that courts should be determining an appropriate sentence on the basis of the offence itself, and not how many prison places are available on any given day?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s approval of the recommendations; he comes to the matter with a great deal of expertise, having worked with me as Minister with responsibility for prisons in the 1997 to 2001 Parliament of this Administration.

It is a matter for the courts to determine the appropriate sentence. There has been no guidance, and nor would there be, to vary sentences according to variations in the prison population. We have responded to rises in the prison population, and we shall continue to do so, hence the increase of 10,500 places on top of the 9,500 already announced, for which the Government are now finding funds.

Surely the proposal by Lord Carter of a sentencing commission is based on the rather extraordinary proposition that, from time to time, sentencing guidelines should be raised or lowered in line with the current state of the prison population and of overcrowding. Will the Lord Chancellor make it clear whether he is commending and adopting this proposal, as he seemed to be in replying to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), or whether he will refer it to a working party that will give much more consideration to the advantages and disadvantages, and to whether or not it is a good idea? Surely there cannot be any substitute for a situation in which civilised prison accommodation is available for all those whom the courts think it is appropriate and necessary to send to prison. We cannot start having variations over the years according to the state of prison overcrowding—a state that we should not have got into, although we have done so during the past 10 years.

I try to be ecumenical, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman was Home Secretary during a period when police cells were used very extensively, and more extensively than today. He was also Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I know for certain that when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) came to ask for more money for the police, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) did not say, “Oh yes. Would you like to write out the cheque?” One of the consequences of his penury was that police numbers were going down at the end of that period, not up.

However, let me reassure the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He asks whether this is a done deal or whether a working party will further examine the matter. I think that the idea is a good one, on the basis of what I have read, but it is not a done deal. There is a working party, which will be chaired by a senior member of the judiciary, to examine it properly. The right hon. and learned Gentleman takes a serious interest in these matters, and I hope that when he has looked at what Lord Carter says—and also, I may say, a passage in the speech made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs on 26 November that came to similar conclusions—he will support what is proposed.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and in particular the changes to indeterminate sentences—the IPP sentences. Will he tell me what he plans to do to reduce the number of young people in prison? In March this year, there were nearly 2,500 15 to 17-year-olds in prison.

We all wish to see the number of young people in prison reduced if that is consistent with what the courts decide. As it happens, pressure on prisoner status has come from adult offenders in recent months, not from young people. What we have done, as announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the end of June, is ensure that joint responsibility for the Youth Justice Board and youth provision as a whole for young offenders is held by myself and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. A joint unit is being established in our Departments to ensure better management of the policy and its operation.

The report proposes a large increase in prison building. When considering any prison estate review, such as the one currently under way in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State confirm that significant emphasis will be given to two things? The first is a unanimous recommendation by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs regarding the location of an existing prison in my constituency. Secondly, there is the fact that not to do as suggested in that recommendation could cost the public purse an additional £60 million through land acquisition.

As I am also Lord Chancellor of Northern Ireland, I discussed those matters when I visited the courts in Belfast at the start of the judicial year, but this is directly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I will ensure that he is made fully aware of the hon. Gentleman’s opinions.

At Armley prison in my constituency, 50 people a day go in and 50 a day come out. Nationally, one in seven children have a father who has been or is in prison. It is also well understood that if prisoners have visits from their children, the reoffending rate drops drastically. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend support and perhaps visit the independent charity The Jigsaw Project, which is in a new building outside Armley prison? It is doing excellent work with prisoners and their families, getting results in practice and reducing reoffending. We need to support projects outside as the key to preventing people from going around in circles, in and out of prison.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his work, and yes is the answer to his question about whether I would be interested in a visit.

The Lord Chancellor announced the establishment of a category C prison in the former RAF base at Coltishall, part of which lies in my constituency. In 18 months, the local community has experienced moves from no Department being interested to the Home Office being interested a year ago and definitely intending to establish an immigration and asylum centre there, to the current prospect of a category C prison. The local community is, to say the least, bewildered. What does he mean by providing additional capacity in the short to medium term? What is the time line on that? Will he or one of his Ministers be able to brief local Members of Parliament and the local community fully about all the details associated with the announcement?

