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Volume 592: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2015

I am pleased to inform the House that we have now completed our work and opened up the market for breaking the cycle of reoffending to a diverse range of new rehabilitation providers to get the best out of the public, private and voluntary sectors, and that we have commenced the provisions of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014.

What role does the Lord Chancellor see for mentoring in addressing reoffending for those who serve short sentences?

Mentoring is a crucial part of the future of our work to break the cycle of reoffending. I have absolutely no doubt that the ability of those who have been through the system themselves and turned their lives around, and who currently work within the voluntary sector, to play a role in changing the lives of those who are still in the criminal justice system is enormous. One thing that excites me is that, with the presence in the rehabilitation arena of a number of our leading charities working hand in hand with the Government and the private sector to deliver better rehabilitation, I am convinced we will see those mentoring skills brought to bear on the problem.

We have heard a lot about conflict of interest this week. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he believes it is a conflict of interest that a private sector company can be paid £35,000 per place to keep somebody in prison in one region, and that the same private sector contractor can be paid £1,500 to keep someone out of prison? Is that not a conflict of interest?

We get a lot of nonsense from Opposition Members. I want a joined-up process, in which we work with people in prison, help them to prepare for release, and work with them when they have left prison. No organisation that works for the public sector in this arena chooses who it gets in its prisons or rehabilitation arena. It is right and proper that that responsibility lies with the public sector. I think a joined-up approach is the right way forward.

Does the Secretary of State agree that work in prison should lead to prisoners gaining skills that improve their employability, leading to reduced reoffending rates on release? Will he indicate to the House the number of prisoners partaking in work activity this year compared with 2010-11?

The number of hours worked in prisons has increased dramatically in the past four years—the latest figures show 14 million hours—and we are seeking to increase that number all the time. Last week, I was at HMP Coldingley for the launch of a new partnership between the Ministry of Defence and the Prison Service, whereby prisoners will produce items such as sandbags for use by our armed forces. I hope that that work will continue, grow and develop. The more we can get prisoners in our prisons working, the more likely they are to get a job when they leave.

As we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), drug addiction in the criminal justice system is a huge problem. There were 4,500 seizures of drugs in prisons last year. What further steps will be taken to deal with mandatory help in prisons and help for prisoners when they leave?

There are two parts to that equation. Although there has been considerable success over the years in tackling the problem of conventional drugs in prisons, the problem now is the arrival of new psychoactive substances that are not detected through the normal means. That has posed an additional challenge to our prison system, and is a significant reason behind the increase in the amount of violence—serious violence—in prisons in the past 12 months. We are taking additional measures to try to tackle that, including tougher security measures and tougher penalties within prisons, and the training of dogs to sniff out that new generation of substances.

Of course, alongside that, proper work must be done to try to tackle addiction. With the through-the-gate system we have created and are creating, it is important that we see a flow-through from work done in our prisons to work done after prison. I remember being told by prison staff how frustrated they were that they had no guarantee that the rehab being done in prisons would continue when prisoners left. That will now change.

The cycle of reoffending is not helped by the number of people who are released on bail rather than remanded in custody. As the Daily Mail reports today, two rapes a week and one unlawful killing are committed by people on bail. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) does not seem to care about the number of rapes committed by people on bail and is laughing about it. A previous parliamentary question I asked revealed that 20% of all burglaries are committed by people out on bail. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that more persistent offenders are remanded in custody and fewer persistent offenders are out on bail to commit more crimes?

Decisions on individual bail cases lie with the courts, which are independent of Government, but I never want the courts to be in a position where they do not have a place to send those whom they wish to put behind bars. I hope our courts will exercise extreme care in deciding whether to put somebody behind bars or to let them out on bail. As we go into the election in May, there are 3,000 more adult male prison places than there were in 2010.

Will the Justice Secretary outline some of the additional educational opportunities that he believes would assist in preventing people from falling back into a life of crime?

We continue to work to expand education in our prisons, and I am pleased that this year we expect a significant increase in the number of prisoner qualifications. Great work is done by our education professionals in our prisons. We will look to expand and develop that as far as logistically possible.

The Justice Secretary was warned about the risks of the appointment of Paul McDowell as chief inspector of probation, but he arrogantly ignored them. Despite the clear conflict of interest, he defended his decision at the Dispatch Box when I raised the matter. He has shown a clear error of judgment. At a time when an independent inspector is needed the most, we do not have one. Will he confirm that the taxpayer will now be left with a further bill of £70,000 for his error of judgment, with the former chief inspector free to join one of the private companies that are now running probation?

I have to say that the right hon. Gentleman’s comments are an insult to a fine public servant, who has taken a brave decision this week. I am not of the view that someone should be denied the opportunity to apply for a job because of the possibility that in the future their wife’s company might win contracts and she might be promoted. I regard Paul McDowell as a fine public servant who has done a good job for this country. I hope he will return to a new post somewhere else supporting our public sector in the future, because he deserves it. He has done a very good job.