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Prison Population

Volume 550: debated on Tuesday 18 September 2012

I have no plans to reduce the prison population. The only changes that I want to see in it will result from our returning more foreign national prisoners to their countries of origin, and—crucially—doing a much better job in rehabilitating offenders, so that far fewer people come back to prison.

I am not grateful for that cynical, backward-looking answer, which did not recognise the fact that not one of the fresh, dynamic teams that have been welcomed to the House for the past 42 years has reduced recidivism by one iota. People are still committing crime, and the same percentage of them are returning to prison. Can we say a word of regret for the loss of one of our few civilised, vintage politicians, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who demonstrated that he had a working brain and that he understood the benefits of remedial work in prison? Have we not, sadly, exchanged old lace for arsenic?

The hon. Gentleman can go on thinking what he likes, but as I have made absolutely clear, I also see it as a priority to ensure that this time we tackle the rehabilitation challenge, and that we stop people going back to prison again and again.

Has the new Secretary of State, whom I warmly welcome to his post, had a chance to look at a report from the National Audit Office which was published today? It says that the dropping of the previous Secretary of State’s proposal to let prisoners out early if they pleaded guilty, or to reduce their sentences, would lead to an increase in prison numbers, and that we therefore need to maintain our full prison estate.

I would have been very uncomfortable about inheriting a policy that allowed people to escape prison sentences by pleading guilty early. The National Audit Office report suggests that financial issues might be created for us. I can say that in the two weeks for which I have been in the Department, I have looked at the financial position, and I am comfortable that it is on track to achieve the savings that it should achieve during the spending review period. However, I want to ensure that that happens while also ensuring that the right people are still in our prisons.

One way of reducing the number of short-sentence prisoners would be to extend the intensive alternative to custody programme, which has been pioneered in Greater Manchester. When the Secretary of State makes his early visit to Manchester following the invitation issued earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), will he take a look for himself at how that programme is reducing reoffending, and how it could be rolled out still further?

I have had several bids from the Manchester area, and I am sure that I shall be in the city in the not-too-distant future. I shall happily consider whether I can look at the best projects there. Clearly there is good experience showing how it is possible to increase the likelihood of offenders’ returning to a life of non-offending, and any lessons that we can learn will be welcome.

I welcome the Secretary of State and his team to their posts. Does he agree that, with the annual cost per prisoner standing at about £40,000 and that figure rising to about £100,000 for young people, it is very sensible, partly in order to save money, to look for alternatives, in particular with regard to short-term schemes? Will he at least look at saving money in that way, which would also enable us to deal better with these people and help make sure rehabilitation happens?

My two initial thoughts are that the cost of prisons is too high but, alongside that, that the best way for us to save money is to break the cycle of reoffending that has people going back to prison, and back to prison, and back to prison. We release young people on to our streets with £46 in their pocket, to go back to the same places where they offended before and where the same people are, and we are surprised when they return to prison. That is what has got to change.