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Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 20 February 2008

The regimes available to long-term and life-sentenced prisoners in Northern Ireland include education, skills training and offender behaviour programmes. These prisoners are subject to detailed risk assessments, which inform their resettlement or life sentence plan.

Does the Minister agree that a good quality resettlement programme will not only improve the mental ability of prisoners while they are in prison but cut reoffending? The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s first report makes it clear, however, that there are shortages of such provision in prisons such as Maghaberry. Would it not make sense to address such shortages, in order to cut recidivism and to reduce the crime rate overall?

I warmly welcome the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which was produced after extensive research and many visits to the prisons in Northern Ireland. We are putting the investment in. I announced before Christmas that an additional 400 prison places would be built over the next two years, and we are also putting more investment into the kind of offender behaviour programmes to which the hon. Gentleman refers. He is right: when a prisoner has his or her liberty taken away, that is the punishment, but our responsibility—and that of the Prison Service—is to ensure that they are rehabilitated and that they have the skills and education necessary to enable them to come out of prison and lead normal, law-abiding lives.

Will my hon. Friend say a little more about how the reintegration of released long-term prisoners can play a part in building a new, more inclusive society, and in finally drawing a line under ancient hostilities?

Indeed. It is important that everyone plays their part in building a more cohesive Northern Ireland, not least those who have been subjected to prison sentences. Every prisoner who has been subjected to a long-term or a life sentence is thoroughly assessed some three years before they are released to determine the appropriate plan for them. For some, release by the tariff date set by the judge will not be possible; for others, it will. In every case, however, we must ensure that people have skills, a job and a home to live in, so that they can build and maintain family relationships. All those things are vital for the individual offender, but also for the wider community.

There is great concern in Northern Ireland not only about long-term prisoners but about the number of people who are held for a short term in jail as a result of the non-payment of fines. Given that only 1 per cent. of those who have been brought to court for fuel smuggling ever finish up in jail, and that fine defaulters are regularly put in jail, will the Minister tell us what plans he has to ensure that organised criminals get hefty jail sentences, and to deal with the issue of the fine defaulters who are taking up space in our prisons?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, reflecting some of the recommendations and findings of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, of which he is a member. Urgent and radical action is being taken to ensure that we rebalance the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland to make sure that the dangerous offender spends longer in prison while those who commit less serious offences are dealt with in the community.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of fine defaults. It is outrageous that 30 per cent. of all admissions to prison last year in Northern Ireland were for defaults on fines, the majority of which were small fines of just a few hundred pounds. We have to find alternatives in the community to ensure that those people pay back. As to oil fraud and fuel smuggling, I had a meeting yesterday with the Organised Crime Task Force, and I gave officials one month to come back with an action plan to deal with the problem and make sure that the law is properly enforced.

The Minister mentioned that 30 per cent. of prison receptions are for fine defaulters, but the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report suggests that the figure is 59 per cent. in comparison with just 2.2 per cent. in England and Wales. Some of these people spend as little as 24 hours in prison, causing a complete disruption of the Prison Service of Northern Ireland. Is it not a complete waste of resources to put people in prison on that basis?

I agree, and I am pleased that we are now giving some real focus to this particular issue. The figure is 30 per cent. of prison admissions last year, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that that this is a terrible waste of resources. It costs £1 million or more each year just to administer the system of sending fine defaulters to prison. We will bring forward further proposals to deal with the problem—for example, attachment of benefit orders and attachment of earning orders—to make sure that people pay the fines without the expensive waste of putting them in prison for just a few days.