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Rehabilitation and Sentencing

Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 7 December 2010

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement. On 12 May, we said in our programme for government that we would conduct a full assessment of rehabilitation and sentencing policy to pave the way for radical reforms to the criminal justice system. I have laid before Parliament today the Green Paper entitled “Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders.” This sets out our initial conclusions from this work, on which we will be consulting widely over the next 12 weeks.

Despite record spending we are not delivering what really matters. Society has a right to expect the criminal justice system to protect them. Prison will always be the right place for serious and dangerous offenders. Criminals should be properly punished. Prisons should be places of hard work and industry, and community sentences must be credible and robust. Criminals must also be reformed so that when they finish their sentence they do not simply return to their life of crime, creating more misery for victims.

The present criminal justice system falls short of what is required. Around half of offenders released from prison reoffend within a year. Reoffending rates for young offenders sentenced to custodial or community sentences are even worse. It is not acceptable that three quarters of offenders sentenced to youth custody reoffend within a year. If we do not stop offending by young people, the young offenders of today will become the prolific career criminals of tomorrow.

Solving these problems requires a radically different approach. Of course, criminals must face robust and demanding punishments. This means making them work hard both in prison and in the community. More prisoners will face the tough discipline of regular working hours. This has been lacking in most prison regimes for too long. Community sentences will be more credible, with more demanding work and greater use of tough curfew requirements. There will be greater reparation to victims through increased use of restorative justice and by implementing the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996. We will bring forward other changes to make sure that more offenders directly compensate the victims of crime.

But we will take a new approach to the reform of offenders. I regard prison first and foremost as a place of punishment where people lose their liberty as reparation for what they have done, but on top of that, prison cannot continue to be simply an expensive way of giving communities a break. We must give higher priority to ensuring that more prisoners go straight on release.

Offenders will face a tough and co-ordinated response from the police, probation and other services. It will mean that they must either address the problems that fuel their criminal activity or be caught and punished again. It will mean taking action to get offenders off drugs. It will mean reducing the abuse of alcohol. It will mean improving the treatment available to those suffering mental illness. It will mean getting more of them off benefits and into honest employment so that they can pay their own way.

We will bring forward a revolutionary shift in the way that rehabilitation is financed and delivered. We will begin by commissioning a range of providers to administer at least six new projects over the next two years. They will be paid for the results that they achieve. I intend to apply the principles of that approach across the whole system by the end of the Parliament. We will also test this payment-by-results approach with young offenders, and devolve more responsibility for preventing and tackling youth offending to local communities. We will introduce more competition across offender management services to drive up standards and deliver value for money for the taxpayer. We will increase discretion for public sector providers and front-line professionals.

The sentencing framework must provide courts with a range of options to punish and rehabilitate criminals and keep the public safe. The sentencing framework has developed in an ad hoc fashion recently, with over 20 Acts of Parliament changing sentencing in the past 10 years. This has left it overly complex, difficult to interpret and administer, and hard for the public to understand. We need to make better use of prison and community sentences to punish offenders and improve public safety, while ensuring that sentencing supports our aims of improved rehabilitation and increased reparation to victims and society. We will therefore simplify the sentencing framework in order to make it more comprehensible to the public and to enhance judicial independence. We will reform community orders to give providers more discretion, and we will encourage greater use of financial penalties and improve their collection.

We will bring forward reforms to the indeterminate sentence of imprisonment for public protection. This sentence has been much more widely used than was ever intended by Parliament since its introduction in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Indeed the last Government had already tried to change it once since its introduction. We will reserve IPP sentences for the most serious offenders and focus indefinite punishment on those who most clearly pose a very serious risk of future harm. Of course, prisoners who in future do not receive an IPP sentence will instead receive long determinate sentences. This will enable us to restore clarity in sentencing, plan rehabilitation and target punishment more effectively to protect the public.

Let me assure the House that public safety remains our first priority. We will continue to ensure that serious and dangerous offenders are managed effectively and their risk is reduced through appropriate use of prison and then through the multi-agency public protection arrangements. Let me also assure the House that we will also ensure effective responses to knife crime. Knife crime is wholly unacceptable. It causes misery for victims and is often connected to the kind of gang violence that can wreck whole communities. The Government’s position is clear. Any adult who commits a crime using a knife can expect to be sent to prison, and serious offenders can expect a long sentence. For juveniles, imprisonment is always available and will also be appropriate for serious offenders.

The Green Paper is an important change of direction in penal policy, which will put more emphasis on reducing reoffending without reducing the punishment of offenders. By reforming criminals and turning them away from a life of crime we will break the cycle. This should mean fewer crimes, fewer victims and safer communities. The Government will make a further statement to the House when they publish their response to the consultation. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement on sentencing policy. The Ministry of Justice’s four-year plan on its vision page declares:

“We will provide a clear sentencing framework. It will punish those who break the law, and help reduce re-offending.”

