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Volume 702: debated on Thursday 26 June 2008

rose to call attention to the case for a royal commission on the state of prisons; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, our prison system is in crisis. It is not the fault of the Prison Service that prisons are overcrowded, underresourced and subjected to a non-stop barrage of criticism in Parliament, the media and by the public as well as an absolute torrent of legislation, initiatives and conflicting instructions from Government, much of which appears to be motivated by knee-jerk reaction to events rather than considered strategic direction. Nor is it the prison system’s fault that over the past 15 years the penal system has become increasingly politicised, with political parties vying with each other, in what is described as penal populism, to appear toughest on crime. This obscene competition has been described as an arms race in which neither is prepared to give way in case it results in electoral catastrophe. Thanks to media attention, law and order assumes a high profile with floating voters, which is another reason it demands political attention.

The aim given to the Prison Service stems from that given to the criminal justice system as a whole, namely to protect the public by the prevention of crime, by preventing reoffending. Yet with the reconviction rate running at 64.7 per cent for all adult males within two years of being released—10 per cent higher than in 1997, when this Government took office—the prison system is clearly failing to achieve that aim. No amount of sweet talk or selective use of other statistics can alter this inalienable fact. The reconviction rate, which can be broken down into different categories, but above all can be measured, remains the only one by which success or failure can be judged. Should we accept this situation as being inevitable with a prison system or should we try to do something about it?

When I was appointed Chief Inspector of Prisons in 1995 I was told that a good day for the Prison Service was one on which no one escaped and no one was locked out and held in a police cell for which it had to pay, the current rate being £459 per night or £28 million per year. I was also told that improvements were only made by implementing recommendations made by outsiders following disasters. It was interesting that outsiders saw instantly what was wrong, which insiders—who presumably must have known that all was not well—obdurately refused to publicly acknowledge or do anything about until pushed. This might seem cynical, but within a week of being appointed I realised that there was more than a grain of truth in it. Already I could see serious flaws in the structure of both prison system and prison management that were, and remain, considerable impediments to good practice.

I am second to no one in my admiration for the wonderful and dedicated work that countless people, official and volunteer, carry out with and for prisoners throughout the prison system. I also recognise that there have been a considerable number of improvements affecting treatment and conditions, but I am concerned about how many of them die when the governor of the prison concerned changes. I am also aware of the frustration and anger of those who know how much more could be done with and for prisoners if only the system allowed it.

Those of us in a position to put forward positive proposals, as we in this House are privileged to be able to do, should make every effort to persuade both the Government and the Prison Service that, by changing their attitude to facts that they may not like, as well as laying themselves open to helpful and well intentioned outside advice, they are far more likely to bring about the improvements that they say they desire.

The Prison Service is run quite unlike a business, school, hospital or armed service in that, with a single exception, no one is responsible or accountable for any functional area, and budget conformity and process are the determining factors. Of course, these are important, but they are not wholly appropriate when dealing with people. People must be treated like people, the best weapon in that treatment being other people. If you manage people like commodities, you may get some paper answers, but they will be totally meaningless as far as the development of a person is concerned.

Unfortunately, no one from outside looks at the way in which the Prison Service is managed. When Mr Justice May reinstigated independent inspection in 1979, one of the reasons being to satisfy public disquiet over solely in-house inspection, he instigated it only for prisons and not for the Prison Service as is the case for the police service, the Probation Service and the Courts Service. Neither Michael Howard nor Jack Straw would agree to initiate the necessary primary legislation to allow me to do this when I asked to inspect Prison Service headquarters.

The current situation has not been dreamed up or imposed by either the Ministry of Justice or the Prison Service, but inherited from a decision in 1962 to make prisons a department of the Home Office, with a senior civil servant as director-general. All those brought in to examine and report on subsequent disasters have commented in one form or another about the implications of asking civil servants to perform operational tasks for which they are not qualified. Lord Mountbatten in 1963, my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf and Sir Raymond Lygo in 1990, and Sir John Woodcock and Sir John Learmont in 1995 all drew attention to such issues as:

“The number of decisions being taken by people without relevant experience”,


“The importance of Ministers’ advice coming from a wider range of professional, academic and lay sources than that provided by the Prison Service”.

