Thursday 5 February 2009
[Robert Key in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Justice Committee, Session 2007-08, Towards Effective Sentencing, HC 184 I-II, and the Government response, CM 7476.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Blizzard.)
I am glad to see you in the Chair, Mr. Key, and the Minister in his place. I recognise that the ministerial team has been under some pressure this week with the Coroners and Justice Bill going on at the same time. That applies to some of the members of my Select Committee as well.
We are here to discuss what the Committee regards as an important report: “Towards Effective Sentencing”. The inquiry began with the Home Affairs Committee before the departmental changes. It began the evidence taking, and we continued the work. I am grateful to the members of that Committee and to several members of the Justice Committee for their hard work, which involved something that the House has asserted it really needs: post-legislative scrutiny. The inquiry was intended, at least in part, as a review of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I shall discuss later how it came to be overtaken by other legislation.
I want to begin by setting the report in the context of prison numbers. In England and Wales, we have a rate of imprisonment that is far above almost every other European country. It is certainly far above comparable countries: it is 50 per cent. higher than France, and more than double the rates in all the Scandinavian countries. Those are staggering differences. We do not reach the Russian rate of imprisonment, but the model for our system has been rather too much the United States pattern of imprisonment, not that which comparable European countries manage to achieve without having more crime and certainly without having more reoffending than we have in this country.
In bald figures, on 16 January, the prison population was 81,748. I remember being in the House when a prison population of 60,000 was thought to be an alarming development. Now we are at 81,748, and we anticipate adding well over 10,000 to the figure in the next few years. Between 1995 and 2006, prison expenditure went up from £2.8 billion to £4.3 billion, and there are further uncosted increases yet to come for reasons which I shall explain. On 18 December, just before Christmas, 84 of the 141 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded.
One of the interesting things, though, is that the number of people sentenced by the courts has remained largely constant in recent years. It was 1.3 million in 1997 and 1.4 million in 2007, so the same number of people are being sentenced by the courts but a much higher proportion of them are getting custodial sentences. The number of people given custody at magistrates courts has risen from 25,000 in 1993 to 51,000 in 2007, and the number of people given custody at Crown courts—I am using rounded figures—has risen from 34,000 in 1993 to 43,000 in 2007. Those are big increases, but, at the same time, reoffending rates remain high: 65 per cent. of prisoners are reconvicted within two years of being released, and, for young men between 18 and 20, the reoffending rate is 75 per cent.
That is the context against which the Committee prepared its report. Another crucial part of the context was the publication of the Carter report before we started our work on this subject. We were critical of aspects of that report, in particular its lack of a proper evidence base. Our report states in paragraph 27:
“We are also very concerned that Lord Carter’s review does not explain in any detail the evidence or the reasoning behind his conclusions…All the international examples in the report are drawn from the United States.”
A strange thing to do when trying to get a picture of possible prison policies.
In the same paragraph, we stated:
“We were told that Lord Carter had access to more data and analysis from the Ministry of Justice than was published with the report. Nevertheless because so little evidence is apparent in the report itself it is impossible to scrutinize the basis of his conclusions. It is clear that the substantial investment now being made on the basis of those conclusions is not based on solid foundations.”
That substantial investment, of course, is the prison building programme, in particular the three titan prisons, which were the principal policy outcome of Lord Carter’s report.
We stated in paragraph 29:
“Lord Carter’s review was a missed opportunity for a fundamental consideration of problems with sentencing and provision of custodial and non-custodial facilities in England and Wales. We share the concerns expressed to us that Lord Carter’s review was based on wholly inadequate consultation and a highly selective evidence base.”
Lord Carter’s report, and the almost universal dissatisfaction of people who are experienced in the field as they read it and sought to find the basis for its conclusions, are other key parts of the context.
Another feature of the context was the introduction in 2008 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which had begun its progress as we were conducting our inquiry. It was introduced to deal with some of the faults in the 2003 Act, but, welcome though it was that there should be an attempt to deal with faults, we were equally conscious of how hard the practitioners in the field, including the judiciary, have to struggle with constantly changing legislation. In evidence to us, Sir Igor Judge, who is now but was not then the Lord Chief Justice, illustrated the difficulties that the proliferation of legislation caused in practice. He described a situation in which he
“had to consider five different Acts of Parliament, starting with the Sexual Offences Act 1997, going through the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, a bit of the 2000 Consolidation Act—that was only in force for eight months”—
but it was the eight months during which the offender had done something and was back in court—
“another Act, and the Sex Offences Act 2003.”
Hon. Members can imagine what an unnecessarily complex task that is for practitioners and the judiciary. The Committee stated in paragraph 20:
“The sentencing regime has been complicated by both the pace and the volume of constantly changing legislation. In addition to dealing with new or short-lived criminal offences, sentencers are faced with Acts intended to simplify and clarify sentencing regimes that are themselves swiftly amended.”
It is also quite difficult to be sure at any moment which bits of the various legislative enactments have been brought into force. Usually, there is a patchy pattern of commencement.
There are several areas that I shall not concentrate on today which I think are properly the subject of separate debates. One of them is young offenders. There was more in the media this morning about young offenders. Other hon. Members may wish to refer more extensively to it, because many of the same issues arise, but some of the solutions are different. Our criminal justice system has to recognise the difference to a greater extent. I can warmly pay tribute to some of the work done with young offenders. For example, when the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), who is the Minister with responsibility for prisons, visited the Castington young offenders institution in my constituency, I believe that he, like me, felt that it continues to do a good job. However, we put into custody extraordinary numbers of young people compared with other countries.
I heard a piece on the radio this morning which revealed that Finland, which I visited recently, has only three young offenders in custody. I suspect that we can probably imagine who they are, because there have been two or three particularly serious shooting crimes involving young offenders in Finland. For most young offenders, other solutions are found involving intensive care, fostering or intensive use of alternative forms of residential accommodation. I shall not dwell particularly on that subject.
Let me deal more thoroughly with the conclusions of our report. In essence, we found that failures of policy and implementation have led to a prisons crisis and an under-resourced, ineffective approach to sentencing, when set against the aim of reducing reoffending. Surely, our penal system must be about preventing people from suffering the misery that crime causes. The members of my Committee are all constituency Members of Parliament and are in no doubt about the effects. We all know about them because we have dealt with people who have suffered from crime, whether violent crime or even things such as domestic burglary, which can be hurtful and traumatic if people feel that the sacredness of their home as been destroyed, at least temporarily, by the actions of a burglar. All kinds of crime cause all manner of distress.
However, the objective of the system must surely be to reduce the number of people who are suffering those crimes and, in many cases, to avoid the same people suffering from crimes repeatedly. In many areas, the same people are frequently the victims of crime. Preventing reoffending must surely be at the heart of our system.
We concluded that the Government’s commitment to huge public investment in building more prisons at uncertain but very high cost, including the new Titan prisons, was not based on evidence and missed the opportunity to address the fundamental problems with custodial and non-custodial sentencing provision in England and Wales. An interesting contrast is that the Scottish prisons commission examined the wider questions of what could be done to reduce or cap the prison population and prevent further significant public expenditure on prisons, because every pound that we spend on prisons tends to be a pound that we are not spending on keeping people out of prison by other means, which deter or prevent them from getting involved in crime.
Evidence shows us that, for the majority of prisoners who are serving short sentences, prison is not effective in preventing reoffending and, therefore, cutting crime. The latest sentencing statistics show that 46 per cent. of adults sentenced to custody have already had at least three previous custodial sentences. Yet it is clear that the Government’s strategy, under the 2003 Act, to channel low-level offenders into community punishments rather than custodial sentences, which was a commendable, appropriate strategy, has not been followed through—in part, because sentencers are not using community sentences to the full. Why is that? In some cases, it is because there has not been the funding for widespread implementation of community orders and the various requirements that need to be met for a community to order to meet the sentencer’s objective in addressing the criminality of the person in front of him and trying to ensure that they are given a punishment that reduces reoffending.
Probation services do not know with any certainty how many community orders they have the capacity to deliver within their resources. The full cost of delivering a complete menu of requirements has not been determined. On the resource issue, there is partly a lack of confidence on the part of some sentencers in respect of alternatives to custody, which is sometimes based on lack of knowledge. I commend the previous Lord Chief Justice who went incognito on a community sentence, although I am not sure how well he managed to keep up his disguise. I will not speculate about what conclusions those around him reached about what his offence might have been when they saw this eminently respectable figure. This happened before he would have had to put on a reflective jacket, as he might under the recent arrangements. Quite what they made of him I do not know, but he found it a beneficial experience. Clearly, we need more awareness among sentencers of the options that are available and their value in preventing reoffending.
We found that there was excessive use of custody for vulnerable people, including some women, young offenders and people with mental health problems, and a failure of alternative provisions in the community for these groups. This week, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), announced £15.5 million for services in the community for vulnerable women, including bail support.
I welcome the Government’s giving the money that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has mentioned in his good speech. Is he aware of the success of the Women’s Turnaround Project in Cardiff, which I believe will be a beneficiary of that money, in turning round the lives of the vulnerable women that he has mentioned?
Yes, indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that to the attention of hon. and right hon. Members. We are becoming amazed by the number of times that Cardiff is quoted as the location of successful projects of various kinds.
It is not entirely clear how the funding that the Government have announced will enable the lessons, such as those that have been learned in Cardiff and in some of the other projects, to be spread. It seems to be mainly about enhancing and allowing to continue projects that have shown considerable initial success with alternative provision for women offenders. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what will happen when the particular funding that I have just mentioned is used up and to what extent funding can increase the number of areas in which alternative facilities for women are available. Alternative residential facilities to the traditional women’s prison were at the heart of the Corston recommendations. For most women, some form of accommodation near to their home, which does not need to be of the character of a prison, is much more likely to lead to their reintegration into society without reoffending than sending them to a women’s prison.
The Government have also recently announced a national prison drug treatment review group to establish priorities and compile national guidance for better commissioning, delivery, funding and performance management of drug treatment for offenders. The Minister may want to say something about that important issue.
We criticised the use of short custodial sentences for repeat offenders. Short sentences are very unlikely to work and, in fact, may increase reoffending. Research indicates that custody has a shock/deterrent value for up to two or three weeks, after which the offender generally adjusts and acclimatises to being in prison. For rehabilitative or educational programmes to work, the offender needs to be in a stable custodial environment for more like a year. Of course, if remand has reduced the length of the prison sentence, it is even less likely that, during a short sentence, the person will be in prison for long enough to benefit from any useful programme—even if the prison system manages to get him in the right prison and has the right programme to meet his needs at the right time.
Short sentences of one to six months neither deter nor reform. However, at the same time, they still produce all the malign influences that even a relatively short time in prison can have on people. A large proportion of the prison population is serving just such sentences—serially, in some cases—time after time. That leads me to a particular kind of short sentence.
The Committee was supportive of indeterminate imprisonment for public protection sentences—the IPP sentence—for really dangerous offenders but, by definition, such a sentence was intended for people who would pose a real, manifest risk if they were released into the community. People might expect such a person to have had a fairly long sentence imposed on them in the first place, which would become indeterminate because of the anxiety felt at the time that they were sentenced about the likelihood of their committing more, usually violent, offences.
If the IPP sentence is used for short sentences it just cannot work. It is almost inconceivable that the prisoner will, during that time, have got into the right prison to get the necessary programmes. In the case of such a sentence, I am talking about not just programmes necessary to secure rehabilitation, but the programme necessary to secure the person’s release, which is his entitlement if he satisfies certain conditions of the indeterminate sentence. Ministers have acknowledged that the whole business of IPP sentences went badly wrong and clogged up the Parole Board, which could no longer deliver the assessments that it was supposed to be making on many of the people who had been given these sentences. The courts also expressed their dissatisfaction. The criteria have now been tightened up under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, but last week Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons raised concerns in her annual report about the huge strain that IPP sentences are still placing on prisons.