I have no quarrel with that. It seems to me a perfectly sensible vision for a sentencing policy, entirely in keeping with the emphasis on punishment and reform that Labour followed in government, and which helped to cut crime by 43% between 1997 and 2010, both in times of growth and recession—the only Administration since the second world war who can boast such an enviable record.

I have a number of questions for the Secretary of State. First, will he confirm that he accepts that crime went down, as I have just said? So, on the core principle we are in agreement, and where the Government propose sensible measures to punish and reform offenders, we will support them. However, the statement that we have just heard and the Green Paper give rise to a number of questions and concerns. Will he confirm that the entirety of the Conservative party’s manifesto on law and order has been put in the bin? Before the election, the Prime Minister promised that there would be tougher sentences for knife crime. People caught in possession of a knife would face a presumption of prison. Does the Secretary of State accept that he has now made a humiliating U-turn on that policy? The Prime Minister promised that there would be “honesty in sentencing”. Judges would read out a maximum and a minimum sentence to offenders in court. Does the Secretary of State accept that there has been a U-turn on that also? The Prime Minister promised increased prison capacity—another U-turn?

Let us be absolutely clear. Every one of those pre-election promises to be tough on crime has been abandoned. They have been revealed for what they are: a bluff. A bluff on crime and a bluff on the causes of crime. Like so many of the heavily trailed announcements that we have seen in the past six months, this sentencing review is a wasted opportunity. Sentencing policy should be about dealing with offenders in the right way in order to protect the public, but this review has been about trying to reduce the prison population in order to cut costs.

When the comprehensive spending review was published recently, the Justice Secretary outlined his central aim, which was

“to reduce the total daily prison population by 3,000 by 2014.”

The prison population is about 85,000 today, so that would mean it being 82,000 in four years. In practice, however, because many people serve less than one year in prison, meeting that target would mean 10,000 fewer offenders in jail each year. That is what the sentencing review is all about.

Given the Government’s big claims about transparency, can the Secretary of State confirm that he will publish the detailed assumptions that his officials and the Home Office have made about crime trends to justify that target of 82,000? I do not subscribe to the view that there is a direct link between prisons and crime, but nor do I share the Justice Secretary’s belief that there is no link at all. Under Labour, more serious and persistent criminals went to prison for longer, and crime fell. The relationship between those two things might not have been simple and straightforward, and other factors, including an increase in police numbers, were at play, but there was a relationship.

The Justice Secretary, to justify his view that there is no link, is fond of saying that crime rates also declined internationally during that time, but that prison rates in many countries went down. Well, he is wrong. I have checked the figures for OECD countries, and prison populations rose almost everywhere. Although prison should always be the outcome for serious and persistent offenders, we believe that alternatives to custody should be used when they are a more appropriate form of punishment and reform. We accept that prison is not always the best place for offenders, and community sentences can be a better alternative in order to cut reoffending, but does he accept that, as a result of the changes that we introduced, the number of women in custody went down, and that reoffending rates for women, young men and first-time offenders also went down in recent years?

I welcome the announcement that the Government are seeking to build on important Labour innovations, such as the expansion of community payback. Further action on drug addiction is clearly welcome, and the steps outlined to deal more effectively with offenders with mental health problems, one of our society’s most pressing issues, are a vindication of the decision of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) to set up and start to implement the important Bradley review.

The current Justice Secretary aims at some of the right goals, but his total eagerness to please the Treasury by cutting the Ministry of Justice budget by 23% will make it very difficult and risky to turn those aspirations into reality. With the Home Secretary having also caved in to a 23% cut, the obvious question voters will ask is, how can the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s party ever again claim to be the party of law and order?

The Secretary of State will recall the old care in the community model for mental health in the 1990s. As a former Health Secretary, he presided over it and will be aware of some of the real problems that it created. If proper resources are not invested in dealing with offenders outside prison, we could be in for care in the community mark II—this time with criminals.

Will the Justice Secretary explain, in particular, what assessments are being made of the likelihood that prisoners on indeterminate sentences, whom he wants to release, are no longer a risk to the public? What procedures will be put in place to monitor such people in the community?

Order. I am loth to interrupt the shadow Secretary of State, but he is getting towards the point where his questioning has been longer than the Secretary of State’s pithy statement, so he really does now need to bring it to an end. He can have another sentence, but he must then bring it to an end.

As ever, Mr Speaker, I am grateful.

When the Justice Secretary was recently asked on BBC’s “Newsnight” how he would judge the success of his penal policy, his first response was that he “hadn’t the first idea”. That was a more revealing answer than he perhaps intended, because it exposed a certain complacency that is becoming the hallmark of this Government.

In conclusion, let me offer the Lord Chancellor advice on how to judge the success of his policy. Will it make communities up and down the country more or less safe? Will it result in crime going up or down? I tell the Lord Chancellor and those who support him that it is against those criteria that we will be holding him, his proposals and his Government to account.

