I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, which is really about what we think prisons are for. In an answer to a recent parliamentary question, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), said:
“The National Offender Management Service is undertaking a budget review process… to determine the budget for prisons in 2010-11.”
She added that
“prisons are using indicative guidelines of a 5 per cent. budget reduction but their final budgets will not be determined until the review process is complete, later this year.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2009; Vol. 501, c. 448W.]
Let me make it clear to the House that I readily acknowledge that, given both main parties have said that they will ring-fence spending on health and international development, consequential spending reductions in other Departments are inevitable whoever wins the general election next year. We all have to be sufficiently grown up to acknowledge that. We certainly need to acknowledge it in the presence of my colleague, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who is a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
The thrust of what I want to get across to the House this afternoon is that cutting prison budgets per se is the wrong approach. We send people to prison because society believes it an appropriate punishment and to deter others from committing similar offences. However, the punishment is the deprivation of liberty for a period of time. We should be using prison and the time that people spend there to ensure that when they leave they have the skills, competences and qualifications to ensure that they do not reoffend.
There are two truly depressing things in this. First, when I visit HM prison Bullingdon, which is a local prison for Oxfordshire and the Thames valley, I meet a large number of men—a huge proportion—who are involved in some form of substance abuse, which means alcohol, drugs or both, as well as a huge number who are functionally illiterate. That is fundamentally depressing. The second depressing thing is the number of people in prison who have reoffended. Reducing reoffending rates would not only be beneficial for society, because there would be fewer victims of crime, but cost-effective, as there would be fewer people in prison.
The official parliamentary answer is that the 5 per cent. cut is just for this coming year and one does not know what will happen in future, but it presents governors with the prospect of 5 per cent. year-on-year reductions in prison budgets. I understand that most governors are working on the basis that they will have rolling cuts of 5 per cent. a year for the next three years. Where in a prison does one make those cuts? There seem to be only two areas: one cuts either opportunities for training, education or access to substance and drug abuse programmes, or the number of prison officers.
A 5 per cent. reduction in Bullingdon’s budget is about £1.3 million on a budget of £17 million. Some £1.3 million is the equivalent of having to make 120 prison officers at Bullingdon redundant. As prison officers have explained, all they will be able to do is keep prisoners locked up longer—for more hours—because officers will not be available to escort prisoners or supervise them in education and training. They will be warehousing men and doing little else.
Bullingdon has been built since I have been the Member of Parliament for north Oxfordshire. Before that, the local prison was Oxford jail in the heart of Oxford. That status came to Bullingdon in the early 1990s. I hope the Prison Officers Association will excuse my saying so, but at that time it was a pretty neanderthal trade union. On one occasion way back in the 1990s—some 15 or so years ago—it refused to allow me to attend a meeting because I might influence what its members thought, and that was that.
Over the past 15 years, from my perspective the POA has moved phenomenally from being truculent and difficult to wanting to engage in training programmes and education programmes and wanting to help with substance abuse programmes. The POA branch at Bullingdon has built a training facility outside the prison walls for prison officers, which it is sharing with the rest of the community because the officers want to encourage the community to engage more with them and their work at Bullingdon.
The prison officers now find fundamentally depressing the thought that they will simply be engaged in keeping people under lock and key for longer periods. That would be a great pity, given that we have started to get a culture moving in the prison with people involved in the Prison Service. We are seeing that officers have a role in ensuring that people who leave prison are better equipped to deal with the outside world and have more skills than when they came in, but things might just go back to the rather Victorian notion of prison.
I hear it said on the grapevine that the Secretary of State for Justice believes that layers of middle management in the Prison Service can be stripped out and that the 5 per cent. can be achieved there. If he genuinely believes that prisons are over-managed or that there are too many layers of management, I suggest that he make that clear. I am sure that, if he believes prisons are over-managed in some way, he can strip out the over-management. However, even if we took out all the managers, apart from the governor, I doubt whether we could meet the 5 per cent. target at Bullingdon.
A lot of work is being done in Oxfordshire with charities such as SMART and in trying to get people who leave prison to integrate into the community more speedily and ensure that they do not go back on drugs, all of which requires work being done inside and outside the prison.