The failures of the 2003 Act have been compounded by the environment in which it came into operation, where proper information about sentencing was not promulgated to the public. The Government have not provided the information nor the leadership required to facilitate an informed public debate. The Government wanted an informed public debate and said that there should be a national conversation about the use of imprisonment—a term that got them into some difficulties in Scotland, where it was used in the context of devolution—but, in terms of penal policy, it really has not happened and the conversation certainly has not been led by the Government.
The Government are trying to ride two circus horses at the same time. From time to time they like to use tub-thumping retributionist rhetoric and then out comes some rhetoric that tries to focus on rehabilitation and preventing reoffending. But the end result is a degree of public confusion and the field left open for those sections of the media that seems to think that the best way of assessing the effectiveness of the criminal justice system is to pick on a few cases and imply from those that the entire judiciary is totally unaware of public concern about crime and is gleefully letting people off with neither punishment nor concern to prevent crimes in future. It is just too easy for the media to do that.
In our continuing inquiry on justice reinvestment, we have had very interesting discussions with criminologists and practitioners in other countries—Germany, for example—where a different type of public debate is taking place. We shall report on that at greater length later. In those countries, it is possible to have a debate in which people consider what works and what is effective, not just what sounds toughest or most retributionist.
We clearly need a strategic approach to sentencing, with proper evidence, proper costing, resources to make it work and a foundation of proper public discussion about what the process is about. The price of missing the opportunity presented by the Carter report for a fundamental review of sentencing policy and provision of custodial and non-custodial facilities will go far beyond even the huge expense of just containing the prison population. That is why we are returning to these issues in our continuing inquiry on justice reinvestment. We need to go to taxpayers and say, “How do you want your money spent? Do you want it spent to reduce the risk that you will suffer a crime and that people you know, love and care about will suffer a crime? If so, do you want the Government to find the most effective way of doing that?” We shall ask those questions and take the public much more into our confidence on these issues.
The Government, in responding to us, accepted a number of our recommendations. They recognised that short custodial sentences are not effective, that IPP sentences must be better targeted, that an audit should be undertaken to examine the current scale and nature of provision compared to the scale and nature of need, and that sentencers should be closely involved in the monitoring of compliance with community orders.
However, Ministers did not address the central problem that we identified—the lack of a coherent sentencing policy and the failure to allocate resources so that the most appropriate and effective sentence can be given to each offender. The Government did not accept that judicial sentencing and decision making are in effect limited when there are no places in the area to meet the conditions that a particular criminal presents for the sentencer’s decision.
The Committee welcomes the steps that the Government have recently taken to promote the use of alternatives to custody, but much of the extra funding is being given with one hand and taken away with the other because of the huge pressure for efficiency savings—a phrase that I feel like putting in inverted commas because in the front line of penal policy, it tends to mean downward pressure on services. In contrast to the billions of pounds that may be spent on the prison system, including titan prisons, probation services received only an extra £40 million to plug gaps in their provision.
An examination of criminal justice resources by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London found that, once increases in staff and work load are taken into account, the increases in criminal justice budgets this decade were far less generous than they appeared. Probation budgets went up by 21 per cent. in real terms, as I am sure the Minister will want to point out, but qualified and trainee probation case loads increased by 35 per cent. The permanent secretary, Sir Suma Chakrabarti, assured us in evidence that MOJ efficiency savings will have only a limited impact on front-line resources. I wish I believed him, but life does not tend to be like that.
In another aspect of the Government’s response, they accepted that there is insufficient mental health provision for offenders. Every prison officer will tell us that when they give accounts of the people with mental health problems whom they have to deal with. The Government therefore commissioned Lord Bradley to conduct a review of the treatment of people with severe mental health problems in the criminal justice system, which I think is due to report later this month.
Evidence from our current inquiry on justice reinvestment underlines the fact that prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse. If policy makers were serious about concentrating on what works in terms of reducing reoffending, community sentences and restorative justice initiatives would receive much more attention and resources and far greater efforts would be made to communicate the basis and success rates of such sentences to the media and the wider public. Efforts so far by the Government to influence sentences have had too many unintended consequences and there have not been the resources to back up the rhetoric.
We shall continue our work on justice reinvestment and we are beginning work on the role of the prison officer, who is an often undervalued and perhaps sometimes insufficiently trained part of the process but who does a vital job. We were struck by the greater amount of training that we have observed happens in many other countries for prison officers. In various ways, we shall continue to monitor what is happening, but underlining our inquiries—this report and the ones that we are working on—is this fundamental question: why is Britain different, or indeed is Britain different? Is it really totally different from so many of the countries that are our nearest neighbours? Why do we in this country find it impossible to change what other countries have changed in penal policy?
The example of Finland is often cited because Finland inherited a Russian tradition of very high rates of imprisonment and determined to change it. The Finns set out policies to change how their system worked without any consequent increase in crime at all. On the contrary, as with us, crime went down. Then they found that prison rates were drifting up again. When we were in Finland recently, we found that they were having to make efforts to ensure that their intention of keeping custody for those for whom it was the most appropriate and necessary measure was reinforced. That was partly because of financial considerations. Money was going to be pulled into custody provision that they really needed for measures that reduced crime more effectively and in a more proven way.
I do not believe that Britain is so fundamentally different. What is different is the public debate. That is what we have to change. The public are rightly concerned about crime. They are also concerned about the signal that sentences give. That debate is much fuelled by newspaper accounts of particular cases. We can all be concerned and perhaps even annoyed when we see a sentence that, relative to others, looks as though it is not taking an offence sufficiently seriously or which leads one to feel that an offender has got off lightly, having done something pretty dreadful.
The public see sentencing as a signal. However, if we use sentencing only as a signal, we will be using a very ineffective signal. Signals are meant to work. Signals on railway lines are meant to stop trains, not just to give the impression that someone is doing something. The signal that matters is the one that stops people committing crimes. Much as we might like to believe that the threat of being locked up for quite a long time stops people committing crimes, all the evidence is to the contrary. We have to find more effective methods.
The Committee’s report challenges the Government to have that fundamental discussion, rather than being pushed along by a strategy that arose at least in part from a faulty report with insufficient evidence on which to base its conclusions. We therefore hope that the Government will not feel it necessary to be defensive in reacting to what we are saying to them, but will recognise that that debate is necessary.
It is a pleasure to have this debate under your strict but benign chairmanship, Mr. Key. The Committee, in preparing the report, has demonstrated not only that we are collectively a critical friend to Ministers, but that it is a Committee packed with optimists. As evidence of that, the last sentence of our conclusion says:
“We urge the Government, the political parties and the media to promote informed and meaningful debate about sentencing policy.”
That is a state that we ought to aspire to. It is important for us to ask the purpose of the criminal justice system. There is an opportunity for that question to be answered by saying that the purpose of the criminal justice system must be to cut crime and reduce reoffending. In that context, I hope that Ministers will seriously consider the sentencing council allowed for in the Coroners and Justice Bill—which is being discussed in the Public Bill Committee of which I am also a member—playing a significant role in holding the criminal justice system to the purpose of reducing offending and reoffending. It would be possible to build that into the Bill while it is passing through the House, but having seen the evidence so far, I worry that the discussion will tend to focus mainly on resources and prison numbers. As the Committee’s report states, resources and capacity planning are important, but they should be considered to see how they can serve the purpose of the criminal justice system, rather than themselves becoming the purpose of the system. My answer is close to that given a few moments ago by the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith).
The Committee heard interesting evidence from Victim Support, which was asked what victims really wanted from the criminal justice system, and the answer, other than for the criminal event not to have happened in the first place, was for it not to happen again. It seems to me that to respond to the concerns of victims, reducing reoffending rather than becoming ever more punitive has to be the right answer, and that answer will be pursued only if there is genuine unanimity across the political parties and across an adequate national debate. Again, it seems to me that the sentencing council might be a suitable vehicle to lead that debate.
There is a danger, however, because the sentencing council will be dominated by lawyers, and specifically by judges—I think that was intended as a reassurance, but I do not find it reassuring at all. Legislators and lawyers need to bear in mind Gibbon’s advice that laws rarely prevent what they forbid. In the discussions this morning in the Public Bill Committee, I asked how we could ensure that the sentencing council’s guidance is driven by consideration of what works and what will be effective in cutting offending and reoffending, rather than being driven only by the court-based experience of its members or tempered by considerations of resource issues.
The most optimistic of the witnesses suggested that one of the non-judicial members of the sentencing council should perhaps have experience in rehabilitation. There is some encouragement in the fact that the council will have the capacity for examining data and bringing forward evidence on effectiveness, but I am not yet satisfied that that will be the key driver. Effectiveness in sentencing must surely be the prime consideration, and the whole direction and ethos of the council must be to drive answers based on the question, “What works?”
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and pleased that he is a member of that Public Bill Committee and is doing very good work on that issue. Quite by accident, I omitted to mention the sentencing council’s relationship to Parliament. There were those who thought that Parliament should vote on the council’s proposals, but theirs was the minority view in the working group. I hope that the Minister, when winding up, will give some thought to how Parliament and the Justice Committee can play a role in that, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will also wish to refer to that.
The right hon. Gentleman makes some powerful points. Indeed, the point I endorse strongly is that Parliament must call the sentencing council to account in its role in driving the criminal justice system in a direction that feeds the main objective of reducing offending and reoffending. That also applies to other aspects of the criminal justice system. Anyone who has made a complaint about the criminal justice system in general or any part of it will know how difficult it is to penetrate its complexity and dark recesses. For example, if a witness or victim wishes to make a complaint, they will find that about 10 agencies and organisations have a part in that machinery—some of them seem to be moving parts as one tries to hold them to account—and each has a different way of receiving and dealing with complaints. Indeed, many of them merely make a complaint to the person who has made the decision or undertaken the work in the first place. That is unrealistic, because complainants who are not used to the criminal justice system, including most victims and witnesses, are unlikely to know how the bits fit together.
There are many circumstances in which it is not clear whether a failing, if there is one, or an alleged failing that needs to be investigated is the fault of the police in their preparation of evidence, of the Crown Prosecution Service in considering how to use the evidence it was provided with by the police, or of the court in the way the case is heard. Basically, most people who have complaints or want to hold the system to account neither know nor care how the whole system works. It is absolutely right that there should be systems of complaint for different elements within the system, and that is fine if the complainant knows exactly what or whom they want to make a complaint about, but I suggest to the Government that victims and witnesses need one point of complaint where their hand will be held.
I wonder whether the victims and witnesses commissioner might be given a role to take complaints from victims and witnesses and co-ordinate the responses. In other words, the role of the commissioner would be not necessarily to undertake those investigations but to ensure that those complaints processes—whether there are one, two or three because of overlapping issues—deal with the complaint adequately, looking at it from the viewpoint of the individual witness or victim rather than merely operating within the silos of their own organisational structures. There is a lot in the report that I hope the Government will not only take on board in the formal response, but incorporate in how they take matters forward.
The question of community sentences has come up time after time in our discussions, and it is quite clear, as we state in paragraph 30 of the report’s recommendations, that the
“intended switch from the use of short custodial sentences to community punishments in the form of Community Orders and Suspended Sentence Orders has not occurred.”
That is one of the factors that have led to implications for resources and prison numbers. The Committee’s conclusion was that
“the aim should be to achieve a consensus as to what is the appropriate sentence in different circumstances.”
Again, that takes us back to a much more focused approach based on evidence of what works. The appropriateness must be what is appropriate to prevent a repetition of the offending as well as what is seen as being just and fitting for the offence. The report suggests that the Government
“explore public information, sentencing training and effective evaluation and development of local projects as part of these proposals.”
I think that the Committee is making a useful and helpful suggestion, which I hope Ministers will take on board.
The report also states:
“The delivery of robust community sentences has the potential to reduce re-offending and re-conviction rates.”
We really need to take that to heart, because there is considerable evidence to suggest that sentencers do not have enough confidence in or knowledge of community sentences.
The Committee heard from Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers towards the end of his period as Lord Chief Justice; he said there was a lack of confidence in and knowledge of community sentences. Work has been funded by the Esme Fairburn Trust to take judges to see community sentences in action, and I suggest to Ministers that that should be made universal. If we are to tackle those issues, we need a drive towards judges and magistrates having better knowledge of the sentences that are available to them and how effective they can be.