I do not want to be corny about it, but in this context I should surely be able to appeal from now on for shorter sentences—and preferably fewer of them.

I was about to congratulate the Opposition spokesman on his statesman-like performance in a difficult situation. He managed to go on for exactly the same length of time as I took to make my statement. I listened carefully, and he did not criticise a single proposal that I had made. He did not disagree at all. I should have realised that he would do that, because when he was asked, by Decca Aitkenhead in The Guardian of 29 November, whether Ken Clarke had said anything that he disagreed with, he said, “No, he hasn’t.” He took eight minutes to give that reply today, but the conclusion was the same.

The right hon. Gentleman said that we had abandoned our whole manifesto and pre-election commitment. We are in a coalition Government and have inherited a financial crisis. The principal argument that we had when in opposition was about the rehabilitation revolution. I commend to the right hon. Gentleman the work done by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice and my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General on a pamphlet called “Prisons with a purpose”. In the manifesto, we said:

“We will never bring our crime rate down or start to reduce the costs of crime until we properly rehabilitate ex-prisoners.”

That remains the core proposal that we are putting forward, and I am glad to be able to build on it.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the reduction in the number of people in prison. Eighty-two thousand is not a target; I asked people to produce an estimate of what the whole package—there are a lot of things in the package—was likely to do to the prison population over the next few years, and their estimate, and it is only an estimate, is that that population will reduce by about 3,000. It would be quite something to stop the explosion of the prison population that has been going on in recent years. Reducing it by 3,000 is quite modest, but that is an estimate. We are aiming to do something to ease the pressure on the system—above all, to ease the pressure on victims—by rehabilitation and by tackling the root causes of crime.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about numbers. He tried to praise—he did his best—the record of the Government of whom he was a member. The real nadir of the publicity-seeking policies of the last Government came when they had succeeded in getting so many people sentenced to prison that they could not accommodate them. Eventually, they had to release 80,000 prisoners from jail, before they had finished their sentences, under an early-release scheme. That was a debacle of a policy that we will not repeat.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about this being against a background of a 23% reduction in my budget. Half of that, of course, is going to come from administration and a great bulk of it from legal aid savings, which he supports. Much less will come from the Prison Service and the probation service.

Does that comment mean that the right hon. Gentleman would spend more? I am waiting to hear what the Labour party says about the financial background to policy. Apparently, the reduction is too much. Will he consult the shadow Chancellor and let us know how much more a new Labour Government would spend on keeping up the prison population, keeping the criminal justice system as it is and continuing the failed policies of the last Government?

Order. Thirty-seven years of service in the House should make the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) an exemplar of brevity.

I remind the Lord Chancellor that Members from all three parties on the Justice Committee unanimously recommended a shift from expanding prison places to rehabilitation, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health provision and early intervention to stop young people from getting into crime. Would he not be failing to keep the public safe if he did not follow that recommendation?

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. A lot of people in all three parties welcome this shift of policy; it is not particularly me and my colleagues who believe it; It is quite obvious that it is a direction in which we should go. I look forward to having the assistance of the Select Committee and making sure that we get the details right and keep going in the right direction.

Order. I would love to try to get everyone in, but I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members to help me to help them.

Why is the Secretary of State so unwilling even to utter the words that would acknowledge that, in the past 15 years—the last two years of his Government, from 1995, and through the 13 years of the previous Labour Government—crime fell by a record 50%? Why does he not acknowledge that and also accept that the cost-cutting led programme that he has announced today may put crime levels at risk?

Of course I acknowledge that crime fell during that period, as it did throughout most of the western world. I have always acknowledged that. Where we will not agree is on the simple cause and effect that the right hon. Gentleman puts forward. Let me quote from a source whom it would be unexpected for me to quote with total favour: Mr Newt Gingrich. A recent article he published in an American magazine about the situation in the state of South Carolina states:

“Often, in…fiscal crises, we hear that no area of state spending is exempt from budgetary review. But in reality, prison spending often is the proverbial sacred cow. That’s partly because voters…mistakenly believe reductions in the prison budget will lead to putting the ‘bad guys’ back on the street.”

This morning, I was put on Alastair Campbell’s blog. Newt Gingrich seems to agree with the direction we are taking, Alastair Campbell appears to believe that we are going in the right direction, and Members from all three parties, including the Chairman of the Select Committee, agree. The right hon. Gentleman is the representative of a failed past.

Last year, 3,000 burglars and 4,500 violent criminals with 15 or more previous convictions were not sent to jail, and people with more than 100 previous convictions who came before the courts were more likely not to be sent to jail. They reoffended not because they went to prison, but because they did not go to prison. How on earth can my right hon. and learned Friend accept the figures that his Department has issued and say that too many people are going to prison? Most people would look at those figures and conclude that too few people are going to prison.

