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Prison Overcrowding/Sentencing Policy

Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 23 April 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]

I declare an interest, because I still practise—for my sins—in the criminal courts as a barrister. Looking around the Chamber, I hope that what we lack in quantity we will make up in quality.

Are the inhabitants of Britain so intrinsically bad that we must lock up many more people per capita than our friends in Europe? Some might say yes, but that is a serious question because our prisons have been overcrowded since 1994. Over the past year or 18 months, more than half our prisons have been overcrowded. I well recall serving on the Standing Committee that considered the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 and saying, with others, that the legislation would result in a substantial increase in the number of new prisoners. I argued that if that Act was to make any sense, it would have to be matched with an increase in prison places, which seemed fairly obvious. Back then we were talking about 50,000 prisoners—if I recall correctly—but today the figure is 82,000. That increase had been foreseen for some time.

One complicating feature is that criminal justice, in general, and sentencing, in particular, are and always have been a political football. Every now and then, the larger parties get into a bidding war about how to be beastly to offenders, which usually plays out to the background music of the tabloid drum beat. If the question was depoliticised—as far as one can imagine that happening—the system would be greatly improved for the benefit of society and, quite importantly, the taxpayer.

Many experts in the field have long concluded that prison simply does not work for many offenders. Even before the 2003 Carter report, it was clear that policy was wrongly directed. The report’s findings were very stark. It reckoned that the prison population had increased by 22 per cent. since 1997, resulting in a 5 per cent. reduction in crime. It concluded:

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

The then 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.]

Surprisingly, that was not said ex cathedra, but when he was very much in harness.

Since then, not a lot has happened—to coin a phrase. Two contrasting factors continue to predominate: first, the political imperative, to which I have alluded, and, secondly, the fact that the vast majority of prisoners —67 per cent.—are reconvicted within two years of release. The figure for youngsters in Wales between the ages of 18 and 21 is 78 per cent. Arguably, even if there were a complete change of heart over custody, the situation would be like an ocean-going vessel, in that it would take a long time to stop and turn around.

The rehabilitation element of prison has been severely undermined. There have been cuts in training and education, which might well be contributing to these awful statistics. I think that it is plain that if prison does not make a real difference to an individual’s life chances, it is simply failing not just prisoners, but society, because it costs £40,000 a year to keep somebody in prison.

On Friday 11 April, the prison population stood at 82,003, and as far as I know, that figure is rising. As at February 2008, the prison population was 114 per cent. of the certified normal accommodation level. The prison population exceeded the CNA level by 9,765, 88 of the 141 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded, and the populations of 14 were more than 150 per cent. of their CNA level. The five most overcrowded prisons are Lancaster, Kennett, Shrewsbury, Swansea and Leicester.

To digress for a minute, despite what I am saying, I have long campaigned for a prison in north Wales, on the basis of human rights grounds, among other things. The figures that I have cited actually bolster the claim that north Wales needs a prison, given that many from north Wales end up in Shrewsbury prison and some end up in Swansea.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that experiences such as those in Dorchester prison, which is in my constituency, suggest that even when prisons are not technically overcrowded, very severe problems can emerge, for example with first night accommodation? General overcrowding is therefore rippling through the system and causing problems even worse than he describes.

I am sure that that is absolutely right. I do not think that any prison is working at a reasonable capacity, so there must be a knock-on effect, as the right hon. Gentleman says.

As I mentioned, England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe, with 143 inmates per 100,000 of the population, compared with France with 88, and Germany with 97. I know that we cannot compare like with like and that it is convenient to throw around statistics on international comparators, but this has been a trend for many years. I argue that the prison system is letting society down through wasting taxpayers’ money and, crucially, through failing to rehabilitate those who go into prison on a revolving-door basis, of whom there are many.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, for example, believes that the population crisis has had an adverse impact on the delivery of reoffending programmes, which must be crucial. It says that the movement and recategorisation of prisoners, and in some cases the closure of whole establishments for recategorisation, have undermined the stability required for the effective delivery of those very important programmes. It goes on to say that basic standards of human dignity are compromised with more than 12,000 prisoners being held two to a cell in cells designed for one. It also says that prisoners are being transported all over the UK in search of spaces, costing the taxpayer millions in transportation, resulting in delays in the criminal justice system, jeopardising family relationships and, for all I know, breaching human rights.

I sit on the board of the Prison Reform Trust, so I am naturally sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but does he agree that if our constituents are to be convinced about the alternatives to prison, those alternatives must be sufficiently rigorous and properly managed? Does he think that community sentences fit that description, or is there scope for improvement?

I am, and always have been, a believer in community sentencing, not as a soft option, but because, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, the reoffending rate is lower—it is more effective than prison. His point is absolutely right. Unless and until we properly fund the probation service to do the job that we expect it to do, we will be at a pinch point and will not persuade anyone of the efficacy of community penalties, or convince them that they are more effective and useful. He makes a good point, and I hope to touch on it in a few minutes.

Deaths in custody are on the increase. A study by the forum for preventing deaths in custody in September 2007 found a definite link between overcrowding and self-inflicted deaths. In addition, violence on prison officers is increasing. We also have self-harm and prisoner-on-prisoner violence. The PCS says that the situation could be further exacerbated by the 3 per cent. year-on-year cuts expected between 2008 and 2011 under Lord Carter’s review. It believes that the solution to the crisis should include safeguarding the budget of the Prison Service and ensuring that programmes to tackle reoffending—including the work of instructional officers—and drug and alcohol treatments are properly resourced.

Prison education is a hot topic at the moment. I know that the Government will say that more money has been put in, but on the ground there are fewer opportunities. I also know that not every prisoner is interested in education or retraining; however, there are many who are who cannot access it. Again, the system is failing us. Instructional officers in the public sector prison service have been very effective in delivering education, training and work to help inmates address their reoffending behaviour. That is another area that needs to be assessed to see whether sufficient investment is being made.

I have said this before and I will say it again: we need a thorough audit of those who are in prison. If we had such an audit, we would find that as many as 35 per cent. of prisoners—possibly higher—should not be there. There is a high percentage of people with psychiatric illnesses and with drug dependency, and those two issues are not being addressed. Sending such people to prison is not dealing with the problem. The system is failing them and society, as well.