Paragraphs 37 and 38 of the report also encourage learning from local projects based on the joined-up provision of services, particularly in relation to the mental health and drug treatment issues that are so closely tied to offending behaviour, as we have heard from virtually every one of our witnesses.
Finally, I want to mention the Youth Justice Board and other youth justice groups. In paragraph 61, the Committee wrote:
“We are encouraged that the Government shares our view that there is excessive use of custody”
for offenders. We continued:
“It is essential that the Sentencing Guidelines Council produce guidelines for the new Youth Rehabilitation Order before implementation.”
The joined-up work of the youth offending teams and the Youth Justice Board has met with considerable success in the 10 years since the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, for which I was responsible as a Home Office Minister—so perhaps I am partial. Genuinely, though, I think that it has driven joined-up working where working was not joined up before. However, perhaps we need to consider the next age group up—17 to 23-year-olds—to build on that joined-up approach. Perhaps we could deliver in that age group as well. Those key young offending age groups need to be tackled successfully if we are to succeed in what must be the aim of the criminal justice system as a whole: cutting offending and reoffending, which is explicitly said to be the objective of the youth justice system, but not of the whole criminal justice system.
I am pleased to address a few remarks to the Justice Committee’s report. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said, one of its central themes was the question, arising from the Carter review, of how to deal with the rise of the prison population. It also addressed a number of other issues, which to some extent revolve around the central observations in the Carter review. That review extrapolated prisoner numbers and considered ways in which additional prison resources could be provided. In doing so, it discussed the question whether titan prisons could do that.
The report did not address—perhaps it was not in its brief—the central question of why the prison population has risen to such an extent. The Committee might have been rather mild in its comments on that question. It recorded:
“Changes in sentencing policy and practice leading to longer sentences have been a significant contributor to the unexpected and unplanned increase in both prison and probation populations.”
The Government response started robustly with the words:
“This is the first Government since the war to cut crime, and to do so by a third generally, to reduce household burglary by 50 per cent and car crime by almost 60 per cent. We have created safer communities through firm punishments which not only deter but also reform.”
In many ways that was well said, and much can be said positively about a Government under whom crime has been cut to such an extent. However, setting that against the rise in the prison population suggests an immediate contradiction. For example, between 1995 and the present day, the prison population rose at a startling rate, almost to the extent that a graph of prison populations since 1945 looks similar to that for climate change—the climate was growing a little warmer, but suddenly heated up considerably over the past 12 or so years.
Everybody present will be aware of the problem of false correlations—for example, of correlating an increase in birth numbers with the number of storks seen on chimneys. There is no correlation between climate change and the rising prison population. However, one can draw clearer correlations. Perhaps, therefore, the Committee’s report could have begun, “Wow, look at those rises in prison numbers. They’re amazing. What’s going on?” I appreciate that that would not be Select Committee language, but it is the sort of realm that we are talking about in terms of the rising prison numbers. Between 1995 and 2007, prison numbers have effectively doubled—up about 30,000.
What are the main factors in the rising prison population? Have more people been found guilty in the courts? As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned, the answer is no. Those numbers had been roughly stable—2 million in 1996, 1.71 million in 2006. In 1995, 258,000 people were found guilty for indictable offences and in 2006 the figure was 254,000. It is not that there are a lot more people going to prison as a result of sentences passed by courts. Some members of the public will say, “It is a great success that prison numbers have doubled, because it means that double the number of criminals are banged up,” but others might say, “Well, that is a Government failure, because there should be double again. We should put them away for a very long time.” Our duty is to dig into the causes of the increase, which will have a correlative effect on guiding our discussions. Indeed, that is what happened in the Committee’s report on sentencing policy and associated considerations.
In response to those figures, and the report in general, the Government stated—correctly—their achievements: they have set aside funding, increased prison capacity over the period by about 23,000, and committed themselves to increasing overall capacity to 96,000 by 2014. One might compare that to what some say has been the cause of motorway building in years past—more cars are on the road, so we build more roads, so even more cars end up on the roads, so more roads need to be built, and so on. However, we are not dealing with such a correlation, because more people have not been sentenced through the courts. Nor is it the case that there have been a lot more crimes to underpin the fact that more people are imprisoned as a result of those crimes. As is said on page 1 of the Government’s response, crime has substantially gone down. Moreover, if we look at the percentage change in British crime survey offences, we will see that crime has gone down, and that we could almost have a chart that is a mirror image of the one that shows a rise in prison population to show the reduction in crime.
The reduction in crime has been startling. When we compare the British crime survey offences of 1995 with those in 2007-08, we see that domestic burglary is down by more than half. Vehicle-related theft is down 66 per cent., theft of personal property is down 53 per cent. and British crime survey violence is down 48 per cent. Those are enormous reductions in crime prevalence in our country at a time when the prison population is rocketing.
I know that some of those figures mask increases in certain types of violent crime and drug offences. Clearly, when those offences come before the courts they are likely to attract quite long-term prison sentences. Nevertheless, if we look for correlations, there appears to be a straightforward inverse correlation between crime and prison numbers. If there is an easy answer—I do not think that there are any very easy answers—it is in the question of what has happened with changes in sentencing. In the Government response, it is suggested that perusal may be made of a very interesting, but rather obscure, document entitled, “Story of the Prison Population 1995-2007,” which is published by the Ministry of Justice. That clearly sets out what has happened as far as sentences are concerned. Some 23,000 more people were sentenced to immediate custody between 1995 and 2002. The length of custodial sentences increased between 2000 and 2004. The document suggests that about 80 per cent. of that increase in prison numbers relates to sentencing. To a lesser extent, it also relates to a substantial increase in prisoner recalls during the same period. There was a substantial increase in prisoner recalls—prisoners who were released on licence and recalled to custodial sentence—in one year alone. Between 2006 and 2007, there was a rise of 29 per cent. Over a five-year period, there was a 350 per cent. rise in prisoners recalled. One asks oneself whether that is because prisoners are doing things in a very different way or because there is a change in how sentences are being undertaken.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point. It appears that the very expensive pattern of recall to prison is consuming resources that might be more wisely spent on a much more rigorous hands-on approach to securing compliance from prisoners released from prison under such terms, to ensure that they comply with the conditions and that they are not just picked up at a late stage and put back in prison.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We have a process in which prisoners—particularly those on shorter sentences—are released into the community having had very little opportunity within their sentence to undertake any rehabilitation or resettlement arrangements. In some instances, they are literally plonked outside the prison gates and that is that. Such practice could have something to do with the change in the rate of recall, which the right hon. Gentleman underlined in his intervention. One factor of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 has a bearing on that. The fact was mentioned by the Committee and there was substantial agreement in the Government response.
The other important point raised in the report is that the availability of community-based sentences has led to an increase in such sentences and bitten into sentences that previously were fines rather than those that were previously custodial. Therefore, there has been a transfer within non-custodial sentences from one kind of sentence to another, but not a transfer—which was part of the intention when community sentences were introduced—of a custodial sentence to community payback and community sentences.
One very important element of the 2003 Act was the introduction of the custody plus process. In that legislation, the idea emerged that there should be a sentence that consists of a fairly short sentence, followed by a known period of resettlement and rehabilitation outside the prison walls. Many of the points raised by the Select Committee report relate to the problems of short sentences and of rehabilitation and resettlement after sentence. They also relate to the extent to which custodial sentences do not apparently have the effect that one might like them to have in addition to removing people from a position in which they could have influence on the public.
Once the sentence has finished, as it inevitably will, we have to improve the public’s long-term protection against what might happen after that sentence. On that, the provision in the 2003 Act appeared to follow logical and right lines, but it has financial and resource implications. The Government response acknowledged the issue of resource implications notwithstanding the increase in probation funding over the period, and the increased work load for probation services over the same period. The Government accepted that custody plus would have resource implications. For that reason, they regretted that they had not been able to introduce that element to sentencing policy in the 2003 Act. That stance should be revisited. That melding of custodial and community sentencing may well have the effect of reducing the time that prisoners spend in prison within their sentences and of reducing substantially the revolving door effect of a number of sentences. I regret that it was not possible to introduce that element of the 2003 Act, and I hope that can be reviewed.
The proposed amalgamation of the Sentencing Guidelines Council and Sentencing Advisory Panel into the sentencing council, which is in the Coroners and Justice Bill, is potentially an important step towards making sentences better reflect the concerns that I have mentioned. There must be effective monitoring mechanisms within that new advisory panel to ensure that variations in sentences and up-tariffing and other effects of sentencing are closely examined and, if necessary, rectified. Clearly, that presents an opportunity for clearer guidance on sentencing, and particularly the relationship between custodial and community sentencing.
Notwithstanding the 2008 revisions and legislation, there is clearly work to be done on indeterminate sentences. The Committee rightly underlined the extent to which they appear not to work very well, and the extent to which they are not applied properly—tariffs can seem low to an unlikely degree compared with the original sentence.
A number of issues over and above the question of the lengthy Government response and the Committee’s report are worthy of consideration. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned that the Committee is looking at a number of them in its work, and that it will publish future reports, but I hope that the Minister will say that they will be examined. I hope he examines them with a view to ensuring that the prison population is made up of people who should be in prison, and that the public are protected. I also hope that, in future, we have effective sentencing guidelines that ensure the protection of the public interest. The offender should be punished, but we should want them not to reoffend. That could be achieved better in future.
I am pleased to contribute to this debate on the Justice Committee report this afternoon, as I am to serve on the Committee.
The report’s recommendations are eminently sensible, and a lot of them have been dealt with in the debate. As the Chairman said, it would be great if we could have a national debate about offending, sentencing and prison. We have heard about such debates in other countries, including Germany. In a national debate, we could examine whether we are more punitive than other European countries, and why we have so many people in prison.
Interestingly, the Committee heard evidence from an eminent young professor and an ex-Minister a week or so ago. The professor told us that having a high number of people in prison could be traced to the fact that we are more punitive. He directly linked the high number of prisoners to the fact that we are one of the last countries in Europe to ban physical punishment in the home—we have all been involved in the smacking debate at some point. That is the sort of thing that we could discuss if we were able to have a national debate.
However, one big thing that makes it difficult to have a national debate in this country is the tabloid press. When the tabloid press reacts suddenly to a sentence, it is difficult for the public to get the true facts of the case, and for Ministers and policy makers to remain uninfluenced. The Committee visited countries that have more effective national debates, and noted that they did not have that type of press. The press is not a reason for not having a debate, but it makes things difficult.
In my short speech, I should like to focus on one aspect of the report: vulnerable people. Time and again, witnesses to the inquiry emphasised that vulnerable people were still facing custody when their needs and offending could be better dealt with in other settings and in the community. That theme has emerged in every speech this afternoon.
When we are talking about better alternatives for vulnerable people, we are also talking about better alternatives for victims. As has been said, prison often does not work, and good community alternatives do. The report highlights that, stating that it
“is generally agreed that more emphasis must be placed on ensuring that vulnerable people”
who are not a risk to society
“are not sentenced to custody for want of practical community alternatives”.
I repeat that that is also for the benefit of the victims.
As the Chairman of the Committee said, the report identified three groups—women, young people and people in need of mental health and drug treatment. We have all dealt in our constituency casework with the difficulties that people in those groups experience. I have dealt with a lot of young people who have been placed in custody at an early age for non-violent crimes. They were guilty of committing the crimes for which they were in custody, but it was not really necessary to put them in a custodial setting. As someone who deals with the difficulties that those people face in a custodial setting and when they are released, I wonder what effect it has on their lives in the long term.
People have expressed to me major concerns about the mental health implications of sending people who are vulnerable to mental health problems to prison, and about the huge problem of reintegrating people from vulnerable groups into society. Custody is by no means the best way to treat mental health and drug problems, or to prevent prisoners with such problems from causing further difficulties on release. The report makes it clear that there should be a statutory requirement to provide funding for diversion and criminal justice liaison schemes. I welcome that recommendation wholeheartedly, and it should be adopted by the Government.