A court has to look at the nature of the offence and the individual offender and give the right sentence. For serious criminals, that means going to prison; for recidivist offenders, that means going to prison; for others, it might be more appropriate for a strong community sentence to be made available. It is not possible to generalise in such a way. At the heart of what we are doing is ensuring that judges give the right punishment and that they give us a rest while people are in prison. The system is simply failing to prevent people reoffending. That is what the policy focus has to be and that is what will reduce crime if it is successful.

Perhaps the Secretary of State will remember that, back in 2001, there was something called the Halliday review of sentencing. In July of that year, I talked—much as the Secretary of State has done this afternoon—about avoiding reoffending. Does he acknowledge that a £40 million cut in the South Yorkshire police budget, more prisoners on the street, and more offenders reoffending because the police are not available to protect the public and the victims is not a charter for common sense? It is a charter for criminals to get on with the job that they have been doing and from which we have been trying to protect the public.

The budget for the Prison Service and the probation service in my Department increased by roughly 50% in real terms over the past seven years. The idea that the only approach to criminal justice policy—as with other policies—is simply to spend and borrow more and more is what got the previous Government into the sorry state in which they eventually collapsed. We must now do things more intelligently and sensibly, and address the problem of reoffending. I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman was unsuccessful when he turned to that in 2001.

Will the Secretary of State talk specifically about the issue of foreign offenders in the prison system and what he proposes to do to free up prison places by a change of policy in that area?

The number of foreign prisoners in our prisons roughly doubled in the past 10 years, during the period of office of the previous Government who rather went backwards and forwards at various times about whether they were releasing people who might have been deported or keeping them here because they could not be deported. It is difficult to get large numbers out, but we are determined to make an effort to do it. We are looking at ways in which, in suitable cases, conditional cautioning could get people out of the country and diverted out of our criminal justice system altogether on the basis that they never come back. We are also looking at how we can encourage other countries to take back prisoners who are eligible for deportation to ensure that this extraordinary burden, which has grown in the past few years, is eased, because there are better things we can do in the whole system with the money we are spending on foreign prisoners.

I am pleased that the Justice Secretary intends to build on the success of the youth offending teams, which I introduced in 1998. Will he ensure that the youth courts, and indeed the courts generally, follow the central recommendations of the justice reinvestment report by focusing clearly on what works in reducing reoffending and incentivising those outside the criminal justice system who can help to bring down crime?

The answer is yes. One thing on which I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman is that we have to concentrate our resources on what works. By that I mean, from the point of view of the potential victims and society at large, what gets down the level of crime committed by young offenders in particular.

I notice that my Conservative Secretary of State says: “Prison cannot continue to be simply an expensive way of giving communities a break.” I am sorry, but communities deserve a break—they deserve a break from being burgled. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that on his watch, people who cause absolute misery by thieving from people’s homes, particularly those of elderly people, can expect to go to prison, where they deserve to be?

The answer to the last part of the question is obviously yes. Burglars should usually go to prison—nobody has ever suggested that they should not. I have read extraordinary suggestions that we are letting out burglars, robbers and all kinds of people. They are the core population of a prison and should remain so. The main purpose of prison is that it is the best form of punishment: it is a way of exacting some reparation from somebody for the crime they have committed. It also, of course, gives us a break from their offences while they are in prison. However, if we concentrate on that aspect of imprisonment, it is a very expensive way of giving people temporary relief from the crimes of those incarcerated. Prison should be producing people most of whom, on release, will not go back to a life of crime. Unfortunately, over a period of years, three quarters of them have eventually committted further crime. That is the failure and weakness in the system, and that is where the concentration now has to be.

Earlier, in Health questions, the Health Secretary confirmed that he has been working with the Justice Secretary on plans to divert mentally ill offenders from prison—something that I broadly welcome. When I pressed him on how much additional funding was being made available for this, he was unable to tell me, but referred me to this statement, so can the Justice Secretary tell me how much additional money will be made available?

This is about both our budgets, so I had better not pre-empt my discussions with my right hon. Friend. I hope that he gave a helpful response to the question, because the two of us, together with our Departments and our officials, are working very seriously on trying to improve the situation for mentally ill people who ought not to be in prison or ought to be better treated in prison. It is not an easy subject. The reason we have so many people in prison who obviously ought not to be there because they are suffering from mental illness is that it is difficult to devise services that will not only help them but improve their behaviour and make them less of a risk to the community at large. At this stage, we are consulting on it. However, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that there is a genuine commitment on the part of my right hon. Friend and me to ensure that the Department of Health, the NHS, the National Offender Management Service and the Prison Service work together properly so that people are dealt with in a more suitable and civilised fashion. The main benefit one can give to the public regarding those whose main problem is mental illness is to help them to cope with the behavioural problems that are causing the crime.

Can the Secretary of State confirm by how much he expects the number of vulnerable women and women with babies in prison to reduce as a result of these very sensible proposals?