As a young solicitor in the mid-1970s, I recall appearing many times before mental health tribunals. Usually, we would go to a halfway house. There was a very good centre in mid-Wales that served the whole of Wales very well. It has since closed. Typically, people from Rampton, Broadmoor or wherever were sent to that halfway house. They had often been convicted of very serious offences, including extreme violence and sometimes murder. I was instructed on their behalf to make an application for them to be re-categorised and ultimately reintroduced into society. That centre had a fantastic record of working closely with such people. Believe it or not, many of those people still send me the occasional postcard. They are back in society. We were looking after them at that stage and they were receiving the best care. Unfortunately, that centre has now closed down. It closed at about the same time when all the clever commentators were talking about care in the community being the best thing since sliced bread. However, there is very little care in the community. What we seem to do now is lock people up, and that is no good to them or to society. It is costing some £40,000 a year just to keep them under lock and key.

I want to refer to the current sentencing problems. There are now restrictions on sentencing in 34 of the 42 probation areas in the UK. Such restrictions involve the non-availability of unpaid work, the cancellation of one-to-one programmes, major delays in programmes for domestic violence, and drink-driving, substance abuse and community and internet offenders. Those are crucial matters that need to be addressed. The National Association of Probation Officers tells me that 34 of the 42 probation areas—or 80 per cent.—are now suffering from lack of resources and staffing. Of the 34 areas, 20 report huge delays with domestic violence programmes, 17 with unpaid work, 11 with substance abuse, 10 with community sex offender programmes, and so on. Let me give some specific examples. In south-east London, major cuts to staff resources mean that there are considerable delays in offenders getting on to domestic abuse programmes. The situation has worsened over the past 12 months.

In Essex, there are waiting lists for the intensive domestic abuse programme. The average wait now is 12 months. That must be a ridiculous situation. One officer said that none of his cases has ever started a programme within six months of the order being made. The officers have been advised by management to recommend supervision orders of two years when an IDAP proposal has been made to ensure that there is enough time for completion. That obviously leads to complications in terms of resourcing and the volume of casework.

In Gwent, in south Wales, staff report a waiting list of at least 40 men and say that there is no work load relief for officers to train or to deliver programmes. They cite one instance of a man placed on a supervision order for two years with a condition of attendance of the course after having been convicted of choking his wife. He was not placed on the programme and he committed the offence again. A request has been put in for a place on the programme as a matter of urgency, and he is still waiting.

Therefore, the situation is pretty dire across the UK. Avon and Somerset report a minimum delay of two to three weeks for all offenders with an unpaid work requirement because of a sharp increase in prison numbers and a decrease in staffing. As from 22 January, Staffordshire ceased making active proposals for unpaid work in reports to magistrates courts because of a deficit, thereby restricting the ways in which courts can deal with offenders.

In north Wales, the service has been reorganised with a resulting 70 per cent. cut in the domestic abuse programme. The community sex offenders’ programme has been cut even further, and the internet sex offenders’ programme has been withdrawn. The reason given for the cuts is that offenders undertake such programmes in prison and they are being duplicated on their release. If anyone believes that, then they are more naïve than me.

The situation is that we are expecting a lot of probation officers when there are far fewer of them on the ground. In south Wales, believe it or not, staff have been told that they must not actively recommend supervision for foreign nationals who need interpreters because of the additional cost of interpreting. That sums up the whole situation. Yet on 16 April, the director-general of the National Offender Management Service, Phil Wheatley, said:

“We know that short custodial sentences are less effective than community sentences in reducing re-offending.”

In effect, he is saying, “Do not suggest sending people away”. At the same time, we are being told not to recommend a community penalty. How on earth are probation officers meant to put a cogent report before a court? Phil Wheatley goes on to say:

“It’s obviously a matter for sentencers to decide who goes to prison, but with places in custody in very short supply, it’s really important that probation staff continue to ensure that the option of non-custodial punishments are offered where it’s appropriate to do so and otherwise custody is the likely option.”

All well and good, but where are the officers?

I spoke about the crisis in the justice system at a conference two weeks ago. I was told about the unpaid work situation on Humberside on Sunday 13 April. At one centre, there was one supervisor with 15 offenders. At Bransholme Pond site, there were 13 offenders with one supervisor. At Hessle Foreshore, there was one supervisor with 12 offenders. Ultimately, people given a 300-hour order end up litter-picking. I do not think that litter-picking will do much for the individual or anybody else. It might be a good thing to clear up a bit of litter, but I do not think that it will rehabilitate anybody. The sentencing options, therefore, are being severely cut back simply because of cutbacks in the probation service. With due respect to the Minister, she will quote global figures and the way in which funding has increased over the past seven or 10 years. However, the experience on the ground is that there is a crisis in this whole area. NAPO is alarmed at the decision taken by Kent probation area to cut 76 staff in the next three years in response to the imposition of a flat, capped budget. Things will get worse on the ground if we are not careful.

I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s flow too much, but there has been a 2.7 per cent. increase this year in probation budgets—that is before the £40 million extra. Some of the figures that he is quoting are from January, before the extra money has gone in. I hope that the extra money will relieve some of the situations that he describes.

I thank the Minister for her response, but at the conference that I attended last week, I gained the impression that the crisis is still there. The money might be of some assistance—it would be foolish of me to say otherwise—but the scale of the problem out there demands concentration and a redoubling of efforts. However, I do not deny that more money has been put in.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem is the way in which the Treasury views the matter? Seeing rehabilitation as a cost ignores the fact that successful rehabilitation is a money saver. We need to reverse the Treasury’s perception and get it to understand that it is an investment that could yield returns for the taxpayer.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Earlier, I mentioned the £40,000 that we spend on keeping each prisoner in prison for a year. It costs £76,000 to train a probation officer, and it does not take a great deal of mathematics to work out that if we start recruiting and training people now, it will pay dividends in two or three years’ time. It is difficult to think in Treasury terms of outcomes. He knows more about economics than I ever will, but I do not think that this area can be measured acutely in outcomes. Common sense dictates that it is better to invest in the probation service at this stage and ensure that we do not have to build too many prisons in which to fail to rehabilitate people.

Is it not a matter of balance? It is hard to convince an elderly person in the community who is being terrorised by someone that simple rehabilitation or some other solution is going to keep them safe in the community. Surely there has to be a balanced position that is not only in the interests of the offender. Those who have been offended against must feel safe as well.