As the report notes, offenders and prisoners are significantly more likely to have mental illnesses than the general population. That is well known. It is vital that appropriate treatment is offered, for the good of the prisoner and to reduce the risk of reoffending in those prisoners whose offences are related to their illness. We need to ensure that vulnerable groups get more appropriate sentences, for the good of all. The criminal justice system does not deal well with vulnerable people who are offenders, who make up quite a large percentage of the prison population. Also, young people from care are over-represented in the prison population, as are ethnic minorities. It is important for the Government to get to grips with those things.
The Chairman of the Committee referred to women in custody. I have worked on the issue and am greatly concerned about it. In an intervention, I mentioned a scheme in Cardiff called the Women’s Turnaround Project. It works with women offenders and women vulnerable to offending. If we are to reduce the presence of women in prisons and reduce their reoffending, it is important to invest in projects such as that. I am talking about women, but what I am saying applies to other vulnerable groups: we have to put special effort and resources into such things.
The Women’s Turnaround Project aims to provide services to women in a safe, non-threatening, town centre environment, so that women can access it easily without being identified. The scheme tries to identify the needs of the women who use the service, and works with them to find solutions. It is very much about working together and uses a multi-agency approach. We have heard quite a bit about using a joined-up approach. The key to reducing offending and the number of people in prison is agencies working together. As many as 14 different agencies were involved with one young offender that I was involved with. To get those agencies to work together and plan for the future, there must be a proper multi-agency approach. The project also assists with bail, remands and post-release accommodation; a housing project attached to the project provides accommodation to women who are on bail or have been released from custody, to reduce imprisonment and provide accommodation for home detention curfew purposes. The scheme can physically prevent women from going into prison. In the 14 months since it started, the project has had 231 referrals. The current case load is 58 women with whom it actively engages and 41 women in custody with whom it is working to prepare for their release.
The last time that I visited the project was during a visit with the Prison Reform Trust that included a group of women from the Women’s Institute. The Prison Reform Trust was trying to show the Women’s Institute what prison was like, so they visited Cardiff prison and then went over to the Women’s Turnaround Project. I thought that was an excellent idea, because there is a huge lack of public knowledge about what it is like to be inside a prison and the stories behind the people in prison.
We met a young woman involved with the Women’s Turnaround Project who had had a lifetime of addiction and offending—a very vulnerable young woman. She said that at her last court appearance she was expecting a life sentence, but the court gave her another chance, and she obtained the support of the Women’s Turnaround Project. She said that for the first time in her life, she had somewhere to go. Whenever anything happened or she experienced problems, she had somebody to turn to. Her key worker in the project was there for her at any time. She felt that that had enabled her to turn the corner. She had moved away from addiction and was trying to go to college and make her life meaningful. She was so proud and pleased about that, yet it was achieved through somebody in a court having the good sense to say, “Let’s give this woman another chance,” and through the support in the community provided by the Women’s Turnaround Project. The project is part of the National Offender Management Service, is funded by the Government and will, I hope, receive some of the additional money coming. It was never available until 14 months ago. It is very impressive.
The project has done intensive work on a small sample of the women with whom it works to identify the results and see what effect it is having. Of a sample of 19 women with whom the project had worked, just under half have committed no further offences. Seven have committed further offences, but of a much lesser nature and frequency. The project deals with women who are continual offenders, who are difficult to turn around. Staff involved with the project felt that they could see significant improvements in the women with whom they worked. It is a great success story. Will the Minister tell us how much more of that sort of project we can provide? It makes a significant difference to women’s lives and, as I keep repeating, to victims’ lives as well. We know that the main thing victims want is for it not to happen to them again. We should offer that sort of encouragement and help to women who have offended, who are often victims themselves: a high number of women who are in prison or have offended are victims of domestic abuse. That is the way that we should go.
I agree with the thrust of the report with regard to female offenders. The current system is based on the fact that 94 per cent. of the prison population are male. That has dictated how we have dealt with female offenders. I think we all recognise that crimes must be punished fairly. Changing how we treat vulnerable groups, particularly women prisoners, is not about making their lives easier or their punishment lighter. Indeed, as the report notes, one third of women given a custodial sentence have no previous convictions, which is double the proportion in men, and women are more likely to receive a short custodial sentence. We have heard quite a bit about short custodial sentences today.
We should be producing a system that helps to rehabilitate women, reduces their chances of reoffending and helps them to recover a mutually beneficial place in society. The Women’s Turnaround Project is part of how we achieve that goal. It is also along the lines of what the groundbreaking Corston report recommended, although it is just one part of that. With a greater commitment of resources to community provision and better targeting of resources, a great deal more can be achieved.
It is a pleasure to serve under you again, Mr. Key. It has been an extremely interesting debate. I am the first non-member of the Select Committee to take part. It has been good to hear the Chairman’s report and the contributions of other Members.
It is clear that the report provides a careful analysis with a great deal of background information and relevant evidence. I hope that the Minister, not just in responding today but subsequently, will not simply shuffle together his papers and read out a brief but will take away some of the points that have been made and ensure that the Department responds. Even if he does not feel able to do so out loud, I hope that he will at least ensure that things happen behind the scenes. The Committee has identified some serious and important issues.
The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) made some relevant points about the sentencing commission and the need for it to have a broad vision rather than being limited to the legal profession and judges, as he diplomatically put it. On his point about victims and witnesses having a simple way of registering their concerns, if not formal complaints, I am sure that I am not the only Member in this room who has been approached by constituents who were completely flummoxed as to what they should do if they had difficulties with the way that their case had been handled. A good deal of parcel-passing goes on. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman’s view and the Committee’s evidence will be taken seriously into account. He mentioned community punishments and focusing on what works, on which I shall comment in a minute or two.
The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) steered away from making a direct comparison between climate change and crime; I wondered whether he would come to crime hot spots in due course. He clearly set out the paradoxes. Crime is down, the number of convictions is the same and the prison population is rising. When one considers that and the various arguments that might be drawn out of it, it certainly seems that the Justice Committee’s analysis deserves to be taken seriously by the Government to see how best to proceed.
The hon. Gentleman asked, “Where is custody plus?” I read the evidence received by the Committee from many professionals in the field who clearly feel that there is a gap. That option, if it were available, would be very helpful in tackling some of the issues that they identified.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) is probably right: it is hard to see how we can have a national debate when we have national tabloids. However, there might be a way. Perhaps we could work on that. Her compelling account of the Women’s Turnaround Project in Cardiff will surely soften the hearts of the Ministry of Justice. The report comments that a strategic approach is not being taken to develop community responses such as that, and that it is more a question of a series of pilot projects. Here we appear to have all the evidence that we need of a highly successful pilot project. I hope that the Minister will give the hon. Lady the assurance that she wanted on that project, as well as giving us more of a strategic picture about how the Government want to take forward the development of community sentences and community support.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), the Chairman of the Justice Committee, set out the case that the Committee’s report should be taken seriously. He emphasised the gap between what the Government’s intentions have been in these matters and the outcomes. There is no clear evidence at all of a reduction in reoffending as a result of the sentencing policy. In fact, in relation to short sentences, perhaps the opposite has happened. There are also many problems within the system itself.
The Committee also says that it seems that there have been far too many initiatives that have been put into action without the necessary resources and, in some cases, without the necessary evidence or forethought. I was struck by a quote from the report:
“Throughout our inquiry we saw that failures in anticipating resource needs and providing appropriate resources for the implementation of policies stood in the way of results.”
I hope that the Minister will give us some assurance that that comment will be embedded in the Department’s thinking about the way ahead. I know that the Department has been restructured and is no longer the same Department as before, the Home Office. However, I was very struck by the fact that the Home Office managed to produce 13 Bills in one parliamentary Session, one of which was revoking parts of a previous Bill that had never been implemented. Leaving aside the political knockabout, I hope that some of the serious comments made by the members of the judiciary who presented evidence to the Justice Committee on the point of resources will be taken seriously.
I want to focus on a few specific points in the Committee’s report, one of which is imprisonment for public protection. That issue provides a master class in muddle. I must say that the Liberal Democrats welcome the Committee’s point that IPPs ought to be only a rare exception, but in fact, there are 10,000 IPP prisoners—or at least, that is the figure given in the Committee’s 2007 report—and it was predicted that that figure would rise constantly.
The answer that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) received to a parliamentary question recently showed that of those 10,000 prisoners—the figure is possibly 11,000 now—3,900 are in prison although they have gone beyond the end of their tariff. In other words, those prisoners have not been put to the Parole Board for possible release. Perhaps the Minister can help me on this issue, but as far as I can tell that is because they have not been able to complete their required courses in time. Surely that cannot be right. The Justice Committee’s report says that the IPP has led to people being kept in jail simply because the programmes they need to complete have not been put in place.
I take a personal interest in this issue because I have two constituents who are in exactly that position. In December, I raised the case of one of them, Mr. W, with the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), who is the Minister with responsibility for prisons. At that time, I quoted a figure of 800 people being stuck in that position, because I wrongly thought that that was the right figure. However, we know now that the correct figure is 3,900 prisoners, and two of them are my constituents.
I have been taking up this issue for nearly 18 months now. My constituent, Mr. W, was due to go to the Parole Board in May 2008, but he still has not done the required course. There are all sorts of paradoxes in the system, which are spelled out in the report. Because Mr. W is a law-abiding individual—people may think that he is not, but within the prison environment he has been law-abiding—he is therefore in the lowest-security prison, and therefore in a prison where the courses that he needs to take are never available. Paradoxically, if he gave one of the prison officers a bit of a slapping, he would go to a high-security prison where he could take the course, except that he would not be eligible for it because he had caused trouble in the prison system. It is a total Catch-22.
Following the question that I put in December, I wrote to the Minister with responsibility for prisons. Six weeks later, I am still waiting for a reply. My suggestion in the letter was that those prisoners caught in the trap between the 2003 and 2008 legislation should be brought very quickly indeed within the provisions of the latter, so that they are not put in a worse position than those who come before them or those who come after.
I hope that the Minister can say how many of those 3,900 people who are still in prison beyond their tariff date are there because they cannot access the courses they need to take, and how many are there because they cannot access the Parole Board, even though they have done their courses. The Committee’s report makes the point that the Parole Board itself is seriously overstretched as a result of the extra work it has to do. Indeed, I noted that the Committee heard evidence that, for the Parole Board to function in the current environment, it was estimated that it would need an extra 100 judges; that is an extra 100 judges not for court cases, but for the Parole Board. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that estimate.
Linked to that issue is the fact, which emerged during the Committee’s inquiry, that there is a lack of centrally available data about the tariff situation. It seems strange that we know how many people are in prison, but we do not know how long they are in prison for. In a situation where resources are clearly very tightly constrained and stretched in all sorts of directions, the usual way of dealing with it is to reduce the demand. Oddly, however, in the case of prisons and prisoners—it is particularly evident with IPP prisoners—because we are short of resources, there is actually an increase in demand on the Prison Service, with those prisoners being kept in prison and not being able to get out.
The Chairman of the Justice Committee, along with other speakers in this debate, has drawn attention to the Committee’s criticism of another aspect of public policy. It is what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test steered away from calling “predict and provide”. He said that the policy was worse than “predict and provide”, because there was not even a proper prediction to go with the policy.
I understood that the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor had acknowledged that building more prisons was not the right answer or the right way to go. However, with the publication of the Carter report and its various deficiencies, the Government appear to have reversed their view on that issue. I hope that the Minister can be a little more positive than the rather bland words that appear in the Government’s response to the Committee’s report. In fact, they are bland and perhaps rather arrogant words, which just dismiss the Committee’s criticism on that matter.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, North spoke eloquently about vulnerable people in prison. In particular, she mentioned the difficulties of those prisoners with mental health problems. The Committee says that nine out of 10 prisoners have a mental health problem and seven out of 10 have two or more mental health problems. The Committee’s report certainly backs the Liberal Democrat view, which is the view of many experts, that prison is the wrong place for many people who have a mental illness. The need for extra community resourcing is clearly very strong, particularly in the case of those who are mentally ill.