I will not go into another precise estimate, but we need to reduce the number of women in prison. The previous Government worked on that. It is important to realise that women who go to prison—many fewer do so than men—tend to have a particular combination of problems. Compared with men, a much higher proportion of women in prison have a history of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and a disordered life, in all kinds of ways. Focusing on that is likely to reduce the women prison population, and we will do that. Of course, as with men, there is a hard core of women who are hardened criminals or antisocial people, and they must be incarcerated for long sentences when they do something that deserves it.

I have no quarrel with the vision set out by the Secretary of State for Justice. It is in keeping with many recommendations made by the Home Affairs Committee over many years. I do have a quarrel with the detail, however. Last year, there were 4,600 hospital admissions as a result of knife crime. Will he confirm that it is still the policy of the Government that those who are caught carrying knives will be sent to jail?

I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman does not differ in principle. I do not think that Opposition Front Benchers do either; they certainly do not have an alternative to put forward. Knife crime is a very serious matter. We are clear that the use of a knife in crime is serious. Anybody who stabs somebody else will go to prison—they usually do and they always should. Anybody who uses a knife in a threatening way in the course of a crime should go to prison. Anybody who carries a knife in circumstances in which its imminent use is likely should go to prison.

However, we have to avoid absolute tariffs that set in statute what the punishment should be for every particular offence. That was a mistake made by the previous Government. To fill up more than 20 criminal justice Acts, they produced ever more complicated and prescriptive rules, which judges sometimes find incomprehensible and which sometimes are in danger of flying in the face of the obvious justice of an individual case or the long-term interests of society.

The majority of the people I represented who were burglars were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Does the Secretary of State agree that residential rehabilitation is usually far more effective at stopping such people reoffending than long custodial sentences?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. She has long experience, and much more recent experience than I have, of dealing with such problems in the courts. What we must do through, among other things, the payment-by-results approach and bringing in more private, independent and not-for-profit providers, working in co-operation and partnership with statutory providers, is find better ways of achieving better results in drug rehabilitation, the ending of alcohol abuse and the treatment of mental illness.

Following on from the previous question, will the Secretary of State confirm that he will lobby for drugs funding, not just in his Department and the Home Office, but in the Department of Health? Unless drug treatment programmes are funded, we will not be able to treat drug addicts and prevent them from moving into the criminal justice system.

I will. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary takes the lead in the Government in tackling drug problems and the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), is heavily involved too. We will use payment by results widely across the piece, not just with regard to offenders, to find out what works. We will put more emphasis on genuine rehabilitation, not just keeping people dependent on methadone for as long as happens in far too many cases in prison and in the community.

I welcome the reference to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 in the Green Paper “Breaking the Cycle”, although that reference did not make it into the statement. It follows on from the excellent report by Lord Falconer, “Breaking the Circle”, which unfortunately the Labour Government did not have the courage to do anything about. Will the Secretary of State assure me that this matter will be an important priority, particularly in ensuring that cautions become spent extremely quickly?

I can confirm that we are proposing to reform that matter. We are consulting on it, so I look forward to having the hon. Gentleman’s representations on what level of offence should never be excluded from disclosure, how long it should take for cautions for other offences to be spent and what we should do about juvenile offences, which are sometimes held against people for far too long in what has become a law-abiding adult life. We will not duck the issue, we will reform the system and I look forward to hearing his views.

HMP Brixton is in my constituency, and 80% of the prisoners there are on short-term sentences of less than four weeks. I will look at the Green Paper to see what it will do to address the fact that it is difficult to rehabilitate within that time frame. I was e-mailed last week by the prison’s independent monitoring board, which made it clear that there should be absolutely no cuts to the prison. What guarantee can the Secretary of State give me that the Green Paper will not be used to impose cuts on my local prison?

I realise the difficulties of a prison such a Brixton, with such a high proportion of its population being short-term prisoners. We cannot get rid of all short-term prison sentences. I have never believed that that was possible, because magistrates face people who have come before them frequently, and they have tried everything else. In such cases, there is absolutely no way of dealing with their recidivist behaviour other than to send them to prison, or sometimes back to prison yet again. I hope that some of the payment-by-results providers will be able to start providing rehabilitation for such people, for whom no provision is currently made once they are put out of the door.

As far as spending on the Prison Service is concerned, we are affected, as in every other service, by the financial constraints we are under. It is not true that it is not possible to make any savings in how we run the prison estate. Spending on the Prison Service will depend in large part on what burdens are imposed on the system in future years by the level of crime and sentencing patterns, because it is partly a demand-led service. I cannot simply give an undertaking that nothing will be changed. We intend to follow on from the last Government’s policy of using competition, among other things, to test costs and ensure that we have the most cost-effective way of providing the quality of service that we want to provide.