I agree entirely. The hon. Gentleman’s use of the word “terrorised” implies that the offending person’s conduct is pretty bad, and there is no doubt that that kind of person should be in prison. I am the first to admit that many people are in prison because they deserve to be there and because there is no other option for them. I also say, however, that as many as 35 per cent. of people in prison should not be there, and that we should deal with them in another way that is more humane and cost-effective. If we explain to the public how they will get a return on that investment, and how people who are serving proper, structured and lengthy community penalties might be rehabilitated and brought back into mainstream society, that argument might be accepted.

I do not want to take up too much time, either, but may I make another point? The hon. Gentleman talks about cuts in services, but it is hard to convince a community that experiences daily cuts in its services that there should be more concern about cuts in the services for people who offend.

That is a valid point, but if we fail with the criminal justice system it will implode, and that will affect everybody. We really must get things right, but we are not getting them right at the moment.

The Minister will know that I have seen her colleague, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) to discuss a suggestion. Community penalties are all well and good—I have made the point about needing more probation officers—and I believe that more money has gone into the system, but we need far more if we are to turn the situation around rather than simply imprisoning more and more people and having a revolving-door syndrome. My suggestion is about progressive community sentencing. Very often, under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, there are various aspects to a community penalty. It might involve getting a person clean from drugs, for example, or it might impose a curfew or activity requirement such as undertaking unpaid work or looking for work. NAPO and I have suggested introducing lengthier community penalties that might involve concentrating entirely on getting offenders clear of drugs for the first four or five months. The second phase could then involve literacy and numeracy, or unpaid and community work. The hope is that the final phase would involve those people looking for paid employment and getting back into mainstream society.

Too many people have community sentences that lump everything together. Someone who is on hard drugs is bound to live a disordered life. How can they look for work or attend a literacy or numeracy course? It is impossible. Crown Court judges, of whom I know many, are disheartened when they hand down such sentences because they know pretty well that they will see the same people again in two or three months’ time and will have to send them away.

I know that the Minister of State to whom I referred is considering my suggestion with his officials, and I hope that phased community penalties are introduced. Suffice it to say that I am a firm believer in the community penalty route. Clearly, we need prisons, but they should be a last resort, and when we send people away we should be considering their rehabilitation. That is not about being soft on crime, and nor are the staggered or progressive community orders. In fact, they are about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, to coin a phrase.

I apologise for being late, Mr. Gale. I put it down to problems with the transport system, which I am sure will be resolved after the mayoral elections in a week’s time. I shall not even mention the name of the relevant candidate.

I speak as the secretary of the all-party group on justice trade unions that brings together the Prison Officers Association, the National Association of Probation Officers and the Public and Commercial Services Union. It also engages in dialogue with the Police Federation and other voluntary organisations that deal with the Prison Service. May I briefly put on record some of the concerns of individual unions and associations that have been raised through the all-party group? I apologise if some of these issues have been discussed in more detail by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd).

A key concern for the POA, which I have raised on several occasions, is the lack of long-term planning regarding the prison population and the investment of resources. There is a specific problem with identifying what needs to be done for rehabilitation. In previous debates on this issue, the Government have announced that there would be 9,500 additional places on the prison estate. The number was initially 8,000, and a further 1,500 were announced later. POA’s position on those additional places is that they are too little too late. I recall having meetings with Ministers two years ago in which we identified, using POA’s projections, the capacity that would be required, but the Government did not respond to those submissions. As a result, it looks as though the Prison Service will soon be at operational capacity once more, which means that there could be about 20,000 overcrowded places and prisoners sharing. POA points out that, in that situation, it is almost impossible to venture into rehabilitation.

I repeat POA’s plea about the need for a clearer strategy on mental health and drug treatment. I appreciate what the Government have done in giving additional resources, particularly for drug treatment, but from POA’s point of view, it is almost a drop in the ocean in terms of the scale of the mental health and drug issues that prisons face. The last estimate was that at least a third of the prisoners that it deals with have mental health problems. A similar number of prisoners have drug-related concerns.

There is cross-party support for the development of community sentencing. In our own areas, we have seen the success of community sentencing in many instances. However, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said, community sentencing must be resourced properly. We welcome the additional £40 million that the Government have announced; it was a real breakthrough to have a specific amount identified as a result of a lobby that came from the all-party group on justice trade unions and other organisations. However, that additional money is being given in the context of the overall savings that must be found within the Department itself and there is some confusion about the specific allocation of the budgets that will be dedicated to community service.

My colleague, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, who is the vice-chair of the all-party group on justice trade unions, has cited the individual examples that are being reported to us now of situations in which there are insufficient resources to supervise the community sentences in a way that would make them constructive in contributing towards the rehabilitation of individual offenders. It would be useful to obtain clarity on the individual probation budgets, area by area, so that there can be greater transparency about the level of resources that are being invested for community sentencing within the regions themselves, because there seems to be a lack of clarity at the moment.

I would also like to say that there is an issue of morale within the service, across the piece. Members of the POA have been affected by the continuing refusal by the Government to recognise their trade union rights. From the POA’s point of view and increasingly from the point of view of NAPO, there is almost a continuing wrangle over pay, and NAPO members are back in pay talks with their employers. The Government have set an overall 2 per cent. pay limit on public sector pay, but within the probation service the employers seem to want to go even further, by inflicting pay reductions. The employers are now looking, before any process of negotiation that will lead towards a pay offer, at undermining the conditions that NAPO workers have enjoyed regarding flexible working and harmonisation of working hours, and they are also looking at assaults on sickness and other forms of working condition agreements. That all impinges upon the morale of the probation officers themselves, who are struggling to do a good job in very difficult circumstances.

Interestingly, the Ministry of Justice itself acknowledged, in a press statement, the work that was being undertaken by NAPO members. That press statement complimented NAPO members, saying:

“In 2006-07 the National Probation Service had its best performance year with the highest ever rates of…completed accredited programmes and unpaid work, and more offenders starting and completed drug rehabilitation than in any previous year.”

At the same time, their employers are seeking to undermine NAPO members’ wages and working conditions.

I suppose this debate gives us the opportunity to make a plea to the Government for a number of things: first, consistency of investment over time; and secondly, clarity about budgets and their distribution on a regional basis. However, the Government also need to take responsibility for creating a climate of industrial relations within the justice sector that can contribute more effectively to the delivery of services than the situation at the moment, in which there seems to be an element of hostility from the employer’s side towards the employees, who, as the Government themselves have said, have performed well in recent years. I hope that the Minister will be willing to meet the all-party group on justice trade unions, so that we can discuss these issues.