I have come here cross-party and cross-county to support the hon. Gentleman’s argument. He has made a powerful case for the importance of rehabilitative work, to which I add the importance of restorative justice. Some work on that is being done locally. Within the broad cost-benefit analysis, does he agree that, humanitarian considerations apart, if prisoners are locked up for longer, receive less education and have less attention paid to literacy and training, they will be more likely to reoffend and be back inside, incurring further costs in future? So, the proposal might be a false economy in any case.
I agree. That is a powerful comment, coming from a former Chief Secretary. If we simply bang people up for a time and do not help them to obtain the skills, competences and qualifications that make them more employable and less likely to offend when they leave prison—if they leave prison simply having served their time—the corollary will be that they are more dysfunctional, less able to integrate into the community, particularly at times of higher unemployment, and more likely to reoffend. We will keep going round in that circle.
Statistically, this country, I think, locks up more people than any other in Europe, other than Turkey. I appreciate that the Minister and her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice face a challenge, in that the UK prison population is growing inexorably. However, we are considering the issue in completely the wrong way. Instead of cutting the budgets of individual prisons and the opportunities for training, recreation and other things—cutting either those or the number of prison officers, which makes it more difficult to provide them—we should be seriously thinking about those whom we send to prison and the period for which we send them.
We have a criminal justice system that is entirely tariff based, but I do not think that anyone could convince any of us that sending someone to prison for six years would necessarily be more effective than sending someone to prison for four years. We have quite a lot of cases at the Crown court and there are some particularly lengthy tariffs. I have prosecuted and defended men and women who have been before the Crown court for serious offices, and my experience is that the period of punishment that has the greatest impact on them is usually the first year or 18 months in prison.
At one end, it seems that, other than for the most heinous offences, lengthy prison sentences do not necessarily benefit society or act as a greater deterrent; at the other, we must collectively convince society that programmes of restorative justice—non-custodial sentences—can work and have an impact. Often, such sentences are much more cost-effective for the community as a whole and can be just as effective as punishment and a deterrent. If we simply continue to send ever more people to prison and back to prison because they are reoffending, all that will happen is that the prison population will continue to increase, those in prison will continue to become increasingly dysfunctional and the likelihood of them offending on release from prison will grow inexorably.
We all need to draw breath and have a different argument with the Treasury. The Ministry of Justice also needs to have discussions with those who are responsible for sentencing. It needs to see whether it is possible to make the savings that it feels it needs to make—not by making prisons more Victorian, but by trying to ensure that fewer people are sent to prison and that those who are sent have the opportunities while in prison to acquire competences that will better enable them to lead decent, honest and non-offending lives when they leave.
I hope the Treasury would have as one of the targets for the Ministry of Justice an attempt to reduce reoffending rates. That is an important target for us all, because otherwise we see more and more victims and more and more crime—it is a continuing circle. Therefore, although I acknowledge that the Ministry of Justice, like other Departments, may be obliged to make reductions in its overall spending because of the financial black hole, I sincerely believe that reducing the budgets of prisons such as Bullingdon day to day is misguided, mistaken and a retrograde step. It will take penal policy backwards, not forwards.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) for securing the debate and for his sustained interest in Bullingdon prison. I suspect that it would be of some interest if he were to send a copy of his speech to his party’s Front-Bench team. He takes a rather more refreshing look at policy on this issue, and what he says clearly does not chime very well with his party’s views.
It is always good to explore and clarify issues relating to the National Offender Management Service in general and to prisons in particular. Parliamentary scrutiny is especially important because of the closed nature of the prison system. The opportunity to achieve much greater accountability to the public for the work that goes on in prisons on behalf of the public and the taxpayer is also important. The Government are acutely aware that imprisonment involves two stories: that of the offender in custody, with his or her experiences and opportunities for reform, and that of the victim or potential victim of crime, whose safety must be paramount.