As someone who both prosecuted and defended in criminal courts before coming to this place, I wish to mention the possession of knives. Does the Secretary of State have an assessment of the effect of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, which increased the sentence from two years to four years? Does he agree that the best way to deal with knife crime is to deal with the gang culture that leads to the possession of knives?

Yes, I think the possession of knives is a scourge on society, particularly when it is associated with gang culture and all the other problems that it causes in many communities. I repeat, however, that judges and magistrates are in the best position to decide on the circumstances of a particular offence, the circumstances of the offender and the best way of imposing a penalty that protects the public.

We have to get away from the habit of the past few years of leaping in with a tariff that takes discretion away from the courts in each and every category of case. The tariff works in some cases but then, the next thing we know, the people who campaigned for it are campaigning like mad against some obvious injustice because it is inflexibly applied to some person who would be better dealt with in other ways.

Earlier this year in my constituency, a driver who had been drinking crashed into a group of teenagers on the pavement, seriously and permanently injuring them. At the trial, the judge bitterly complained that he could give him only the maximum two-year sentence for dangerous driving. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman join me in supporting the Drive for Justice campaign to give judges more flexibility in sentencing dangerous drivers?

I shall have a word with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, because that is a perfectly valid point that we will consider. There is, of course, a higher penalty for causing death by dangerous driving, but the hon. Gentleman describes someone who behaved equally reprehensibly but happens not to have killed any of the victims. As I am arguing for discretion, we will look at whether the constraint is too tight.

In the case of ordinary dangerous driving without any serious consequences, and although I deplore all dangerous driving, we cannot start imposing heavy prison sentences on everybody who might otherwise be a blameless citizen and then behaves in an absolutely reprehensible way when driving his car. Some cases, such as the one described, make the case for having a look at the two-year maximum.

I welcome the proposal in the Green Paper to expand the principle of restorative justice, but will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that any moves to expand that approach will be victim-led rather than offender-led?

The answer to that is yes, I will. Restorative justice is proving to be remarkably successful, but I take my hon. Friend’s point that it does not work if victims are not in the leading role. We have ensured very high levels of victim satisfaction in most of our experience so far of steadily spreading restorative justice.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s road-to-Damascus conversion to rehabilitation. I made a note of some of the promises that he makes in the Green Paper, which include regular working hours, restorative justice, custody diversion, and drug, alcohol and mental health services. What bothers me is that if those things are to be effective, they cannot be done on the cheap. It is wrong of him to promise such investment in rehabilitation, because the 23% cut to the Ministry of Justice and cuts in probation mean that those promises are completely undeliverable.

I make the point again: the hon. Lady does not appear to disagree with any of those proposals, but they were not priorities of the Labour party when it was in office. That is not where the money went. The Labour Government spent money on a colossal scale, but it did not go into the objectives that this Government now advocate.

Otherwise, to be fair, the hon. Lady makes a valid point. The House should understand that achieving the results that we want will take time. We are dealing with difficult problems, such as mentally ill prisoners, which are incapable of instant, overnight solution—[Interruption.] It is no good her making gestures about spending money, because simply spending money on mentally ill prisoners will not get us very far. We must spend money intelligently.

We are talking about a whole Parliament, but I emphasise that payment by results does not involve putting money up front. It avoids the danger of giving grants to this or that hopeful-sounding idea or project. Sadly, some of those projects do not work. Paying by results means that we will pay for what works. The projects that succeed will spread more rapidly.

The secure training centre in my constituency protects the community when young people are locked up there, and often teaches them to read. As that costs more than £100,000 a year, what will the Secretary of State do to ensure that those benefits carry over when those young people are released?

It costs about £170,000 a year to keep somebody in a young offenders institution. Those who think that the numbers being detained are inadequate might reflect upon that. I agree strongly with my hon. Friend that what matters is the rehabilitative supervision that is in place after detention, with the support to deal with whatever the young person’s problems are in addition to his bad behaviour. In that way, we ensure that we reduce to the absolute minimum the risk of his reoffending and getting back into the system.

Further to the questions asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Darlington (Mrs Chapman), can the Secretary of State confirm whether extra cash will be made available by either the Ministry of Justice or the Department of Health to support all the rehabilitation measures that he outlined today?

I realise that the hon. Lady is a new Member of the House—[Interruption.] If the Labour party cannot move on from reacting to every social problem by saying that there must be more public expenditure and borrowing—Labour Members think that if we demonstrate that, we are tackling the problem effectively—it has no role in the government of this country for many years to come.

I very much welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s announcement that those who commit a crime using a knife can expect to be sent to prison. However, will he elaborate on another part of his statement? He mentioned having a sentencing framework that is comprehensible to the public, which I hope also applies to victims. I found during the general election that a number of my constituents do not understand why, when somebody is sentenced to six years, they automatically go home after three.