I know that we have had direct access to Ministers on a consistent basis in the past and that has been very constructive; it has enabled us to raise issues that nip some problems in the bud and also assisted the Government in coming forward with some of their policies that have been constructively appreciated by the work force themselves. I would welcome now a further dialogue with Ministers through the all-party group on justice trade unions to resolve some of these issues in the long term.

I congratulate you, Mr. Gale, on chairing the debate today. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) on securing this debate. I will try not to refer to his constituency again, because a mixture of Welsh and Ulster Scots at this time of the morning would probably be more than most people could handle. However, I am very happy that he has secured this debate. Briefly, I want to dwell on the issue of sentencing. I probably will be coming at the subject from a different angle to him, and hon. Members may disagree with me.

One of the features of sentencing in recent times has been a failure, on some occasions, to make the sentence even come near to fitting the crime when it comes to offences such as sexual offences, including rape and sexual assault. It beggars belief that people can serve as little as a few months for the crime of rape. We have a situation in Northern Ireland—I am speaking in this debate on sentencing in Northern Ireland, because the issue is not devolved—where, by the Government’s own admission, victims of rape were reluctant to come forward. They were reluctant to do so because, in the first instance, they were concerned about the way in which they would be treated. I work a lot with the Rape Crisis Centre and with young offenders, and many victims of crime would say that they often end up feeling like criminals themselves. Secondly, victims of rape are fearful about how the perpetrator will be treated. Far too often, the sentence handed down is too light and elements of the crime, such as the long-term trauma inflicted upon the victim, are not given proper consideration.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has vowed to tackle this problem, although I am not entirely convinced that his proposals will prove to be the answer that he believes them to be. Perhaps the Minister, when she is winding up, could answer some of my questions. First, does she agree that this situation is not unique to Northern Ireland and that it occurs right across the whole of the United Kingdom? Secondly, does she agree that much more needs to be done to encourage victims of such crime to come forward, to make the process less traumatic for them, and also to make judges more accountable for how they hand down sentences?

I have listened to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and I agree with a lot of his points. A balance must be struck regarding sentencing, but some judges hand out very lenient sentences for this type of crime. There must be stiffer automatic tariffs and early release must be made much more difficult to obtain.

Finally, will the Minister join me in asking the Secretary of State for the Home Department to place these issues higher in the Government’s priority list? If that were to happen, we would move to tackling what I believe is a very serious situation affecting folk right across the United Kingdom. There are many difficulties in relation to sexual offences and I believe that the Government should put the treatment of those difficulties higher up their priority list.

I start by declaring an interest, in that I am a trustee of a prison charity, Unlock. I will then attempt to pronounce the constituency of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), having spelled it out phonetically for myself.

Good. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his remarks and on raising the significant issue of prison overcrowding. It is important that we keep referring to it; it is an issue that will not just go away, and I thought that he summarised extremely well the knock-on consequences of prison overcrowding.

Normally, those who participate in Westminster Hall debates try to be consensual and non-confrontational, but, given what has happened over the past 10 years under this Government, it is difficult to take a constructive approach. The figures speak for themselves. The enormous increase from 61,000 to 82,000 cannot just be explained away. I have some serious concerns about the way in which the prison population has gone up so alarmingly under a Labour Government.

Of course, the big increase in overcrowding has several wide-ranging consequences that make it difficult for the Prison Service to get itself out of the cycle of reoffending and overcrowding. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) discussed the impact that overcrowding has on the morale of the people who work inside the prisons. Their ability to deliver good prison services is clearly undermined by current population levels. Their ability to deliver services that would reduce overcrowding is a matter of major concern. I shall run through some of the effects of overcrowding, and they were touched on by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy.

Education is one of the big losers as a result of overcrowding. The fact that some prisons do not have enough staff to cope with getting prisoners from cells to classrooms was drawn to my attention. A simple issue of geography within the prison itself is a ridiculous barrier to getting prisoners into classrooms to learn.

There are other knock-on consequences. There is not enough time to ensure that prisoners are able to get the right qualifications to take part in the right courses. I remember speaking to a prisoner when I was visiting a prison. She was on a hairdressing course offered in the prison, and was due to be released the next week. I congratulated her on the work that she was doing and she said, “Please, could you arrange for me to stay in prison for a couple more months?” She wanted to stay in prison to be able to complete the course because there was no system that allowed her to continue it after she left. That is ridiculous.

Another consequence of overcrowding is that prisoners move around the country so much. They find it extremely difficult to continue a course that they started in prison A when they are moved to prison B or C. Our efforts to rehabilitate our prisoners and give them the skills to get jobs are totally undermined by overcrowding.

The next area of concern due to overcrowding is the health of the prison population. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy mentioned suicides. It is a tragedy that so many young men reach a point, in what should be a safe and captive environment, at which they commit suicide. The figures for self-harm have increased rapidly over the past three years. According to the Howard League, there were more than 22,000 cases of self-harm in the prison population. How can that be right, given that those individuals should be under some kind of supervision?

The problem goes beyond the pressure of self-harm and suicide. The British Medical Association recently issued a statement that expressed the concerns of some doctors who operate in the prisons. It stated:

“Overcrowding in prisons continues to place immense pressure on the ability of prison doctors to provide basic healthcare to prisoners.”

Another matter that is raised with Members of Parliament when they visit prisons is access to dental care. Whether the issue is self-harm, suicide, doctors complaining or access to dental health, we know that overcrowding creates serious problems for the health and welfare of our prisoners. Whatever the merits of the case for whether prisoners should be there, it just cannot be right, in this age, to have such poor quality health care in our prisons.

Then there are the prisoners with mental health difficulties who perhaps should not be in prison in the first place. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy referred to them. The figure that I have been given by various agencies working in this field is that up to 70 per cent. of our prisoners suffer from mental health difficulties at some point. I am not arguing that 70 per cent. of prisoners should not be in prison but that serious resources are needed to tackle the problem and that in many cases prison is not the most appropriate location for such individuals.

If 70 per cent. of persons who are in prison have mental health problems, surely those problems were already in the society. We should have dealt with them in society rather than having to deal with them because someone got into trouble.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have no data, but we can assume that individuals who have mental health problems in prison had them before going to prison. Those problems may well have contributed to the difficulties that led them into prison and I am sure that that is blatantly obvious to all of us in this Chamber. A joined-up approach would focus not just on prisoners while they are in prison but on the activities that we undertake to stop people going to prison and then reoffending when they leave. That is self-evident, and I am sure that nobody would disagree with it. The question is how we actually tackle the situation and make things work.