They also reached the following conclusions:

“Better prisons cannot be achieved by a piecemeal approach … Unless there was a preparedness on the part of the Home Office to take its hands off the management of the Prison Service in its day-to-day business, and allow itself to be constrained by matters of policy only, then it would not be possible to effect the changes deemed desirable and which have become very clear to me as being necessary”

It was further stated:

“Vesting all the authority in an accounting officer is a device which is understood and readily accepted by the Civil Service but I do not believe that it is an apt model for the complex task of managing the Prison Service … The high security estate should be managed as a whole rather than piecemeal. An Operational Director should be appointed”.

Those are just six out of a whole volume of recommendations. However, the final recommendation was implemented for high-security prisons, an escape from which was held to be particularly damaging for the Home Secretary. It was instigated with considerable success, as I saw for myself. Consistently directed high-security prisons stand out as a coherent group, with huge advantages such as the ability to turn good practice somewhere into common practice everywhere. I have never been able to fathom why this success was not at once copied in other failing parts of the system.

Unfortunately, the same did not happen to one of the recommendations made by my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf, although it was turned into a priority in the White Paper Custody, Care and Justice: The Way Ahead for the Prison Service in England and Wales. This was published in 1991 and endorsed by all political parties, but it still rests on the shelf. It included a commitment to,

“develop community prisons which will involve the gradual realignment of the prison estate into geographically coherent groups serving most prisoners within that area”.

If only this had happened. Organisations such as the CBI, chambers of commerce and Remploy tell me that employers would much more readily look for solutions to skills shortages among prisoners held locally. Mental health and drug treatment practitioners tell me how much easier it would be if prisoners remained in the same region. Millions of pounds would no longer be wasted on moving prisoners all over the United Kingdom to fill empty cells, sometimes in the middle of courses, or to prisons in which identified needs cannot be met, and so on.

Why, if all this is known about some of the avoidable contributors to the crisis in our prisons, on top of all the reports of inspectors, penal reformers, academics and other interested organisations, is no notice taken of recommendations designed to help resolve a crisis, unless they are initiated in-house or in-political party? The Government will say that much is being done, pointing to the volume of work to which I have already made reference. They will point to two management inquiries that recommended the retention of the status quo. Indeed they did, but one was entirely in-Prison Service, and the other could by no means be called independent because one of its members was the deputy director-general of the Prison Service and another was one of its non-executive directors.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, has written two reports, each accepted without discussion and before consultation, both bearing on my case. Neither addressed the management or structure of the prison system but rather the management of the management and the building of more prisons. Indeed, his last report prompted the chief inspector to comment that building seemed to determine policy, rather than policy determine building. Professor Nicola Lacey, in one of her Hamlyn lectures for 2007, entitled “Escaping the Prisoners’ Dilemma”, said:

“If the dynamics of penal populism are a structural feature of ‘late modern’ society, all avenues for institutional reform, designed to counter the culture of control, seem blocked”.

Are they? She goes on to say:

“An escape from the cell of penal populism . . . will be possible only if the two main political parties can reach a framework agreement about the removal of criminal justice policy—or at least key aspects of policy such as the size of the prison system—from party political debate. This might be done by setting up an initial Royal Commission or something of yet wider scope . . . a further important condition would be the reconstitution of some respect for expertise in the field”.

Her statement interested me because I first thought about a royal commission some 10 years ago. I am by no means alone in that.

I am interested to see that, recently, more and more people are coming to a similar conclusion. Royal commissions have fallen out of favour in recent years, allegedly in favour of Select Committees. I now submit that in the case of the prison system, urgent consideration should be given to their reintroduction. I would go further. Royal commissions are ad hoc advisory committees, formally appointed by the Crown, by virtue of its prerogative powers. The last one, under the noble Lord, Lord Runciman, was appointed to examine criminal justice in 1992, reporting in 1993. The risk of appointing a one-shot commission is that its report will, like so many others, merely gather dust on a shelf, having been studiously ignored by those it attempts to help but who do not want to listen.