I have already commented on the hon. Lady’s support for the Women’s Turnaround Project in Cardiff. We clearly need a joined-up approach for dealing with women prisoners and women offenders throughout the system.
In his presentation of the report, the Chairman of the Committee drew the House’s attention to the weakness of short-term custodial sentencing. In this country, we seem to have a see-saw sentencing policy, which means that the Government are caught between a tabloid “hard place” on the one hand and the cold “rock” of reality on the other. Short prison sentences make the situation worse because they do not give time for prisoners to be rehabilitated, but they certainly give them time to learn how to do the crime better next time. Prison, as a crime school, works best for those on short sentences—there is plenty of evidence to support that.
I hope that the Minister will pick up on the broader points that have been made about community sentences. When resources are short and there is a drift towards an increasingly severe sentencing regime, money gets sucked out of community sentencing and into the prison system. That means that schemes such as the hon. Lady’s in Cardiff, which costs peanuts in terms of the budgets of the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, struggle to get funding, or at least to be replicated across the country, because of the money being taken into the prison system.
Will the Minister comment on what the Committee’s report says about the hierarchy of responses to convictions, in relation to sentencing, having been inflated in the past few years? There is evidence that people who would previously have been fined are now getting community sentences, whereas those who would have got community sentences are now getting suspended sentences and those who might have got away with a suspended sentence, so to speak, are now going to prison. Is that not one reason why we are in the trouble we are now in? Should there not be a reinvestment at that lower level of community sentences, suspended sentences and the custody plus option that has been mentioned today?
The Government’s response to the report is inadequate and complacent in places. Yes, it does accept some of the recommendations, but, equally, it has either bypassed or rejected completely some of the central ones. The Government say that they have a
“considered and sensible sentencing policy which has delivered greater public protection and significant reductions in re-offending.”
There has certainly been a reduction in reported crime, but as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test has shown, there has not been a reduction in the number of people who have been convicted of offences. As the Committee’s evidence shows, there has not been a significant reduction in reoffending either. That is all there in detail.
Public support for community sentencing—or tabloid support for it, as a proxy—depends strongly on the perception that it is effective and is properly organised and supervised. In that regard, I want to discuss the probation service, which has not been mentioned so far, and which forms part of what the Committee has had to report on. Actually, I apologise to the Chairman of the Committee because I distinctly recall that he did mention it, so I withdraw that remark. The probation service is pivotal to ensuring that community sentencing works effectively, and an increase in resources has to lead to an increase in effectiveness on the ground. I hope that the Minister will respond to what the Chairman has said, and to my comments, and that he will reassure us that any additional funding for the probation service will be targeted at making sure that there is effective management and monitoring of such schemes, and that we will have a well-resourced probation service for the future.
I want to hear from the Government that they are going to take vigorous steps with the backlog of IPP courses—and, incidentally, that I will get an answer to my letter of last December. I should like to hear a more positive acknowledgment of the value of the report than appears in the Government’s printed response, which describes its central contention as being “untrue”. I should also like to hear a strong commitment to the proper funding of community sentences in future. Finally, I should like there to be a focus on developing a range of sentencing policies that will make a better job of doing what the Government say they want to do, whichis to punish the guilty and deter the tempted, while protecting the innocent and reforming the offender, thereby building a safer society for us all.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. I welcome the contributions of the Justice Committee and its Chairman, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), to this important issue, which affects us all in Parliament—increasingly so given the number of Bills dealing with effective sentencing that have come before us. It also affects our work in our constituencies, where we might deal with victims. The point has been made today that effective sentencing is also of keen concern to victims as it will, in its drive to prevent reoffending, prevent people from being affected by crime in the future and therefore becoming victims.
The debate is timely, and concerns an issue in which I must declare an interest as a practising criminal solicitor. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) said that he is not reassured by the membership of lawyers on the sentencing council. Nevertheless, I hope that he gets some reassurance in this debate, and that my input is helpful, as I have some experience in this matter, not only regarding the issues that we have been discussing, but in terms of Sir Igor Judge’s quote about the amount of legislation to be considered. I have certainly had to deal with such legislation as a practitioner.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that some of my best friends are solicitors, and that I have a great deal of respect for the profession. My concern about the sentencing council is that if it is dominated by such people, particularly judges, there is a danger that it will come to the misapprehension that what happens in court is the reality, whereas there is often a need to temper one’s knowledge of what happens in court with what happens afterwards. I certainly learned that as a magistrate, when I found that youngsters, despite the absolute clarity with which I delivered a sentence, had not totally understood what it was all about.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention, although I am not completely reassured when one uses the “my best friend is” argument, as it is often a cover for criticising that group of people. Nevertheless, I take his point about experience. Despite my experience, I do not seek a monopoly on this issue, and I think that we need to hear from those at the sharp end of sentencing and criminal justice system issues.
As a practitioner, when I am to contribute to debates on this issue, I often cast my mind back to times at youth court—I have often frequented the youth court for Enfield and Haringey—where I have spent a lot of time asking for adjournments when practitioners, learned clerks and magistrates have been flummoxed by which legislation they should deal with when sentencing young offenders. We have sought to straddle legislation going back for decades to try to work out which legislation had been implemented and which affected the relevant individual. It is important that we, and the Public Bill Committee that is considering the Coroners and Justice Bill, reflect on the past, and the Justice Committee’s report, as well as looking to the future.
The report is entitled, “Towards Effective Sentencing”, but I wonder whether any consideration was given to what we mean by effective sentencing. Certainly, there are important and effective pillars of sentencing—whether they are punishment, reparation, rehabilitation or work—that must figure in custodial or non-custodial sentences. Different people who are affected by the criminal justice system have a different answer to the problem—for example, if we consider what we hear from victims, they would have their own answer to what is effective.
It is important particularly to focus on victims in relation to the criminal justice system, and I am sure that the Committee would wish to do that—perhaps in a separate inquiry. However, I also question whether it would have been appropriate to do so in this inquiry—although it is understandable that that was not the case because there is only so much one can cover. The inquiry sought to traverse a number of fields that, even in the time we have today, we will not be able to cover in sufficient detail.
Nevertheless, the impact on victims is of key concern, and the Government have sought to improve matters surrounding that—whether in terms of victim impact statements, victim advocates, or other proposals that the Committee on the Coroners and Justice Bill is considering, such as having a victims commissioner. All those matters need proper scrutiny. Certainly we, as an Opposition, are concerned that although the Government have talked about victims and rebalancing the system, which sounds good in headlines, the reality for victims going through system is that they often feel let down. Perhaps we can leave that issue until the debate on the Coroners and Justice Bill, when we can raise those matters further.
I would like to give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that we did, indeed, see victims’ representatives—in fact, we were doing so only yesterday. One of things we found in the evidence we received for the report was that those victims—inevitably it is only a limited number—who were happy to go into restorative justice schemes, which involve victims confronting those who have committed a crime against them, tend to be particularly satisfied with the outcome. I emphasise that although it is only a small proportion of victims who can do that, it shows that it should not always be assumed that victims favour the most retributive form of dealing with an offender.
I am grateful for that intervention. The whole area of restorative justice has much to commend it, and it is perhaps one area of the justice system that has been the most piloted and reported on in an attempt to find the evidence that would justify it being extended. There has been reference to restorative justice, in past debates and Bill debates tand one concern is that such evaluations often try to find the jewel that we all want to find: what would reduce offending? That is what is often sought in terms of restorative justice, but I go further and think that it must play a key part in dealing with this issue—beyond simply seeing it as a mechanism to reduce offending. As a principle of restoration and reparation, restorative justice should be properly recognised in the system.
Reference has been made to the issue of reoffending and seeking to reduce it. The statistics make stark reading and impact severely on all our communities. There is an estimate—it has to be an estimate in many ways—of 65 per cent. reconvictions. I make that point because it is only in relation to the reconvictions about which we know that we are able to say that 65 per cent. of adults are reoffending. What is the figure in terms of actual reoffending—in other words, those who do not get to the criminal justice system?
The point has also been made that reoffending sadly increases when the offender is younger—the figure is 75 per cent. of 18-to-21 year olds and is even higher for those under 18. Therefore, the matter is of real concern to us all. Although the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth no doubt seeks to take some credit for being an architect of the Youth Justice Board and system, and I welcome the improvements in streamlining the service provided by youth offending teams, there is a concern about the high level of reoffending, particularly in relation to young offenders. More needs to be done to address that.
We all unite in relation to the importance of focusing on driving down reoffending rates; doing so is important and we need to go beyond simply reacting to the high-level prison population and resources. The report makes the point well that that issue seems to dominate the Government’s thinking and consideration. Indeed, it is an area on which I want to focus shortly, when we consider how the Government think future sentencing will operate by way of the sentencing council.
As the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth said, it is important to look at what works. As the Committee rightly said, the reality is that we do not really know what works because the evidence base is sadly lacking. One could talk to those who are at the sharp-end of the system or ask the youth offending teams, “What really works in terms of the programmes you are doing.” However, although there might be very good programmes that anecdotally seem to produce results, there is no clear evaluation to show exactly what works in terms of reducing reoffending. If one goes to the youth court and speaks to magistrates, they might have an idea, but they do not exactly know whether the sentences they impose have the effect that they hope for. Certainly, improving the involvement of such people in the reviews of sentencing and providing more information would help. However, it is important to recognise that there is a lack of real evaluation and evidence out there.
Similarly, if one visits—as I have—secure training centres, secure children’s homes and young offender institutes, one can see that there is much good work taking place in various institutions. However, beyond the doors of those places, little is known about what happens to a young offender outside, what the true impact of what has happened inside is and how that has affected life outside in resettlement. Perhaps we can all agree that there is often a lack of resettlement programmes and continuity with what has happened inside.
There are certain answers that we can come up with for what works. If one talks to the Youth Justice Board or to others—as it has, indeed, pointed out to me in a meeting today—housing, family ties and having a job help. Those three factors have a massive impact on someone when they have been released from prison. All too often, there is a lack of not just one, but all three of those factors in relation to helping drive down crime. We need to consider sentencing in relation to not only the process of what happens in court and the sentence that is handed down, but the effect of the sentence and how it is enforced both in custody and in a non-custodial setting. Crucially, we also need to consider what happens in the time after a sentence and ensure that the investment in trying to ensure that the offender does not reoffend is properly made out and given true value by resettlement.
That is why we have produced the document “Prisons with a Purpose”—if you will forgive me, Mr. Key, for advertising it. I have not got a signed copy here, but I certainly recommend that all hon. Members read it. We would say that a key part of providing effective sentencing is to improve accountability, which is so lacking throughout the system. In terms of the adult prison estates, we must ensure that a prison governor, through a prison rehabilitation trust, has that accountability. Indeed, payment by results would ensure that rehabilitation programmes in prison drove down the risks of reoffending, that there was involvement outside on resettlement and that there was housing, a family connection and a job. That would very much help to reduce high reoffending rates.
The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) focused particularly on the prison population, which is an issue of concern to all. The Government and everyone no doubt want to ensure that we reduce the high prison population. Various explanations for it have been given and, indeed, debated. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) mentioned the matter in relation to extending climate factors. Indeed, I visited the Youth Justice Board today at the office where it places offenders in various institutes, and it made particular reference to the key impact of climate. Indeed, on Monday, the snow had an effect: not only did it stop many people from going to work and the buses, but it had a distinct impact by preventing criminals from committing crime. They were disinclined to do so in the cold, and custodial pressures were therefore reduced because of the bad weather—although I am not sure how we can respond to that impact in policy terms. People do not know about the factors that reduce crime, because the evidence is not out there, but one factor is climate. I shall not, however, press that point at any policy level.