The hon. Gentleman has raised a valuable point. Practitioners have identified a common issue among a core group of reoffenders: child abuse has been part of their experience. Many prisoners have been mentally damaged because of child abuse and, as a result, have later been involved in violent behaviour. The Government have instigated some terrifically successful programmes to deal with that issue, but they are few and far between. The scale of the problem is in no way matched by the resources, and overcrowding undermines the good practice that the Government have developed.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. A frustrating aspect of many of the issues that we are discussing this morning is that this Labour Government understand the problem and have been trying to do many creative things to solve it. I am sure that when the Minister responds, she will be able to announce and recall several initiatives that try to tackle the problems. There is much common ground, and there are many superb examples and case studies of schemes that work being tried in prisons. As the hon. Gentleman said, the difficulty is that we cannot roll them out quickly enough because of the overcrowding problem. It is almost a chicken-and-egg situation. A massive up-front investment is needed so that some of the trials can be rolled out much more quickly. We would then see benefits over a period of time.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy referred to drugs and there is concern that the overcrowding situation is leading to prisons being unable to cope with the amount of drugs that are traded within them. The head of drug treatment at the National Offender Management Service estimated that the street value of the drugs taken in prisons is £100 million. Again, in what should be a safe, secure environment, to have that amount of drugs just cannot be right. It also totally undermines public confidence in the prison system.

Then there is the knock-on consequence of prisoners being unable to keep links with family and friends, which are crucial for rehabilitation. It is a tragedy that contacts with children and partners often break down when people go to prison for the first time. That can make it all the harder for them to rebuild their life when they leave prison. The constant churn and moving around of the prison population because of overcrowding put an ever-increasing strain on family relations, which are strained in the first place because of where the individuals are.

The final and most obvious consequence of overcrowding is the inability to tackle reoffending. There is no point in repeating this, but the obvious solution to the problem is that if we could tackle high reoffending, we would begin to bring down the prison population. Not enough is being done within the prison population to tackle reoffending. Efforts should start in the prisons; the issue is not only for the community afterwards. It is important that the problem is tackled, because we need to reassure the public that the system, which costs a lot of money, is not just wasting that money by sending out individuals who commit crimes again.

I wish to ask the Minister a couple of questions on that issue. One thing that would certainly help to reduce reoffending is giving ex-offenders some support when they go into the community. As I said, I am a trustee of Unlock and a couple of issues are of enormous concern to the organisation. The first is that it is virtually impossible for an ex-offender to get home insurance and, as a consequence, it is difficult to get rented accommodation. Landlords can lose their insurance on the house if they declare that an ex-offender is renting it. It can be difficult for those individuals to purchase or rent a property themselves.

An issue that needs more work done on it is the inability of ex-offenders to get bank accounts. It is difficult for people leaving prison to get a bank account. I met the British Bankers Association and I am encouraged that it will try to do more to tackle this issue. However, the various money laundering legislation and requirements for proof of identity make it difficult for a prisoner to open a bank account and get the benefits of that. If people cannot have a bank account, in many cases they cannot get a job. It would be helpful if the Government gave a little push to a couple of practical barriers in relation to insurance and bank accounts.

What are the solutions to all this? I have talked about some of the issues. However, one problem is that the Government have tended to put in place some quick fixes—they have seen the numbers rising, panicked slightly and want to avoid the headlines—that are in danger of backfiring and undermining public confidence. The early release programme is not a sensible way to tackle the overcrowding problem: it can seem unfair and simplistic to the public and it is a knee-jerk response to the difficulty.

The individual who oversees prisons, the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said in her most recent report that

“the prison population went from one all time high to another, staving off disaster only by a series of short-term, often expensive, emergency measures”.

This short-term quick-fix approach is clearly not the way forward. The way forward is a fundamental review of the prison structure. Here I speak individually and not for my party. I have argued privately that we need to look at the very concept of a prison and see whether we should have different models, comprising education and training centres and units to tackle people’s mental health. It may prove impossible for a prison, on its own, to do all those things at the same time in one building—one structure—that has so many different individuals to cope with.

We certainly need to do more about education and training. Again, some of the Government’s schemes have been superb. For example, at Reading prison, where work has been done to get Transco and the big utility companies to come in, take prisoners and train them, it has been discovered that the reoffending rate for those on such schemes decreases to 6 per cent. or 7 per cent., because the individuals get jobs. That is where we should be at, but we need to be doing more of it.

On sentencing policy, I pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who rightly said that, if there were an alternative to prison as part of sentencing policy, it could undermine public confidence in the system. I understand and accept that. I have been an advocate of community sentences for a long time. I am troubled by some of the recent figures that suggest that alternatives and community sentences are not a panacea and are not, perhaps, as successful as we had hoped they would be.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the reason for that is surely that there is gross understaffing. We cannot squeeze a quart out of a pint bottle.

The hon. Gentleman is right. However, we need to make community sentences robust and ensure that the staff are there. Community sentences need to do two things: they need to reassure people that they are effective and they need to be effective. They must be put in place to ensure that we tackle reoffending. We should be looking towards some system of public service sentences, so that the public see that a community sentence is not a soft option but will give something back to the community. That will allow the community to have a say, perhaps, in what kind of work it wants to be done. Then there might be a sense of community restorative justice, with the community getting something in return for the crimes that may have been committed in it. However, such sentences should be linked with training and education to ensure that they are not just about litter picking, but that they change people’s behaviour. That has to be the right way forward, but I still do not think that we have got it absolutely right. Certainly, alternatives to prison would be a sensible way forward for many offenders.

I want to highlight women prisoners, which is an issue that I am sure is close to the Minister’s heart. Here, surely, more than anywhere else, we should be looking at alternatives to custody. The Minister will be aware of the Corston report, to which the Government have responded. The report mentioned trying to move towards closing women’s prisons over a 10-year period, replacing them with small custodial units for serious offenders and trying to ensure that the majority of women offenders were supported in supervision centres in the community. That is absolutely the right approach for women prisoners and it could well be a model for some male prisons. I should welcome the Minister’s updating us on where she is on that matter; I think that she was going to be appointed as the lead Minister to look at it.