There is a precedent for a better alternative. In 1970 a Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution was established to be an independent standing body to advise the Queen, the Government and the public on environmental issues. Its remit is to advise on matters concerning pollution, on the adequacy of research and the possibilities of danger. Within this it has freedom to consider and advise on any matter it chooses and the Government may also request consideration of particular topics. But the primary role of the commission is to contribute to policy development in the longer term by providing an authoritative factual basis for policy-making debate and setting new policy agendas and priorities. In reaching its conclusions, the commission seeks to make a balanced assessment, taking account of the wider implications for society of any measures proposed.

It seems to me that that is precisely what is needed in the case of our prisons. An expert outside body, taking a balanced look at current dangers and future trends, making balanced assessments and giving advice on the wider implications for society of any measures proposed, is what the prison system lacks. Imprisonment is a very complex matter and I know that other noble Lords intend to bring out many more aspects that would also benefit from such outside scrutiny than I am able to cover in the time available.

I realise that it is easy for me from these Benches to bemoan how party politics appear to have distorted penal policy, but I believe that both the Government and the Prison Service would benefit from regular examination by independent experts rather than rely on current practices, which have produced so many flawed outcomes. Governments come and go, but prisoners will be in prison no matter which party is in power, and continuity of direction is of supreme importance to them and the public. I therefore hope that the Minister and his colleagues will not dismiss this proposal as just another debate. I feel that I am on the tip of an iceberg, the rest of which consists of many others inside and outside this House who feel and say the same thing. We all stand ready to help move the proposal forward in any way we can, and look forward to being invited to do so. I beg to move for Papers.

My Lords, I feel deeply honoured to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, given his expertise on this subject and I thank him for initiating the debate. It is very novel that he talks about the establishment of a royal commission. I could not agree more that one is needed and that the time for its establishment is drawing very close indeed.

On 8 June the prison population reached 82,791. If we go back a little further to 22 February, the total prison population exceeded the usable operational capacity, which was the first time in history that had occurred. That shows how difficult things are becoming. On 2 April, 85 prisons, 59 per cent of the total, were overcrowded, and 12 of those were 150 per cent more overcrowded than the figure for certified normal accommodation. The consequences that flow from such a situation are undesirable, deplorable and, if I may so, very dangerous indeed.

I should like to say a few words about women prisoners because I am very concerned about their position. We are locking up too many vulnerable women. At any time, 1,000 women prisoners are on remand, 50 per cent of whom do not receive a prison sentence. Indeed, many women prisoners suffer some form of mental illness and it is wrong that they should be in this position, with the consequence that suicide and self-harm are increasing considerably. I can do no better than to quote from the report of my noble friend Lady Corston on the death of six women prisoners at Styal prison in 2002-03. The report was published in March and states:

“I do not believe, like some campaigners, that no women should be held in custody. There are some crimes for which custody is the only resort … but I was dismayed to see so many women frequently sentenced for short periods of time for very minor offences, causing chaos and disruption to their lives and families, without any realistic chance of addressing the causes of”,

why they committed the crime in the first place. The report goes on to say that the effect of these sentences on 18,000 children who suffer yearly because their mothers are in prison is nothing short of a catastrophe. It concludes that,

“the nature of women’s custody in many of our prisons needs to be radically rethought”.

That is certainly a task that a royal commission could undertake.

One other thing that particularly concerns me with the overcrowded prisons and the overstretching of the people who have to service them is that it leads to frustration on the part of those who are incarcerated and it causes outbreaks of disaster. In many ways, some good things are being done. The Chief Inspector of Prisons recently described the improvement in prison learning as being one of the most ardent successes. That is a success, but it could be lost.

In conclusion, the one group that we must also not neglect are those on whom we rely: the people who have to look after the prisoners and who are being badly treated. They were promised by no less a person than the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that if Labour came to power, they would have their trade union rights and negotiations restored. That promise has not been kept. Indeed, last year, when there was a dispute, they took a day’s strike action to draw attention to overcrowding. They got little thanks for what they were doing. I hope that they are not forgotten.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that it is a splendid idea that we should have an independent body looking at the problem. Only that way shall we get the improvements we desire, which will be beneficial to those in prison and those who have to look after the prisoners.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Prison Reform Trust. In all of our troubled public sector, the prison system is in the greatest disarray and danger. I therefore warmly welcome the decision of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and his ability to prompt this debate.