I understand that there has been some uncertainty for the local community. I hope that it may be relatively relieved that the site will be used for a category C prison rather than the potential earlier use, which always causes some excitement in local communities. The prisoners will be locked up and our record on cutting escapes from closed prisons is good. Of course, we will ensure that local Members of Parliament, including the hon. Gentleman, and the local council and community are fully briefed. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn, says that he is happy to visit the area.

It is a sad day for our society when we have to announce extra prison places. However, I welcome the re-emphasis on prisoners with mental health problems. My right hon. Friend knows that, last year, we processed 700 people out of prison, and we probably took more people with mental health problems into prisons than we processed out of them. Has he considered creating a special prison—a special unit—that could probably process such people more quickly? It could assess them and pass them on to more appropriate locations, thus releasing prison places, but more importantly, leading to treatment for those suffering from mental illness.

Many health care centres, for example in Preston, which is an old prison but has transformed its health care provision in recent years, perform the function that my hon. Friend describes. We want to examine greater and more flexible arrangements for health care in prison. Some of the committed NHS staff who work in Preston put proposals to me when I was there with my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) in September. Of course, we will examine those matters. The aim is to keep serious, long-term mental health patients out of the prison system.

Like the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), my interest is based on the location of former RAF Coltishall in my constituency, where it is largely situated, although it overlaps into his. Does not the announcement about it smack of chaos, confusion and crisis management? When the site was first offered to the Home Office two years ago, it showed no interest. Last year, we were told that an assessment had concluded that it was not an appropriate site for a prison. For a year, its potential as an immigration centre was considered, while it decayed. Now we are told that it is appropriate for a prison. What has changed since the assessment last year? We have known about the trends in prison numbers for some time. There is concern in the local community. Will the Minister with responsibility for prisons agree to meet the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk and me?

If you do not mind my saying so, Mr. Speaker, the hon. Gentleman could take some lessons from his Conservative neighbour in seriously representing his constituents.

We all understand that there will be a period of uncertainty about the use of redundant military land. Indeed, that applies to all large areas of land that become available. Of course, if it is Government land, several possible uses will be considered. We can either conduct that consideration in secret—in my judgment, there is no case for doing so in areas such as the one that we are discussing—or as ideas come through, we can share them with the local community. If the hon. Gentleman objects to the latter, and believes that we should go back to the old days before the Freedom of Information Act 2000, let him put that on the record. Sometimes we say that we are considering an idea and we then take account of the local community’s views and, as in the case of candidates for asylum and immigration centres, of whether the numbers are decreasing—and they have decreased dramatically.

In our judgment, the proposal is a sensible use of the camp. We all understand that proposals for prisons cause some nervousness in the local community. However, all the evidence shows that there is no adverse effect on house prices—we have data to prove that. Once prisons are established, they prove popular with the local community, and it will be difficult to close those that become candidates for closure in future.

With three prisons and a young offenders institution in my constituency, I greatly welcome the statement and the measures to reduce prison overcrowding. However, will my right hon. Friend assure me that prison officers and probation staff will be fully involved in developing non-custodial sentences and deciding the circumstances in which they can be applied, including finding alternatives to prison for non-violent vulnerable women and people with mental health problems?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that commitment. I hope that she is looking forward to the publication of the Government’s response to the Corston report tomorrow.

Greater proximity to home and family networks is, as the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) suggested, a major factor in helping reduce reoffending rates. With that in mind, does today’s statement mean that we will finally get a prison in north Wales for the first time, and a women’s prison in Wales for the first time? Can we get more secure facilities for young people in Wales so that we do not have to send so many young offenders hundreds of miles away to institutions in England?

Yes. If one looks at the map, it is patent that, while north-west England—my area—has many prisons, north Wales does not, although there are five prisons in south Wales. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn, the Minister with responsibility for prisons, represents a north Wales constituency, and we are considering sites in north Wales. If we can find a suitable site, we shall use it, I hope with the full support of constituency Members.

I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the details. Most of the prisons are entirely new build. We are also putting rapid build units into existing sites, but I emphasise that we are considering a building programme.