I should like to make a quick plea for the Minister to provide us with an update on where the Government are in relation to votes for prisoners. That is a controversial issue, but I will not let go of it because of the various court rulings. Having lost the judgment in the courts in Europe, the Government have delayed for far too long the legislation required to allow prisoners the right to vote. I say that not because I want all prisoners to be able to vote so as to make a difference to elections—I am sure that that would not be so—but because they do not currently have the right to vote because they lose their civil rights and responsibilities when they go to prison. If we are to tackle many of the issues to do with reoffending, we jolly well ought to expect our prisoners to gain, and put in place, a sense of civic responsibility and civic rights. Among many of the other things they should be doing, prisoners should be voting.

In conclusion, the Government have been doing many things right in this area. However, the bottom line is that the figures speak for themselves. There has been an enormous increase in the prison population and their record so far can be summed up as follows: they are too timid and not prepared to be robust enough to tackle this issue with a big roll-out of programmes that we know could make such a big difference to prison overcrowding.

As others have done, I congratulate the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) on initiating this debate. It is sad that if he had introduced the debate last week or the week before, or even a year or five years ago, the facts that he brought before us, and the conclusions that we could have drawn from them, would have been largely the same. The fact that we are still debating these issues in 2008 and seeing, as far as I can tell, no meaningful progress emerging from the Government in their management of prisons is a shame, to say the least. It is a waste, because, as the hon. Gentleman said, accommodating every prisoner is expensive.

The figures that I have, which are based on studies by King’s college, London, suggest that the overall cost of accommodating every adult prisoner is about £50,000 a year, and more for young offenders—in the region of £75,000 to £80,000 a year. Of course, for 15 to 17-year-olds in secure training centres, given increased staffing levels and so forth, the cost is in excess of £175,000 a year. Considering that the reoffending rates of those who emerge from adult prison is about 66 per cent., that is a huge waste of public money. It is also immoral. It is an indictment of how we run our prisons that we spend all this public money pretending that we are protecting the public from criminals, yet criminals come out of prison and reoffend in industrial quantities.

The reoffending rate for young offenders is about 75 per cent. As the hon. Gentleman said, the sad thing is that about half the prison population has been there before: they are reoffenders who have been through either the community or custodial sentencing systems. None the less, we are churning prisoners around the prison estate and churning individuals through the criminal justice system to absolutely no purpose at all.

I want a criminal justice system and prisons with a purpose, which should, of course, be to protect the public from those who need to be in prison due to the crimes that they have committed. None of us in the Chamber would deny that, whether we are members of the Labour party, the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats, the Welsh national party, or the Northern Irish parties—[Interruption.] I went to school in Northern Ireland. I might even have gone to school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson)—at the Friends school, Lisburn.


I have a United Kingdom interest in the matter, but I do not come to it from a purely party political standpoint because, like the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, I am an officer of the justice unions parliamentary group. I fear that I do not attend its meetings as actively as the hon. Gentlemen, but the fact that I am an officer of the group indicates that I have a profound interest in the matter, which brings me to a point that I must make, not just as a formality, but because it informs the way in which I consider such issues.

I have been at the Bar for 35 years, which is a hideous thought, and for the past 10 years or so, I have also been a Crown court recorder, dealing with criminal cases with juries in the London Crown courts. When I sit as a part-time judge in the London criminal courts, I see a conveyor belt of people suffering from drug and alcohol problems who have been accused of committing crimes. Unfortunately, I often have to send those who are convicted to prison. What worries me is that I know that I am sending them to a grossly overcrowded prison estate in which, if they have a drug problem, they might start on a course to detoxify them, get them off drugs, and help them to stay clean, but, as other hon. Members have said—as they could have said last week, the week before or five years ago—they will then be churned through the system. There is a metaphorical jumbo jet of prisoners flying around the country from prison to prison.

At Canterbury Crown court, 10 people may be sent to prison every Monday. They may go initially to Canterbury prison for assessment and so on, but to make room for them, the governor must send 10 prisoners out of the back door. Where does he send them? He sends them to Maidstone prison. What happens at Maidstone Crown court? The judges send 10 people to prison, but to fit them in the governor of Maidstone prison must not only send 10 prisoners out to fit in the 10 from Canterbury, but must get 10 others out to fit in the 10 from Maidstone Crown court. That is 20, so where do they go? They go to Lewes prison. You can imagine, Mr. Gale, the increasing number of prisoners emerging from the sentencing process and being shunted around the prison estate all over the country. The numbers grow and grow.

We now have a prison population of 82,000, and it is obscene that we are making men live in lavatories. Around 3,000 or 4,000 prisoners are trebled up in cells designed for one person, and about 17,000 are doubled up. I need not go into the details, but they are obvious. We can congratulate ourselves that there is no more slopping out, except at Exeter prison, and it is disgusting that there is still slopping out in 2008. The obverse of that coin—my congratulatory words about having got rid of slopping out in all prisons except Exeter—is that because there is now sanitation in cells, two or three men sleep, eat and live in a lavatory. There is no privacy, and it is not surprising that the reoffending rate is so high when people are put into adverse conditions that go beyond the courts’ sentences. People are sentenced to lose their liberty. I sentence people not to live in public lavatories in inhumane and disgusting conditions, but to lose their liberty for a finite period.

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman suggesting that prisoners are living in inhumane conditions? If he is, I reject that.

The Minister may reject that in due course, but I do not know whether she can do so with evidence. This is a matter of common decency, and it is inhumane that three men live in a room in which they must all defecate. We would not expect that in our own homes, in a hospital, or in any other institution, so why do we expect it in our prisons?

At Norwich prison, the sewerage pipes went through the cells and leaked, so prisoners and, just as importantly, prison officers had to work or live in sewage. Luckily, that has now stopped, but that was a consequence of overcrowding, and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy was right to raise the matter as one of huge importance.

To return to an earlier point, surely this is a matter of balance. Many people in prison are living in better conditions than many of their victims in society. We must be careful to have a balanced view of the victim and the criminal.

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman for one moment. It is not a question of either/or. As a Member of Parliament, a part-time judge and the shadow Minister for Justice dealing with my party’s policies on prisons, I am acutely aware of the huge damage that is done to crime victims, both physically and economically. Criminals cost the country around £11 billion a year. I want to capture that money and reinvest it in better rehabilitation, and we will get that if we stop overcrowding in prisons. No one can be rehabilitated in an overcrowded prison. Prison officers—after this debate I am having a meeting with Colin Moses, the president of the Prison Officers Association, and some of his colleagues—cannot work in overcrowded conditions.