Beyond climate, there are three factors that we should take seriously. They provide an explanation for the prison population crisis—and it is a crisis. First, there is the rise in serious and violent crime, which inevitably means that judges and magistrates send violent criminals to prison for longer. Reference was made to the imprisonment for public protection sentence and its effect on the prison population. Secondly, and crucially, Government failure has put us in our current position, and that was made clear in the Justice Committee’s report. The Government ignored the trend and consequences of their legislation and failed to provide sufficient capacity, which was significant. Thirdly, Government policy has had an impact on implementation. Inappropriate top-down targets and bureaucratic experiments have paralysed the system affecting prison governors, probation officers and the whole mission of end-to-end offender management, because they have not allowed the reoffending reduction drive, which we all want, to have its true impact.
We should unite and find the consensus that the Justice Committee hoped for in the optimistic note at the end of its report. We can unite on the issue of reducing the prison population. We have committed ourselves in the long term to do so, but it will happen only by designing community punishments that are successful in reducing reoffending, and in ensuring that the flow of people into the custodial system is reduced and the focus in prisons is on reducing offending once prisoners are released.
The Committee’s report is entitled “Towards Effective Sentencing”, but the public demand not only effective sentencing but honest sentencing. Sentencing is a real concern and public confidence in it is a real issue. Someone sitting at the back of a court today may feel that sentences being imposed are dishonest, because they do not understand how long a sentence will be served. They hear a sentence of two or three years imposed, and they expect it to be served, but automatic release halfway through a sentence means that the sentence imposed bears little relation to reality.
We say that there must be greater honesty: an honesty that impacts on reoffending reduction and relates to the sentence’s conditions. Sentences should state the minimum time that will be served, and the maximum that will be served unless the offender complies with certain conditions. They should be focused on reducing reoffending and on rehabilitation to make them responsible for getting out earlier, rather than it just happening, as it often does now, by the back door—by executive order through early release schemes that ensure sentences bear little relation to those imposed in court.
We have had a useful and wide-ranging debate that has touched on many aspects of the report. The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) referred to the issue of vulnerable people in the criminal justice system. Indeed, she was present when we debated women in the criminal justice system and the Government’s response to the vulnerabilities of women in prison. The reality, which has been highlighted today and in the report, is that most women receive shorter prison sentences than men, and the issue of the prison custodial estate is brought to the fore when we deal with women, because women on remand consistently represent about 25 per cent. of the total female prison population. The Committee’s report also referred to research that highlights the often troubled lives that women prisoners lead prior to incarceration. Before entering prison, almost half of all female prisoners report a measure of drug dependency. Sadly, many women suffer a history of violence and abuse, and they are over-represented in the criminal justice system, as up to 50 per cent. of women in prison report having experienced violence at home, compared with only one quarter of men. Furthermore, one in three women in prison has suffered sexual abuse, compared with just under one in 10 men.
The majority of women in prison are relatively young, because only 16 per cent. are aged 40 years old or more, but, more than 60 per cent. of women in prison are mothers, and 45 per cent. had children living with them at the time of imprisonment. The Prison Reform Trust, which gave evidence to the Committee, estimates that more than 17,000 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment each year. Home Office research has found that 66 per cent. of female prisoners are mothers, and they are no doubt affected.
We must consider how the Government have followed up Baroness Corston’s good report, which we debated some months ago. The Government are particularly weak—not least because the elephant in the room is Lord Carter’s titan prison proposal—on Baroness Corston’s recommendation whereby she said:
“The Government should announce within six months a clear strategy to replace existing women’s prisons with suitable, geographically dispersed, small, multi-functional custodial centres within 10 years.”
There have been many discussions about reviews, but there has been no reassurance that the Government are wholly committed to go down that route. It would have a dramatic effect on the conditions of women’s prisons, and we must go beyond the consideration of putting them in different units to the underlying causes—not least drug dependency—that require other settings.
The Government have given us their view that such small custodial units are too small, and my emphasis has been on working from the bottom up by trying to secure community resources to stop women going to prison, but does the hon. Gentleman want his party to implement the small units that Baroness Corston recommended?
I would not want to engage in the detail of the design and diameters of any unit, but we have endorsed the principle of smaller, localised units. Indeed, we did so in our “Prisons With A Purpose” document. There is a price tag attached to that approach, but we must go down that route, see how we can make it practically possible and do more to address the high cost of incarcerating such vulnerable women, and the appalling life consequences for them and their families, because that has a price tag, too. More should be done to ensure that we go down that route.
I commend the Committee on highlighting the failings of the Government’s sentencing approach. They include, the plethora of ill-considered and reactive legislation; the failure to plan for the introduction of indeterminate sentences; the inappropriate warehousing of mentally ill prisoners, whom we have not had the opportunity to discuss, but who are a key concern; the lack of judicial and public confidence in community penalties; the massive overcrowding; and the almost 50,000 criminals who are released early. They represent a damning verdict on the Government, particularly in terms of providing sufficient prison capacity—despite numerous warnings that their building programme was inadequate.
The Government have responded to the Committee inadequately in many ways. One area where they perhaps had an excuse not to be particularly comprehensive in their response was the recommendations on longer-term mechanisms to provide structure in sentencing. The Committee referred to that, but the Government said that they were waiting for the report of the Sentencing Commission Working Group, and that it would be part of their response. That was understandable but no longer applies. The Government have received the report and we now see that it has its own form within the Coroners and Justice Bill. I wish to spend the next few minutes concentrating on that, because while the context of the Committee’s deliberations was the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and how it has affected legislation, we should also have a mind to the future, which is where we are now.
It is important that amidst the background of overcrowding and sky-high reoffending rates, the Government have sought to deal with inadequate prison capacity by seeking ways to link the overall sentencing framework to prison capacity, and to devise a formal mechanism for structured sentencing framework by which the Executive could exert managerial control over both sentencing and the judiciary.
So we had Lord Carter’s review of prisons in December 2007, which recommended a sentencing commission to replace the Sentencing Guidelines Council. It is important to note that the council had been in existence for only a few short years, and evidence of its success or failure was thin on the ground. Lord Carter nevertheless proceeded to recommend one model in particular, that of a “pioneering” Minnesota-like grid system of sentencing guidelines, which would restrict judges’ independence and ability to sentence, as was historically done, on the facts of the case before them, thereby fettering discretion and compelling judges to treat every case the same. With that model—indeed, the model that Lord Carter originally wanted—the Government would have ensured certainty of outcome; theoretically, the managerial approach that Lord Carter seemed to suggest would predict, as in Minnesota, exactly how many prison places would be required for any given period.
The response bordered on the contemptuous. Sir Igor Judge stated:
“The point about the judicial discretion is that a judge is trying to do justice in the individual case and that is what he must be allowed to do. If I may say so, it does not matter what guidance is offered, what framework comes up, if that is interfered with, then we are going down a very strange route.”
The Magistrates Association followed that up by stating:
“Sentencing is a discrete art that requires the careful application of judicial discretion and common sense in every case to address the seriousness of the particular offence and the circumstances of the individual offender. Restriction of sentencing discretion would be a retrograde step.”
The Justice Secretary pressed on, and we had the working group led by Lord Justice Gage to assess the feasibility of the proposed sentencing commission for England and Wales. The response to Lord Carter’s so-called pioneering proposal was aptly summed up by Michael Zander, QC:
“Carter’s main idea that a Minnesota-type sentencing grid system should be adopted in to make it possible to fit sentencing to available prison places has been comprehensively rejected. Not one of the bodies or academic experts who responded supported it. In fact, they rubbished it. The idea is dead in the water. That reflects little credit either on Lord Carter or, it has to be said, on his team of civil servants. They got it massively wrong.”
We then move on to the Justice Secretary’s contention that
“some method must be found of linking resources to the setting of the sentencing framework”.
The working group’s response was that that would be inappropriate and would involve major changes that would end up
“compromising our overarching commitment to justice.”
It added that Carter’s proposal to manage the supply of and demand for prison places was
“overly formulaic and mechanistic to the extent that it is inimical to our tradition of judicial discretion.”
Despite this opposition and the working group’s recommendation that the Government should take an evolutionary approach, rather than set up a new body, the Secretary of State for Justice has gone ahead with the plans for a new sentencing council, under the Coroners and Justice Bill, which will replace the Sentencing Guidelines Council after just a few years of its being in operation. These plans are deeply worrying in respect of justice and proper sentencing, because effective sentencing cannot just be dealt with by way of a managerial approach to ensure that we deal with prison capacity and resources.
I invite the Minister to respond to a number of questions. On the submission that the proposals would severely restrict judicial discretion, the Government are effectively mandating that guidelines must be followed unless it is in the interests of justice not to do so. The proposals on the guidelines will now be so comprehensive and detailed, dealing with every imaginable scenario and level of seriousness, that it will be impossible, in many ways, for a judge or magistrate to justify, in the interests of justice, that he should depart from the guidelines.
Where is the evidence that judges and magistrates are not following sentencing guidelines? We have talked a lot in the Justice Committee about evidence and what works. Where is the evidence base for this significant departure, which many are concerned about? Can the Minister rebut the concern about the reality, which is that the Ministry of Justice does not collect any data on this issue and does not have any real idea how compliant the judiciary is with the guidelines?
The working group, which was charged with the task of trying to come up with a model, must have looked high and low for some data and evidence that could form the basis of its recommendations. However, it found none, so it had to create its own evidence base. Over a month-long survey timed to coincide with the publication of the report it looked at 222 sentences in the Crown court for just four offences and found 71 that were above the guideline ranges for the relevant level of seriousness. Given that hundreds of thousands of sentences are handed down each year, can the Minister properly justify that the Government’s effectively stripping away the discretion and independence of our judiciary, based on the so-called evidence of just 71 sentences, is an appropriate course of action? The Government’s response, even today, may be that the new council will bring consistency to sentencing, but that is a canard—a lame one. However, Lord Carter based his review not on the existence of geographical sentencing disparity and not on any real evidence, as the Committee Chairman has highlighted, but on the urgent policy needs to manage the prison population. That is not an effective motivation—it is not wholly understandable—on which to seek to formulate a policy on sentencing guidance.
There is already a duty on the Sentencing Guidelines Council to promote consistency in sentencing. A study in 2007 conducted by the Ministry of Justice found that consistency in sentencing had been greatly improved in the past few years. Have there been any further studies suggesting that that is not so? Will the Minister respond to the work of the Judicial Studies Board, which is, through case studies, trying to ensure that there is adequate training and education for judges so that consistency is applied? Has that work been rejected as not being worthy of continuing? Why do the Government seem intent on fettering judicial discretion in this way? Are they, as seems to be the case, wholly motivated by an acceptance of a failure to provide adequate capacity in prison accommodation and are they seeking a mechanism by which to manage down the prison population, effectively, by the back door? I pray in aid the argument made by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, who may wish to make a similar point when this clause is debated by the Bill Committee. The driver of resources in respect of the prison population seems to be to the fore when it comes to the proposal for the sentencing council.
We already have ineffective sentencing in the criminal justice system, because there is much sentencing by the back door. The sentencing working group made the point that, when it comes to early release, that has the potential to bring the criminal justice system into disrepute. In fact, I shall go further and say that it is doing just that. The Government are grasping around in the end times, with their last gasp, trying to find solutions to problems that are, in many ways, of their own making. They want to manage the sentencing, because they have failed to manage the capacity of the prison estate. Without the certainty that the judiciary will follow their prescriptive guidelines to the letter, the Government cannot ensure that this framework will fit the capacity.
As has been said on many occasions, linking the framework to resources is wrong in principle. The sentence should fit the crime, not jail capacity. The Government might respond by saying that individual sentences will not be affected by the availability of prison places, but that is not the charge against them. In fact, the problem is much worse, because every sentence might now be affected by the availability of prison places. If prison populations are under pressure, as indeed they are, the Government might seek to reduce sentencing ranges across the board for a given offence. Will the Minister assure the Chamber that the proposed new sentencing council will never produce a guideline to weaken the sentencing ranges simply to dig the Government out of the hole that they have dug for themselves?
