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Prisons: Carter Review

Volume 699: debated on Monday 18 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whom they propose to consult about the recommendations on prison building in Lord Carter of Coles’s review of prisons.

My Lords, we have undertaken to consult in April on Titan prisons and their place in the wider strategy for the prison estate. Views will be sought from a wide range of interested parties.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that not terribly informative reply. Is he aware that the Justice Select Committee in the other place has launched an inquiry into the effectiveness of criminal justice spending and that it intends to look at what the Carter report recommendations will really cost, what the implementation of the report will mean for the provision of probation services and how reliable the evidence is on which these policies are based? In light of that, could the Minister assure the House that no land will be purchased and no building contract signed for Titan prisons until the Justice Select Committee has published its report and the Government have had time to consider it?

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Baroness thought my reply was unhelpful. All I was saying was that we would develop an estate strategy in the light of the Carter proposals. It will be subject to consultation and will be published in April. We shall be happy to consider any reports from the Select Committee.

My Lords, what research has been done on the effect of the length of prison sentences on the crime rate?

My Lords, I am not aware of any specific research. However, more criminals are being caught, longer sentences are being imposed and we have seen a dramatic reduction in the crime rate in this country.

My Lords, has the Minister read the annual report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, who says that the 2,500-strong Titan prison complexes loom on the horizon, flying in the face of our and other evidence that smaller prisons work better than large ones, which may be more efficient but bear the cost of being less effective? Do the Government plan to consider the evidence collected by Anne Owers?

My Lords, I have read those remarks and we shall give them due and weighty consideration. However, I should point out to the noble Lord that the concept of the Titan prison, as recommended by my noble friend Lord Carter, was that within a Titan estate there might be five units of 500 places each, thus getting not only the advantage of large-scale investment in good design and infrastructure but the benefits of the smaller units. I should have thought that that is a very sensible way to go forward.

My Lords, what evidence does the Minister have that housing prisoners further away from home, away from their families, does not defeat the purpose of rehabilitation? Only a few days ago he confirmed that women prisoners are now being housed almost 60 miles away from their communities. On what basis are these prisons being proposed other than one visit by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, to somewhere in Paris?

My Lords, the whole purpose of increasing capacity in our prisons is to deal with the very problem which the noble Baroness raises. We have already indicated that our preferred sitings for the three Titan prisons proposed by my noble friend Lord Carter are in those parts of the country where there are issues about the distances that prisoners’ families have to travel. The increase in capacity can answer many of those problems.

My Lords, in what way will these proposals improve access to appropriate mental health care for the many mentally ill prisoners in our prisons?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very important question about prisoners with severe mental health problems. As she will know, my noble friend Lord Bradley is conducting a review into those very issues. I am sure that it will provide a great deal of help to the Ministry of Justice in taking forward our overall policy.

My Lords, does the noble Lord recognise that at the moment 45 per cent of prisoners lose contact with their families? Has he taken evidence from organisations representing prisoners’ families and, if not, will he undertake to consult them before this plan goes forward?

My Lords, I am very happy to take that suggestion on board in relation to the estate strategy. I am fully aware of the problems caused by crowding in our prisons and the problems for families who are trying to keep in contact. That is why one of the Carter proposals is to increase capacity—to reduce some of the pressure on the system and, we hope, to make it easier for families to visit their loved ones in prison.

My Lords, the Minister points to what he calls a “dramatic reduction” in offending and to a dramatic rise in the need for prison places. If the dramatic fall is to be increased so that it is really dramatic and the need for prison places reduced, there must be a considerable role for the Probation Service both inside prisons and in the prisoners’ home towns. Now that we have an offender management system that is supposed, in part of the prison estate, to see people through from start to finish, how is the Probation Service being organised to make that a coherent policy between the prison and the prisoner’s home town?

My Lords, we have announced changes to the organisation of the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service to provide greater focus on and integration between the roles of probation officers and prison officers, to ensure that there is indeed an integrated approach. That is the whole purpose of the offender management programme. We are very committed to that and to the importance of probation officers working closely with prison services and ensuring that there is an integrated approach so that accommodation provision and all the other resettlement services are available for prisoners when they leave prison.

My Lords, does the Minister recollect the sombre words of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, on page 27 of his report, where he states:

“Owing to the length of the planning process and the time taken to construct and operationalise a new prison, there is no scope to build substantial additional, permanent and cost-effective capacity before 2010 at the earliest”.

In the circumstances, will the Minister take the one path of salvation that seems practicable—to exhort sentencers at every level to send fewer people to prison?

My Lords, I certainly agree that we wish to see a policy where prison is reserved only for offenders who ought to be in prison and that the way forward is to have a much stronger focus on tough community sentencing for other prisoners. I believe that we have the right policy, but in the interim we will have to increase prison capacity as well. Although the noble Lord, Lord Carter, has pointed out some of the difficulties in infrastructure planning and getting planning permission, the fact is that we have provided an increase of over 3,000 places over the past two years. We will see another increase this year, in the interim period before we can get the major increase that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, proposed.