In recent years, Bullingdon has become renowned as a prison that provides decent conditions and care for prisoners. It offers an exceptional range of programmes to help reduce the risk of reoffending and therefore also the risk of harm being done to victims and communities after people are released. I am sure that prison officers and other staff at Bullingdon will be pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman’s kind comments about their work. That progress has not, however, happened in a vacuum. Bullingdon has received close managerial attention from NOMS and has benefited from sizeable investment in activities, programmes and treatment services.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my role as a Minister has been to see the passion and determination of prison and probation professionals at every level in protecting the public and helping offenders to lead decent and law-abiding lives after release. When prison officers go home after work, they return to the communities in which they live, and they certainly want to be able to protect their families, friends and neighbours from the risk of becoming victims of crime. In every prison that I have visited, I have been struck by the desire of staff to see offenders change their lives, to leave prison with hope and opportunity, to go on to a much better life in the community and to do things that ensure that they do not return to prison life.
I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman shares those views on behalf of his constituents. I am also aware of his enthusiasm for rehabilitation and the work that Bullingdon does; as a Minister, I share that enthusiasm. If we do not take that view, the alternative for individuals is a life of continuing offending that will continue to damage communities. That will affect victims and offenders’ families and ensure that the fear of crime continues, ruining the quality of so many of our constituents’ lives.
As successive Governments have found, there is no quick fix to cut crime or reoffending; individual prisons or probation teams working in isolation have not managed to have the beneficial impact that they would all have hoped for. For that reason, the Government created NOMS, which brings together the probation service and the Prison Service for England and Wales. The primary purpose of NOMS is to reduce reoffending, making the public safer and earning greater confidence in the criminal justice system.
Most crime takes place in local communities, and the forces that shape offending are best understood at a local level. Patterns of deprivation, the poor educational attainment that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, housing shortages, substance misuse, which he also mentioned, and unemployment will vary from place to place and will contribute to a greater or lesser extent to social exclusion and criminality. For that reason, local and regional solutions are likely to be much more effective in targeting support, challenge and intervention where they are most needed.
NOMS is formed of 10 regions for England and Wales, each with a single director of offender management who is responsible for both prisons and probation and whose primary task is to reduce reoffending in his or her region. By developing regional structures and understanding the realities of real people in real communities, directors of offender management can, for the first time, target resources where they are needed most. At a practical level, that could mean understanding, for example, that for an individual prison, unemployment is likely to be a more critical factor than availability of settled accommodation and investing proportionately more in work skills and job seeking than in housing services.
When money is tight, it is more important than ever to spend wisely. Region by region, NOMS is undertaking needs analyses of local communities, identifying which localities generate the most crime and analysing the underlying causes. By commissioning the right interventions for offenders in the right places and co-commissioning the right support in the community for ex-offenders, directors of offender management are in a position to make a difference to rates of offending.
NOMS, like other public sector bodies, will be required to make savings over the coming years, reflecting the reality of the circumstances in which we have all operated since the global economic crisis, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Bullingdon prison, as part of NOMS, will have to play its role in finding savings, but that does not necessarily mean cutting services. On the contrary, it is more about identifying how it can operate more efficiently.
Major organisational change is not achieved overnight. NOMS has been supporting projects to release resources across the prison estate, and the results will be used to reduce the need for local regime reductions. For example, all prison establishments in England and Wales have been working to identify flatter management structures to reduce management overheads and optimise resources for front-line staff. NOMS central and regional headquarters have been reduced significantly in size and head count to ensure that the maximum possible proportion of resource is devoted to prison establishments and probation teams in the community.
In his report, “Securing the Future”, published in December 2007 and accepted by the Government, my noble Friend Lord Carter of Coles recommended that an operational specification that adequately reflects the characteristics of individual prisons should be produced for each category of prison. He also recommended that such specifications should be costed and operated through a framework of service-level agreements.
In response, NOMS has undertaken a programme of specifications, benchmarking and costing that will ensure that the recommendations are met for all prisons in England and Wales by 2011-12. To achieve that goal, NOMS is undertaking a major programme of benchmarking and costing its processes in public sector prisons to identify the most efficient practices and establish those “best in class” examples for wider adoption. Significant savings have already been released, and it is anticipated that over the next three years, every aspect of imprisonment and offender management will be subjected to the same rigorous approach, to eliminate wasteful and unnecessary processes without affecting the quality of experience or rehabilitative opportunities for offenders.