I have no anecdotal recollection of anybody who has stabbed somebody not going to prison. Actually, people who do not stab someone because they are stopped in time should go to prison too. A serious knife crime justifies a prison sentence, and I think that we can rely on judges to give serious prison sentences. They do not have to be told that the use of a knife in a crime deserves a serious sentence. However, if they want to be told, I and my hon. Friends will tell them.

Public understanding of the system is important. We will consider how sentences can be expressed in terms that the public understand. People do not understand that when someone is sentenced to a certain number of years in prison, they serve the first half in prison and the other half on licence, which means that they will be recalled to prison if they start falling down in their behaviour. There are many other aspects of our incomprehensible sentencing arrangements that are difficult to get across to the public. The rules given to judges for explaining sentences are a hopeless mess and need to be simplified, and I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to make it more transparent and clearly available to the public.

Order. May I remind the Secretary of State that I am always keen to hear his answers? I know that his natural courtesy inclines his head backwards, but I would like him to look at the House.

Instead of giving prisoners the vote, why does the Secretary of State not incorporate the withdrawal of that civic right in a prison sentence? If he does not do that, will people not think that he actually wants to give prisoners the vote?

The hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the last Government for—I think—the past five years. For five years, the last Government accepted that they had to give some prisoners the vote. They consulted on it every now and then, but they did nothing. He should have come forward with his helpful suggestions when he was in office. We are about to produce our proposals on how to comply with the relevant judgment, but that will not involve giving all prisoners the vote. We will consider some of his points and then get on with it. The Government led by the previous Prime Minister were often incapable of taking a decision and getting on with anything.

Will the Secretary of State reassure my constituents and guarantee that dangerous criminals, such as paedophiles, will receive demanding and robust punishment in prison so that our streets are kept safe for our children?

Yes. It is sometimes difficult to debate law and order in this country. Occasionally, I have to listen to a kind of looney-tunes debate about whether I am starting by releasing murderers, rapists, burglars or paedophiles. I believe that serious criminals should be in prison. I have never met a sane person who wishes to disturb that. I believe in long and severe sentences for people guilty of such a serious crime as paedophilia.

May I suggest that the Secretary of State visit, as I did recently, the Isis centre at Belmarsh prison, which is taking some innovative steps towards rehabilitating young offenders? With that in mind, I think that young offenders sometimes need custodial sentences to turn their lives around. Will he confirm therefore that judges will not have the discretion to give anything other than a custodial sentence to someone who uses a knife in a criminal act?

I think I can, although I do not think we need to put it in statute. I would be utterly astonished if a judge did not give a custodial sentence to anybody who used a knife in a criminal act. I approve of prison sentences in such cases, but I do not think we need to legislate on it. It is the nuances of far less serious cases that will get us into difficulty. However, if a person stabs somebody, they should go to prison, and I would be quite shocked if somebody did not go to prison in such circumstances.

In September, I met an ex-prisoner who told me that a continual stream of custodial sentences was broken only when he swapped a life of crime for a life as a conscientious father. What measures can we consider to ensure that the families of offenders, and not just the offenders in isolation, are supported on the road to rehabilitation?

We would like to give professionals every possible encouragement to follow that advice. People who are criminal for a part of their lives and then stop often do so because family responsibilities and a secure family environment have taken them back into a more sensible and decent way of life. We intend to give the professionals more discretion in how they do that. The last Government were prone to setting targets, prescribing methods and setting down rules for community sentencing.

It did not work, despite what the right hon. Gentleman says. Over and over again, the professionals complained they spent half their lives in an office ticking boxes confirming that they had taken the prescribed course, rather than being able to tackle in an individual way the kind of problems my hon. Friend heard about when he met his constituent.

Let me begin by telling the Secretary of State that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and I may be new, but we are not daft. He said that prison could not be just an expensive way of giving communities a break. For victims of domestic violence, that break can be priceless or even life-saving. What reassurances can the Secretary of State give to victims about the criteria that he will use in deciding which IPP prisoners—those sentenced to imprisonment for public protection—who have completed their minimum tariffs will be released?

We are not just going to let IPP prisoners out—any of them. Release will be by the Parole Board. The Parole Board is currently experiencing considerable difficulty in evaluating whether prisoners can prove that they are a minimal risk when they are released, because it is very difficult to demonstrate that when the prisoner is in prison. We are going to readdress IPPs, to try to make them work as they were originally intended, for a comparatively small number of very dangerous offenders who pose a continuing risk, and look at the test that the Parole Board can apply. However, no one will be released until someone has assessed whether the level of risk is acceptable. It is impossible to guarantee no risk: there is nobody in prison about whom anybody could ever say, “This person is never going to be at risk of offending again.” I am afraid that, in the real world, there is nothing we can do about human nature. Quite a number of the people in prison will inevitably commit crimes when they come out, but the number who reoffend has to be reduced, the IPP ones have to handled very carefully, and the Parole Board has to be given a proper test to apply.