The proposals are particularly worrying given the Justice Secretary’s direction to use community sentences instead of short prison sentences. The Justice Committee referred to the inadequacy of short prison sentences. I understand the argument that the rehabilitation possible during a short period is limited and has a limited impact. However, the answer should not be to direct the provision of community sentences rather than the imposition of prison sentences, as the Justice Secretary has pleaded, time and again. Let us leave aside the fact that magistrates can use custodial sentences only as a last resort and that only one in 10 of those coming before magistrates for short sentences are there for the first time—others will have previous convictions and many will have had community sentences imposed that have not been completed or had their desired effect. Will the Minister recognise that prisoners serving short jail sentences make up a small proportion of the total number of prisoners in our jails?
Is the Government’s prime desire to reduce the prison population? Directing a community sentence approach could reduce the population by 7,000 and water down 60,000 sentences. Surely, however, the problem of short sentencing should be dealt with by ensuring that community sentences work, are much more robust and have the confidence of the judiciary and the public, rather than by seeking to supplant what magistrates should properly be doing. Taken together, in many ways, the report provides the recipe for the dangerous cocktail that the Government have provided within the criminal justice system. It is dangerous to the future and the past, and is raising many concerns; to the traditions of our criminal justice system; to judicial discretion and independence, which would be severely curtailed; and to victims of crime, who want to see justice done, not avoided because the Government have failed in their duty to build adequate capacity.
I wish to end not on a gloomy note, but on the optimism at the end of the report. Such debates require as much cross-party consensus as possible. It is not good for the debate to be dealt with by way of headlines and the tabloid response. We need to move forward and ensure that opinion moves with us. That could be done through drawing on the Justice Committee’s other inquiry on justice reinvestment, which I commend. Communities need greater ownership of the criminal justice system.
In many ways, prison policy is a hidden world; it is hidden away from local communities, which have little involvement in that area. Certainly with regard to youth offending, we need much more consideration of how the local community and the local authority by way of budgets can have greater involvement and a greater incentive to know exactly why people are going into custody and how that can be prevented. In the context of the inquiry and future report on justice reinvestment, there are hopes of a brighter future in which we can unite to ensure that we provide effective sentencing. We await future debates on that.
It is a pleasure to engage in the debate under your stewardship, Mr. Key; I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to it. Informed debate about sentencing policy is always welcome. I thank the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith)—gorgeous Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is matched in its beauty only by Dewsbury—for the work that he and the Committee that he chairs have done and for the report they have produced. It is a very important contribution to the debate and one that many right hon. and hon. Members highlighted in their speeches.
That said, I do not believe that the critical thrust of the report is quite correct. I do not accept that there have been serious failures in sentencing policy or that there has been under-resourcing of its implementation in the way that was described. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 sets out a clear framework designed to protect the public and to punish and rehabilitate offenders. That is complemented by non-statutory work to improve the quality of non-custodial sentences. We have made available to the courts a comprehensive range of effective sentences, both custodial and community.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the prison population and the challenges in that respect. I think that we would all concur with what he said. The reality is that we have been attempting to back up the 2003 Act with adequate resources. Since 1997, we have increased prison capacity by more than 23,000 places. As has been stated, we are committed to increasing it to 96,000 places by 2014. Over the same period, the number of probation service staff has increased by more than 7,000, and probation resources have increased by nearly 70 per cent. in real terms. For 2008-09, probation areas received an overall direct increase in their grant of 6.5 per cent., and we have recently provided further investment in intensive alternatives to custody.
The results of that policy and spending commitment are plain. This is the first Government since the war to cut crime and to do so by one third generally. As has been stated, we have reduced household burglary by 50 per cent. and car crime by almost 60 per cent. We have created safer communities through firm punishments that not only deter but reform.
Prison sentences that punish and reform are a vital part of the justice strategy that has contributed to the fall in crime. Lord Carter’s report was a key contribution to the debate on the use of custody and we are grateful for his valuable work, although I detect that it is not appreciated by all. Prison is the right place for the most serious, violent and seriously persistent offenders. We will always ensure that there are enough prison places for such offenders.
I will come to that point later in my speech.
We believe that the approach that I have set out is the right approach and the one that will best protect the public. The courts must be able to punish with imprisonment when the offence is sufficiently serious and when they consider that only imprisonment will suffice—for example, when they need to protect the community from seriously persistent offenders. I welcome the Committee’s recognition that, when properly used, public protection sentences can be a necessary, effective and proportionate penal intervention. The first duty of any Government is to keep the public safe. Protecting them from known dangerous offenders, possibly for a very long time, is entirely appropriate, and public protection sentences make a significant contribution to that. I cannot accept the accusation that there was inadequate planning for the introduction of those sentences. The increase in newly convicted public protection prisoners has been broadly in line with the projections and has not yet had a significant impact on prison capacity. Prisoners who have received such sentences would previously have received lengthy, determinate sentences: they are not new prisoners.
The Minister claims that the legislation has been properly considered. The Prison Reform Trust, which prepared the report “Mitigation: the role of personal factors in sentencing”, said that a judge described the Criminal Justice Act 2003 as “law on the hoof”. The judge went on to say
“that policy makers have no desire to consult; and even if they did consult, the last people they would speak to would be judges”.
Does the Minister know whether the judiciary was properly consulted and considered in relation to the 2003 Act?
Despite the Minister’s encouraging me not to intervene, I thank him very much for giving way. He said that it was all planned and that everything was going fine. In that case, can he comment on why changes were introduced in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 to revoke the proposals included in the 2003 Act that caught my constituent, Mr. W?
If I am giving the impression that everything is perfect, I have to say that that is clearly not the case. The system has never been perfect. Our job is to examine it, review it and improve it. In that sense, we planned for the general thrust of what was expected. Of course, there are exceptions. Unfortunately, the example that the hon. Gentleman drew our attention to is a case in point. I note that a number of weeks has elapsed and that he has not had a response. I say now that he should expect a response by the end of February. I hope that my officials are listening to that and I am not putting them in too tough a spot, although I am sure that I am not.
We have recognised that the shortness of the tariff given to many prisoners has caused serious problems for a prison system that, in many instances, has not been able to prepare prisoners for parole in time for their parole hearing. Of course it is unsatisfactory if prisoners are not assessed for release in good time. We responded to that challenge by introducing, in January 2008, a new streamlined process for assessing and managing public protection prisoners. Resources have been directed towards early assessment and prioritisation of places on offending behaviour programmes. In addition, funding of £3 million was made available in 2007-08 specifically for the management of indeterminate-sentence prisoners. A further £3 million has been allocated for this financial year.
We have also responded to increased pressures on the Parole Board, to which many right hon. and hon. Members referred. The Parole Board’s budget has increased by 50 per cent. over the past five years. Steps have been taken to recruit more judicial members, and various measures to reduce the board’s work load on things that are not key to its role of dealing with dangerous offenders, such as the introduction of fixed-term recall, will provide relief in respect of the overall volume of cases.
In addition, to address capacity issues, Her Majesty’s Courts Service has made more judicial time available from September 2008 to March 2009. Modelling work is being undertaken to identify and agree the necessary judicial time for future years. To prevent similar problems in future, we have made changes to the design of the public protection sentence through the 2008 Act. The changes will minimise the number of such sentences with very short tariffs and give wide discretion to courts, the better to target the sentences on the most dangerous offenders. We believe that that refocusing will make public protection sentences still more effective. We will continue to monitor the number of the sentences, and we welcome the Committee’s intention to keep a close eye on the impact of those important changes.
I just want to give the Minister some friendly advice. Having said that things worked out according to plan, he then said that they did not work out according to plan, so the Government are responding by doing various things to make the IPP sentence more useful and deliverable. It would be helpful to his future career if, when things go wrong, he casts aside the phrases that civil servants give him so that he can explain that everything was intentional, and actually say, “It went wrong and we’re doing something about it.”
I am grateful for any advice I can get, especially from experienced right hon. Gentlemen. I thought that I had made the general point that there is no such thing as a perfect system. The Government believe that we were broadly on cue. There were some tweaks, and there will be more. That kind of process has been with us since the beginning of Parliament.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed talked about the pace and volume of legislation and the fact that those change constantly. We recognise that practitioners need less frequent changes in the law. However, we need to balance the requirement for stability with ensuring that the law is responsive to fast-moving developments in a dynamic society, and to changing demands from the public and practitioners.
On youth offending, the right hon. Gentleman talked about the international dimension, focusing on Finland. Custody must always remain an option for serious violent young offenders and persistent young offenders, but we are committed to reducing the use of custody for youth offenders generally. The introduction of the youth conditional caution and wider use of referral orders will extend out-of-court disposals for young offenders and build on the success of the referral order. The new youth rehabilitation order will be implemented at the end of November when guidelines on its use from the Sentencing Guidelines Council are available. Courts will be required, before reaching a decision on custody, to have considered the alternative of a youth rehabilitation order with intensive supervision and surveillance or intensive fostering.
On reoffending, in the six years to 2006, there has been a 23 per cent. reduction in the number of offences committed by offenders within one year of discharge from prison or commencement of a court order under probation supervision. In 2006, the number of offences committed by people in the year after discharge from prison was 2.1 each, and 1.2 each for those sentenced to court orders. However, the sentence is based on the type of offence committed, the criminal history of the offender, and their needs. In general, offenders who receive a prison sentence are more likely to have committed many previous offences and have needs linked to a greater likelihood of reoffending.
There has been much discussion of community sentencing. In general, we share the Committee’s view that short prison sentences are not always the most satisfactory approach for certain offenders. The most effective way of turning some away from crime is a tough community sentence in which they may pay back their debt to society as a punishment and have the opportunity to redress their offending behaviour. We have therefore created more flexible sentencing options for courts, including, for less serious offences, the generic community order, which enables the court to tailor sentences to the offence and the offender.
It is absolutely correct that we believe that victims and witnesses ought to be at the centre of any criminal justice system. That is why we have increased investment threefold since 1999 in that area of work. The right hon. Gentleman also discussed the issue of women and vulnerable groups in our prisons. We have heard from one of the projects, the women’s turnaround project, which has a wonderful advocate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), who would advocate it only if she truly believed that the initiative was making a big difference to the lives of women in her constituency.
We are committed to doing much more work—we talked about the initial £15.6 million over two years—to consider how we work with women to find alternatives to custody. It is absolutely the case that where necessary, custody will be used, but we are clear that on many occasions it ought not to be used. We must find the support framework to allow it not to be used. I am interested in the Women’s Turnaround Project. I have not been to Cardiff to visit it, but I have heard quite a bit about it, and we have provided good direct funding to it.
With respect to the speculative hint about future funding, I am told that the £15.6 million will be subject to a grants process. We cannot say at this stage which areas will be awarded funding, as that will be decided case by case according to the specification outline. People should rest assured that we want to invest in areas that are successful as well as in innovations that might act as pilots and be successful. Coming from a grants background, I am a great believer in putting money at risk for new ideas and new pilots. Quite often, great successes result.
We are engaging in work to determine the costs of all community sentences. Everything will have a cost attached to it within the next few years, and probation areas have a work load management tool now. Unit costs are being calculated, probably as we speak, which will prove useful.
On short custodial sentences, community sentences are a core part of the criminal justice system. As a proportion of all sentences passed, community sentences have increased from one in 10 in 1997 to one in seven in 2007. More than 6 million hours of community payback are completed every year. Since 1997, the probation service has increased in size, as I said, by some 7,000 staff and has had a 70 per cent. increase in funding in real terms. We are also allocating some £40 million to the probation service in 2008 and 2009 so that sentencers can be more confident that resources are in place to deliver effective community punishments. In addition, we are developing several intensive “alternative to custody” demonstrator projects, which will receive almost £14 million over three years.
Several international comparisons on prison numbers have already taken place, and it is true that England and Wales is relatively high on the list: at the end of 2007 in England and Wales there were 149 prisoners for every 100,000 of the overall population—the second highest proportion in western Europe. The highest was Luxembourg, with 155. Spain had 148 and Scotland had 142. It is also true that in 2004 England and Wales had the lowest proportion of untried prisoners in Europe, which we perhaps do not speak about that often.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) brings significant experience to the debate, as someone who has worked in the community as both a Minister and a magistrate. I noted his comments very carefully indeed, not least because I know that he would bend my ear if I did otherwise.