The Government are introducing the core day, which will reduce prisoners’ time out of cell and the amount of human contact between officers and prisoners. Prisoners are inside prisons for different reasons, but denying them contact, socialising time, interaction with prison officers and the opportunity to go into workshops and other educational facilities for much of the day is not sensible. The average amount of purposeful activity, as it is called nowadays, is 3.6 hours a day. With the introduction of the core day at the beginning of this financial year, I suspect that that will be further reduced. There are consequences if prisoners are not rehabilitated and educated. Some 65 per cent. of the prison population has a reading age of under 11. They cannot get even the most basic of jobs if they have a reading age of under 14.

The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right, but he will know, as a Crown court recorder, that two thirds of the people he sentences for property crime are drug-dependent. If we concentrate on getting people off drugs as part of the rehabilitation programme, surely society will soon see that that will pay for itself.

There will be a virtuous circle. As soon as my party and I get the opportunity, we will introduce the policy of capturing the £11 billion that is being consumed by the criminal justice system in dealing with reoffences. If one breaks down the figures, there would be about an additional £2,500 per offender. That money should be spent on getting people off drugs—either in or out of prison—and on teaching people to read and write, and to become responsible citizens.

One problem is that after we send people to prison, they immediately become irresponsible; they have been irresponsible in the first place, but in prison they make no decisions and have no responsibility for anything. People do not even have responsibility for their own families once they go into prison, and if we can maintain or inculcate a sense of responsibility for not only victims, but prisoners’ dependents and themselves, the reoffending rate would decrease. Yes, we will need to increase the prison estate capacity to break the back of overcrowding, but having done that, we will miss a trick if we do not invest time and money in the rehabilitation of offenders. I do not think that because I am some drip who wants to be nice to criminals. I do not want to be nasty to criminals, but I want our approach to be productive and effective for the victim and the taxpayer.

When one considers the reoffending rates, it is madness to keep on reinforcing the problem. It is essential that we devote more time to reducing the reoffending rate because if we do so, we can spend less money on prisons, rather than building our way out of a problem. We will not build our way out of the problem in the long term, and I urge the Government to try to think more strategically, instead of constantly backing and filling the early release from custody on licence system. I think that the Lord Chancellor introduced that system on 29 June 2007; I cannot remember if he was in office then, but it does not matter because the Government introduced it. The system was designed to release 25,500 people during the 12 months after that date to reduce the prison population. The prison population is now at 82,000—I think that it reached an all-time record in February 2008—and it shows no sign of declining, despite the Government’s attempts to reduce the figure by letting people out early in one way or another.

The public want reoffending to go down and greater safety in their houses and on their streets. They want those who have been convicted of offences to be justly punished, but they also want them to be rehabilitated once they have been punished—either in the community or inside prison. They want their taxes to be spent wisely. At the moment, the public get neither public protection nor rehabilitation, and nor are their taxes spent efficiently, effectively and wisely. I have visited 40 prisons and seen excellent work during the two years since I took on responsibility for this subject. Pockets of dedicated work are going on in prisons. Why is that not being replicated and rolled out across the national estate? It is because the Government are constantly looking backwards and trying to be more macho than the other parties in Parliament to achieve political and electoral gain. The Government are failing; and they are failing big time.

I congratulate all hon. Members who have participated not least, of course, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) who was fortunate to secure the debate and has used the opportunity to initiate an excellent discussion. Many parties from across the UK have participated and there have been some points of real agreement across the parties, as well as indications of slightly different philosophies regarding the purpose of imprisonment and of the criminal justice system. None the less, there have been many points of real agreement across all parties. I will do my best to deal with as many points as possible, particularly the comments of the hon. Gentleman who initiated the debate, but needless to say I will be unable to deal fully with every point. I also wish to put a few things on the record, as hon. Members would expect me to, given that I have had to sit for an hour and 15 minutes and feel extremely frustrated at not having been involved in the debate at an earlier stage.

It is important to point out that since 1997, crime has fallen by 32 per cent.—by a third. That is not unconnected—and on this point I agree in some way with the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson)—with the fact that we are imprisoning more serious and violent offenders. We are catching and imprisoning more offenders and we are imprisoning them for longer. Consequently, we are protecting the public more and offenders do not have the opportunity to do what they might do if they were not imprisoned. It is not wrong to say that there is a connection between those two things.

As a Government, we have made it clear that we believe that imprisonment should be for serious violent sexual offenders and that imprisonment does and should work to protect the public. Protecting the public is a primary purpose of our criminal justice system and the trends in longer sentences for more serious offences and the introduction of sentencing options, such as indeterminate sentences for public protection, have made a real contribution to that. That is not to say that I disagree with the points that have been made by hon. Members from all parties regarding there being some people in prison who perhaps should not be there. I do not disagree with the points made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and, by implication, by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) regarding there being some people in prison who revolve around the system because they come out and reoffend. That is accepted, and we accept that imprisonment is not the answer to every single crime that is committed.

Evidence clearly shows that short periods of imprisonment are the least effective way of reducing reoffending. In parenthesis, I should say that during the past 10 years, we have for the first time managed to reduce reoffending among even some of the toughest offenders. Reoffending rates for those coming out of prison have decreased by 4.7 per cent.; for those more generally the figure is 5.8 per cent. It is the first time that we have managed to reduce reoffending, and that is in large part because of the good work done by all those in the criminal justice system—those who work in the prison service and the probation service. I put on the record the thanks and congratulations of the Government to those workers who do what they do often in difficult and dangerous circumstances. They have had some great results during the past few years in reducing reoffending, which is a tough thing to do.