Good financial planning is every bit as important at times of resource reduction as it is when additional money is available. NOMS regions in particular are closely involved not only in monitoring current spending but in planning how resources should be allocated for future years. In the NOMS south-east region, in which Bullingdon is a key prison establishment, governors have been asked to make savings plans to meet a range of possible planning assumptions.
Because prison governors are best placed to form judgments about where resources can be saved as well as what the impacts are likely to be, the governor of Bullingdon prison, along with his colleagues elsewhere, was asked to identify a financial planning exercise showing how he would make savings at 5 per cent. of his 2009-10 budget. The plans were to include an assessment of difficulty, impact and risk for each item proposed. They were collated and considered by the regional custodial manager, herself an experienced former prison governor, and the regional manager for finance and performance.
The actual savings planned for Bullingdon are significantly less severe than the full range of savings proposals; they are nearer to the average reduction of 3.5 per cent. across the region and contain no requirement to make savings that have been assessed as having significant impact, negative impact or high risk.
In contrast to some of the very high figures that have been cited—indeed, the hon. Gentleman cited some of them in this debate—we anticipate that the likely reduction in staff posts at Bullingdon as a result of the required savings in 2010-11 will involve just 16 uniformed staff and a further two managers. Equally importantly, the prison is not being asked to make savings that run counter to the commissioning priorities of NOMS for the south-east region.
Specifically, the hon. Gentleman will be very glad to know that at Bullingdon prison there will be no reduction in education provision, drug treatment services, sex offender treatment programmes, accredited offending behaviour programmes, health services for prisoners, offender management provision or public protection provision. That underlines the importance that we place upon those services, even in difficult financial times.
Our spending reductions are inevitable in Bullingdon prison and across the NOMS. In making their choices, it is apparent that the governor and director of offender management at the prison are actively seeking to ensure that they do not adversely affect the quality of life or the quality of rehabilitation services for prisoners. That approach is mirrored across the south-east region, of which Bullingdon is a part, and across the wider NOMS estate.
The hon. Gentleman went on to talk a little more widely about the purpose of prison and sentencing policy. A number of interested groups argue that the prison population is too high. I am not sure that that view is shared by the main political parties; it is certainly not shared by the hon. Gentleman’s Conservative colleagues, who suggest that we should have even greater capacity in the prison estate than that being provided at the moment by the Government.
We imprison a relatively high proportion of offenders. Clearly, Governments can choose to operate cheap criminal justice by declining to imprison even those people who pose a real danger to the public. However, it is the right of each democratic country to determine for itself what is and what is not acceptable behaviour on the part of its citizens, and the penalties that will be exacted for crime.
The Government have a very clear sentencing framework. We promote community-based penalties for low-risk offenders, and we have done that through the extension of out-of-court disposals. Those disposals are not only for those over the age of 18. Indeed, we have launched a new range of out-of-court disposals—some were even launched this week—with the youth rehabilitation orders and the opportunities for greater use by the courts, in some circumstances, of methods to move young people away from imprisonment. There are also other forms of disposals, whereby people are not hitting the courts at all.
We have imposed tougher custodial sentences for higher-risk and dangerous criminals. Furthermore, the Government have consistently taken the view that, for some offenders, community punishment can deliver better outcomes than short custodial sentences. To support that, we have made available to the courts a wide range of tough non-custodial sentences and we encourage the use of those sentences whenever possible. Community-based penalties are a core part of the criminal justice service. In 2007, 196,400 such penalties were imposed, which was 40 per cent. more than in 1997. That shows the importance of having a tough sentencing policy that is also fair and deals with the range of criminality.
In conclusion, I remain grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his interest in Bullingdon prison, both as a single establishment and as part of the wider prison estate. Like other parts of the public sector, Bullingdon will face financial challenges and must find ways to work at lowering its costs without putting public safety at risk. I believe that the prison, working together with NOMS, will be able to do that.