Further to the reply that the Secretary of State gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), does he agree that if we are to restore the public’s trust in the criminal justice system, there must be honesty in sentencing and that convicted criminals should serve the full length of any sentence of imprisonment handed down by the court?

I agree with honesty in sentencing—I have always supported that idea—and we will certainly be addressing the way in which it is explained by a judge in court, so that it is clear and comprehensible to the public. That includes explaining the term of imprisonment and the term of licence that follows—what is currently called “serving half the sentence”. The first half is in prison; the second half is subject to recall to prison, but it is served on licence out in the community. To turn the full term into imprisonment, which no one has ever done, would merely involve doubling the sentence for every prisoner. The financial objections to that are only the first ones that I would raise.

Surely the courts must always determine when a custodial sentence is required. The public will not understand what sounds like the Secretary of State saying that he or the Treasury is setting out to constrain that decision making.

With great respect, I am obviously being particularly obscure today, because I agree with the hon. Gentleman; indeed, I was saying precisely the opposite of what he described. We have spent the last 10 years or so believing that sections of statute—some of which read rather like local government circulars—are required in order to tell the judges what to do in individual cases, and that we should prescribe exactly what they do, according to some careful analysis. The judges complain like mad about the incomprehensibility of the legislation they are supposed to be applying. I firmly agree with the hon. Gentleman that, by and large, judges are in the best position to judge the appropriate way of dealing with each case and each offender, just as juries are the right people to decide guilt or innocence in serious cases. Parliament must stop trying to second-guess and introduce rules that we believe, with the best of intentions, cover all cases but which will not cover the absolutely amazing variety of circumstances that tend to accompany any particular category of crime.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on avoiding the siren calls of populism that I have been so disappointed to hear on both sides of the House today. Will he reassure me that when a prisoner is in prison, not only does he have a duty to make reparations but the state also has a duty, to offer him the opportunity of redemption, so that when he leaves that place of incarceration he has a chance to lead a useful and meaningful life—a life that is not reduced to one of stigmatisation or described, as I heard from the Opposition Benches, as that of a prisoner on the streets?

I agree with my hon. Friend entirely. We should give those who have the backbone to go straight, with help, a chance to do so because that will protect the public. Those who do not, and who commit crime again, will be punished again. It is just hopeless to suggest that giving extra emphasis to reforming criminals who want to be reformed is somehow weakening in the context of law and order; it is not. It would improve the protection of the public if we did it, and, as my hon. Friend says, it is a perfectly sensible way for a civilised state to behave.

Bassetlaw has the largest drug treatment programme in the country by far. We have reduced crime further by locking up repeat offenders. The Secretary of State is trying to get rid of the courts, he is getting rid of 300 front-line police officers, and now he is conducting this social experiment. Can my community, which is totally against this idea, please have an exemption? We could then compare and contrast the results to find out what works best.

One day I will convert the hon. Gentleman. With great respect, I think that he has been a great leader in his community in tackling the problem of drugs in Bassetlaw, and it is partly down to his efforts that it has been tackled in that part of Nottinghamshire much more forcefully than ever before. We are going to send repeat offenders to prison; no one is going to stop punishing people who keep offending. It is not a key part of the legal system in north Nottinghamshire that we should keep redundant courts, although we are still consulting on the two courts in his constituency. The foresight that he has shown on the problems of drugs will not be frustrated by our attempts to improve yet further the drug rehabilitation programmes that young people get in his constituency. This is not all about money, and that has not actually been the way he has approached this issue in the past few years either.

Last year, more than 20,000 offenders with 15 or more previous convictions or cautions, and more than 2,500 offenders with more than 50 prosecutions or cautions, avoided a jail sentence. Will my right hon. and learned Friend’s proposals not simply make that matter worse?

I do not think that they will make any difference, really—[Interruption.] No, do not start misquoting me. If the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) cannot find anything that I have said to disagree with, I hope that he will not start misquoting me in order to find something. I would need to work through those 2,000 cases, and my first question would be to ask what the further offence was that they were up for. I am sure it was not parking. People who have previously committed a crime are not always sent to prison again, and the first thing we have to ask is how serious is the matter for which they are before the courts again. I hate to cast doubt on my hon. Friend’s statistics, but a lot of the statistics used across this whole field as the basis for these arguments are hopelessly unreliable. We are not reducing punishment for serious crime, and we are not letting anybody out of prison. We are using prison as a punishment, and trying to prevent the kind of people that he has described from reoffending over and over again, because that is in the public interest.

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that education is key to rehabilitation in prisons. What facilities are there for young people in prisons such as the Reading young offenders institution, where big central contracts have failed and more local provision is needed under the guidance of the governor of the prison?

We will of course continue to try to improve the level of education available to people, particularly in young offenders institutions. We are reviewing the educational service, and I agree that in many cases a more localised approach is likely to produce a better standard of education services than attempts to impose some kind of centralised system.