We have some of the best suites of evidence-based programmes anywhere in the world. To be fair, hon. Members have made the point that that is the case, although they have expressed some frustration that we have not been able to do even more than we have done. I understand that, but I point out that during the past 10 years, in real terms, we have increased spending on the prison system and on services by 37 per cent. That is not to be sniffed at; it is a significant increase in spending and that increase is still going on.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) is deeply frustrated that he cannot respond to the debate today; he is currently in Nigeria trying to negotiate a prison transfer agreement. He would be the first person to say that we are planning on investing more money—some £2.3 billion to try to get ahead of the curve of prison numbers. We are trying to get the estate capacity up to 96,000 by 2014 to get ahead of the curve of the increase in prison numbers. I have to accept that 20,000 more people are in prison now than 10 years ago, when the Government first came into office. We are trying to get ahead of that curve, which will enable us to prevent the constant overcrowding that creates some of the churn of difficult problems, to which many hon. Members have referred.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough referred to having to move people from prison to prison, which perhaps disrupts some of the other things being done to assist them. That is a consequence of overcrowding. We are trying to get ahead of that curve with the building programme and we fully expect to do so, but it would not be right to say that overcrowding is a problem that has occurred in just the past 10 years. During the time of the last Conservative Government, prisons were frequently running extremely close to capacity. Overcrowding has been a long-term problem.

Predicting whether the prison population will rise, on whichever projection—there is a range of projections—is an art rather than a science and it is not always easy to predict, but the building plans that the Minister of State commended in the previous debate on this issue in Westminster Hall, which were recommended by Lord Carter of Coles, will, we believe, deal with the issue and enable us to move on to focusing much more on reducing reoffending. Hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber agree that that needs to be done.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy raised several issues relating to probation services. He said that there were restrictions on provision as a result of a lack of resources. I want to deal with some of his points in detail. It is true to say that at the beginning of this year—in January, in particular—probation areas were reporting restrictions to courts in terms of what services were available and what programmes could be offered. There was a particular problem with unpaid work in Staffordshire. There were problems with sex offender programmes in north Wales and some accredited programmes in Cumbria, and some difficulties in dealing with alcohol treatment programmes, but the fact is that most probation areas continue to provide a good service to the courts. The short-term difficulties reported at that time, which the hon. Gentleman was reflecting in his remarks, have been tackled.

There is increased probation funding. When the Minister of State made allocations for this financial year, there was an average increase of more than 2 per cent. in the budget. The funding has gone up further as a result of the £40 million that has been found by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to boost probation services. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington made specific points about that issue. My understanding is that allocations have been made according to a well-known formula. I ask him not to ask me to repeat at this moment precisely what it is, but there is a formula whereby allocations are made to the 42 probation areas. My understanding is that that has been applied and that areas should know precisely what money they now have as a result of the extra resources that have been found. Therefore, they should be in a position to talk in great detail and to plan properly with their work forces in those areas. I hope that that explanation assists in dealing with the point. As a result of the extra money, there is an average increase of 8 per cent. for each board. That should make a real difference in tackling some of the issues that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy raised.

It is great to see the hon. Member for Upper Bann in Westminster Hall, talking about criminal justice issues, which may be devolved fairly soon. One never knows. These things may end up devolved; that is certainly the Government’s aim. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would not want me to leave the Chamber without making that point, which has now been acknowledged. The hon. Gentleman raised important points about the community’s confidence in sentencing. That is a key issue for all members of the public—for all our constituents. They need to be confident about the efficacy of sentencing, the toughness of sentencing, and sentences fitting the seriousness of the crimes. Only if we can show that will they support other initiatives, and all hon. Members who have spoken highlighted the importance of reducing reoffending.

The Government have focused a great deal on sexual offences. There is an understanding that there is under-reporting of sexual crime and that a lot of assurance needs to be given to victims, who quite often will not wish to come forward, because of the traumatic nature of the crime and their fear that they will have to relive it and that that might not be worth it if the perpetrator does not, in the end, receive what they feel is a sufficient punishment.

The Government have realised that the conviction rate is very low, but bringing forward witnesses and victims is the problem. Sexual assault referral centres are being established across Britain to support victims of sexual offences in coming forward. In 34 per cent. of rape cases that are prosecuted, there is a conviction. Bringing forward victims and supporting them in making a complaint is the biggest issue. We currently have 19 sexual assault referral centres across England and Wales, and we aim to have one in every police force area to ensure national coverage by 2011. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be examining closely the evidence that we have from this effort, and perhaps lessons can be learned for dealing with these issues in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Winchester asked me to deal with several issues. He asked about prisoners’ votes. He asked whether the Government could do much to assist with some practical problems that prisoners have when leaving prison, specifically regarding accommodation, insurance relating to accommodation, and bank accounts. On the latter point, it is possible, working with the banking industry, to try to ensure that prisoners coming out of prison who will be going into jobs are seen as potentially good customers of banks. I know from my own experience of visits, and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough will know from his own visits, that many prisoners coming out of prison do get bank accounts. They can sometimes set up bank accounts before they leave, which is helpful. I am sure that that is a question of relationships between the local prison and local bank managers. Nothing replaces good local relationship-building, but work can be done in respect of policy level issues and I am sure that the Minister of State and I would be interested in pursuing any of those issues.

Frankly, insurance is a tougher issue. Insurance is very much a risk-based business, perhaps more so than many others, and although I am willing to discuss the issue with the hon. Member for Winchester and his organisation, I do not have an immediate answer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington asked whether I would be willing to meet him and other members of the cross-party parliamentary group, most of whom appear to be in this Chamber. In those circumstances I can only say, absolutely, I would be very happy to meet him; my door is always open. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough said that he was to meet Colin Moses and the Prison Officers Association shortly after the debate has ended. Say hello to Mr. Moses and his executive, please; I saw them all yesterday.

My door is always open to trade unionists and members of the work force. Meeting regularly is a fine way of finding out what is going on in local areas and on the ground, which does not always come back through other channels. The Secretary of State for Justice, the Minister of State and I make a practice of doing that and are happy to continue to do so.

The other substantive point that the Opposition made was about crowding. I find it extraordinary that they say that they will remove all crowding from the prison system. I do not think that that can be done in the short or medium term, even with the type of building programme that we have initiated, which is the largest in the history of the Prison Service. The challenge set by Carter and the recommendation on prison building—getting the estate up to 96,000 places by 2014—represents a £2.3 billion investment and the biggest and most ambitious prison building programme ever. It will be a challenge to meet that. Even in doing that, we will not necessarily have removed overcrowding, depending on the trend in imprisonment and the increase that we have seen over the past years. That would not enable us to remove overcrowding. I find it extraordinary that the Opposition say that they will remove overcrowding and that without doing so, there will not be humanity or a humane system. That is quite remarkable. I will have to go away and have a close—

I have read it. I do not have time to give full details of why it is uncosted and has a £1.7 billion black hole at its heart. We will have to take that up on a rather more—