One of the statutory purposes of sentencing set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 was to reduce reoffending, and that is absolutely clear. The Sentencing Guidelines Council has a remit to consider the effectiveness of sentences, and the proposed new sentencing council will have a similar remit. My right hon. Friend was absolutely right when he talked about the need for robust community orders that will have a positive impact on reoffending, and we know that they do.
My right hon. Friend was correct when he said that the public lacked confidence in community sentences, which is a big challenge for us. I know that the high-visibility orange vests have been slightly controversial in some quarters. I have recently visited several schemes, and one individual in a scheme in Kent did not want to wear the vest because he worked for an organisation there and was known in the area. It certainly would act as a deterrent for him. Some people say that it is humiliating, but the object is not to humiliate people, but to ensure that the community and the public can see that justice is being done, that a community sentence and payback are not a soft option, that it does not just disappear and that it actually happens. It is not there to humiliate people, but it is not a bad thing if it acts as a deterrent. The idea is to ensure that the community and the public can see that justice is being done—quite literally in this case.
My right hon. Friend also argued that judges and magistrates could gain a better knowledge of sentencing by visiting community payback schemes, and that that would enable them to consider the schemes in a more appropriate manner on occasions. The Bradley review and the Corston review looked at vulnerable groups in society, and as has been mentioned, the Bradley review is more or less with us, if indeed it is not already there. We hope that some of that work will have a major impact on cutting offending and reoffending.
To remove any possible confusion, I will say that, with regard to the sentencing council, there will be no American-style grid. There will be no connection between individual sentencing decisions and correctional resources, or between the framing of guidelines and correctional resources, which is an important point to make. I hope that those who suggested that that might be the case will not repeat what has now been corrected. If someone repeats something that is incorrect, even though it has been corrected, they obviously have less interest in the truth than in securing political points, but I am sure that that is not the case for anybody who is here in Westminster Hall now.
I was almost tempted to intervene on that point, because I raised the issue about the potential within the proposals for the sentencing council to fetter judicial discretion. However, I want to put aside any political points and deal with the issues raised by the Justice Committee about evidence, which should form the basis of the proposals. Where is the evidence—there did not seem to be any in the working group’s recommendations—for the Government to pursue the model that they are pursuing?
Evidence is an issue that I will come to very shortly. It is not an issue that is being ducked in any shape or form. I will also link my comments on evidence to the remarks that were made earlier about the Carter review.
A point was made about probation efficiency savings. It is expected that areas will meet the efficiency targets by adopting best practice and changing ways of working, supported by the specifications benchmarking costing programme, which aims to identify service specifications and their costs. The programme will provide options for the National Offender Management Service board and Ministers, by illustrating the optimum processes within budget allocations.
There has rightly been a big focus on what works. There is considerable evidence that general offending behaviour programmes work. We have increased the number of people taking those programmes each year to about 20,000. There is also evidence that other forms of intervention, such as drug treatment, affect reoffending and that basic skills help offenders to find employment. As a Government, we have a very proud track record of increasing thirteenfold the investment in drug programmes in our prisons, which is absolutely unprecedented. Of course, there is also a determined focus on basic skills, because we know that the majority of prisoners have literacy skills that are no better than those of an 11-year-old child. There are some big challenges in that respect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) talked about changes in sentencing policy and practice. He mentioned the “Story of the Prison Population 1995-2007”; I think that he called it an obscure publication. However, I am sure that, having read it, he will agree that it is also very informative.
I know that my hon. Friend was also interested in what I suppose are back-door sentencing issues. I must say that a rigorous approach to breaches is essential, both to promote compliance on the part of the offender and to ensure public confidence in the criminal justice system. In the case of breaches of licence, recall to prison is an effective tool in preventing any relapse by prisoners.
Regarding relapse management, we do not agree that offenders are routinely recalled for minor infringements; that is a bit of mythology. In 2007, there was an examination of the reasons for recall. It was found that about 25 per cent. of those who had been recalled were recalled because they had committed new offences. It was also found that almost all the remaining 75 per cent. of people who had been recalled were recalled not simply for failing to keep in touch with the authorities, but for various reasons that indicated a rising concern about an escalating risk of reoffending and of causing serious public harm.
We wholly support an approach to the enforcement of community orders that concentrates on compliance with the sentence of the court. In July 2008, Her Majesty’s Courts Service launched “Criminal Compliance and Enforcement Services,” a blueprint for the period from 2008 to 2012. In the same month, the revised best practice guide on compliance was issued to probation areas. That has since been complemented by detailed case studies.
Custody plus was mentioned many times. We regret that it has not so far been possible to implement it and we have to be honest and say—perhaps I am learning—that that is regrettable. We are glad that the Committee recognises that to implement it without the required resources would be counter-productive.
There is some provision for resettlement for offenders released after short custodial sentences, notably through the Home Office’s drug intervention programmes with prison teams and other locally supported schemes. The National Offender Management Service is also developing a project called layered offender management—I know that does not roll off the tongue as well as might be hoped—which aims to ensure that all prisoners, however short their sentence, have a consistent assessment of their risks and a plan to address those risks, particularly focusing on resettlement into the community. None the less, we are keen to explore other options to support offenders released from short custody. One such initiative is the Home Office and Ministry of Justice sponsored integrated offender management programme, which is testing new approaches to providing supervision and rehabilitation services to offenders via police-probation-prison partnerships. Integrated offender management emphasises access to services to help the offender to reintegrate into their community, while holding them responsible for their actions. We will, of course, evaluate that programme to examine the advantages and costs of such an approach.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test mentioned better guidelines. We will replace the Sentencing Guidelines Council and the Sentencing Advisory Panel with a new sentencing council and significantly enhance its role in collecting data and monitoring the guidelines. Although there will be a stronger obligation on sentencers to follow the guidelines, they will remain free to depart from them in the interests of justice. Those guidelines will also help to build public trust in sentencing, which is crucial.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth talked about the victims commissioner. It is not currently intended that the victims commissioner will take complaints directly. There is currently a route for victims to take complaints against failures outlined in the victims code of practice to the parliamentary ombudsman. However, we accept that the route for complaints may be complicated and we are looking at how this system operates. The victims commissioner may see value in investigating how the process could be improved.
I should like to make it clear that I suggested that the victims and witnesses commissioner should ensure that the different bits of this complex system undertake the investigations, not that he or she should undertake them. However, having one place to go and having a friend on their side, as it were, would help to simplify the system for victims and witnesses without having to restructure the whole system in respect of dealing with complaints. I hope that I succeed in tabling an amendment, as the Bill goes through Parliament, to assist the Minister in considering that option.
That is a helpful clarification and suggestion on how we might move forward. As ever, I thank my right hon. Friend for his support in the interests of justice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North focused on young people and on the issue of women, which I shall come on to in a moment. In the youth action plan, we set out our view that custody is for serious, violent and persistent offenders and will be used when other interventions would not adequately protect the public from harm or where they have not worked. The threshold for custody for under-18s is already significantly higher than for adults and for the younger age groups it is higher still. Our aim is to drive down offending by juveniles and young people. The level of custody for those groups will be a consequence of that aim.
Obviously, my hon. Friend was right when she spoke about the tabloid press. The situation is incredibly difficult. On occasion, some elements of the media, or perhaps all the media—let us be fair, it is not always all the media—have been guilty of taking the exception and presenting it as the rule. Opposition Members have been equally guilty of that on occasion. However, that damages public confidence in the criminal justice system and often causes unnecessary anxiety and fear.
My hon. Friend was right to talk about women and young people. I am pleased that we have accepted 40 of the 43 recommendations in the Corston review. Young people have been mentioned. We have criminal justice boards and the Bradley review on mental health services, which has more or less reported. She was right to highlight the challenge of young people in care and the need for joined-upness, which Governments have battled with for many decades. A multi-agency approach at the local level is crucial.
My hon. Friend was right when she said that it is important to sustain initiatives such as the Women’s Turnaround Project, which is clearly working and making a difference. After all, in a world of finite resources, our job is to target resources where we get the most impact for our investment. I was impressed by the passionate way in which she spoke about that initiative in her constituency, and I will be pleased at some point in the near future to visit Cardiff and the project. I am pleased that in 2009 we will provide a further £200,000 for that initiative.
I have already talked about the massive, unprecedented increase in the drugs programmes in prisons. I do not think that I have to labour the point—thirteen-fold says it all. I also spoke about the basic skills challenge and the need to continue to invest in basic skills, so that people who leave prison are given the best possible opportunity to avoid ending up back in the very place that they have left.
There is so much more that I want to say. I apologise in advance if I am unable to address questions and points—it is only because of a shortage of time.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) spoke about my shuffling papers. Indeed, I have been shuffling a lot of papers this afternoon, as hon. Members have seen, but I promise that I will not just shuffle papers. I hope that we can make some tangible differences as we work together. In many ways, I see this as a partnership between the Government and the Select Committee. Although some of the things that are said on occasion may be perceived as criticism, they are actually useful and welcome, and long may that be the case.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about imprisonment beyond the tariff period and some of the difficulties with that. I have already touched on the issue and shall say more shortly. On community orders, the important thing is that they have been more robustly enforced since 1997. At that time, only some 40 per cent. were enforced, according to standards. Now the rate is consistently above target at more than 90 per cent., which helps to convince sentencers that those options are not soft but tough, because they are enforced.
I confess that I used to reside in the constituency of the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), but at a time when people there were more particular about which political party they supported at general elections. Those were great days; c’est la vie. He adds something by virtue of the experience that he brings to the issues. I will try to address some of his concerns, although I will not be able to address them all.
On restorative justice, the witness and victim experience survey shows that only 7 per cent. of victims were offered the opportunity to participate in a restorative justice scheme. More needs to be done to raise awareness of the benefits to victims and to encourage the criminal justice system to provide restorative justice and victims to take part in it. The National Criminal Justice Board has therefore encouraged local criminal justice boards to consider how restorative justice approaches for adult offenders could contribute to their delivering on their priorities, particularly their priorities on victim and public confidence, and be included in their delivery plans.
We are working with stakeholders, including the Restorative Justice Consortium, to develop a victim-focused adult restorative justice strategy that will build on learning from pilots. There is probably a lot to be said on what works. Research evaluation supports a positive assessment of programmes for prolific and other priority offenders. Although no firm conclusions can be drawn at this stage on the specific impact of PPO schemes on offending levels, the results are none the less encouraging, particularly given the fact that different elements of the evaluation all suggest movement in the same direction. A comparison of total convictions in the 17 months before and after the programme showed at 43 per cent. reduction in PPO offending. A comparison between the start of the scheme and 17 months later showed a 62 per cent. reduction in convictions and a sharp reduction in PPO offending after entry into the scheme.
I shall touch on capacity and early releases, which is where things get a bit party political. Perhaps I should not waste the two minutes or so left on party politics, but there are dozens of examples of previous Administrations releasing thousands, if not tens of thousands, of prisoners overnight for various reasons, saying that it was short-term, although it quickly became much more than short-term. He who is without sin should cast the first stone.
It is interesting how global warming has appeared in this debate—the hon. Member for Hazel Grove talked about hot spots, and we heard about the snows of Southgate—but I am pleased that it did not prevent anybody from coming here to engage in this important debate. In conclusion, there are some fundamental issues that I wanted to discuss but have not had the time to. I apologise; I will try to answer in writing any questions that I feel are fundamental that I could not cover during this debate.
I thank hon. Members, particularly the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, whose Committee report has been the catalyst for a rich discussion of some important issues. Inevitably, what I have been able to say in this relatively short time—it was admittedly longer than I thought—has not dealt with all the points made. It is a testament to the richness of this debate that when we came in, we thought that it might not go on until 5.30; I think that it could go until 5.30 tomorrow. We will continue to listen to the arguments and consider the evidence so that sentencers can be shown that they have the powers and resources to deal firmly and effectively with criminals and so that the public can be confident that we will continue to cut crime.
Question put and agreed to.