In all our debates on the public sector, the prisons come off worst for the reason that the noble Lord gave. Political leaders are prompted by the media to compete for encouraging severer sentences on the assumption, which must be fallacious, that the fuller our prisons, the happier and safer our society. For that reason, I support the idea of a royal commission which should not be put forward lightly but, in the present state of the political debate, is necessary.

Jack Straw suggested last July, almost a year ago, that there should be a national conversation on the use of prisons. A royal commission would help to inform and guide that debate. The dangerous facts are well established. The noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, mentioned the dangers of overcrowding. People will always argue the extent to which prison does or does not work. What is certain is that prison cannot work in the present overcrowded system which diminishes and, in many cases, destroys the chances of rehabilitation. A prisoner who is also a prisoner of a drug habit, or who cannot read or write or do elementary mathematics, or who suffers from some form of mental illness, will find no remedy in a prison where the staff are constantly scurrying about looking for prison space and where two men are held in a cell designed for one, or three men are in a cell designed for two. All of the possibilities for rehabilitation, which we all know exist, disappear to vanishing point in those circumstances. The saddest indicator of that, as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, mentioned, is the suicides in prison, of which there were 92 last year—an increase—half of which involved prisoners on remand who had not been convicted of any crime.

This is a Cross-Bench debate and no one in their senses would blame the Government for this state of affairs in its entirety, but one or two points need to be made. We have had a flood of legislation, a sort of frothy uneven torrent, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said. Some of it has been good and some of it was bad; some of it repaired legislation that was passed by the same Government previously. There has been a great deal of fidgeting about with administration. I had never thought that salvation lay in changing the labels on officials’ doors, but a lot of that has gone on. It has happened with NOMS and in the creation of the Ministry of Justice. There is always a case for putting different functions together under one roof, but you often create a new division as you heal an old one. That is exactly what has happened under the new system in which prisons have been brought together with the courts, but the prisons are separated from the police.

One specific matter has not been mentioned. The position of prisons Minister ought to be important in this system. We have had eight prisons Ministers in 10 years. This is a frivolous and indefensible way of running a Government. We are at the end of June and already the commentators are beginning to speculate about a July reshuffle by a Government who are in some difficulty. That causes a frisson in the Westminster village, but it is a hell of a way to run a country. This kind of frivolous merry-go-round should be brought to an end.

In conclusion, I wish to say a word about Titan prisons. The Government have said a little more, but now let us have a little more information. Titan prisons are not going to be quite as big as was originally thought. I worry about the culture of big prisons, the culture of the gang, of drug abuse, of threats, of exploitation and of the ever more limited engagement of the staff with individual inmates. I hope the Minister will reply on that. I would much prefer the concept that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, before him, advocated of community prisons. I wish to quote another advocacy which reflects that well.

“We should aim to provide good local community prisons which allow individuals to maintain family and community ties and have the ability to provide excellent support and interventions … I see these prisons becoming far more engaged with their local communities and better at building relationships with a wide variety of other organisations”,

so that such prisons,

“become a vital part in the civic fabric of every locality”.

That was Mr Charles Clarke lecturing the Prison Reform Trust in September 2005 during a short epoch which, if I may say this without causing trouble, marked the high watermark of enlightenment on prison matters for this Administration.

I will end on that point, although there are many points that one could make, because the debate is limited in time. I have been given the impression over and over again by so many individuals and small groups involved in the prison system—locally, on a slightly larger scale and nationally; in this House, but overwhelmingly among volunteer organisations up and down the country—that the contrast between the enthusiasm and imagination which those groups show and the rather weary and battered approach of the policy makers in this field, under the political media pressures that I described, can be brought to an end and that imagination and hard-headed sensitivity can be brought to bear on finding answers. A royal commission could help us to do that.

My Lords, I strongly support the call by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for a royal commission into the state of our prisons.

This country has never before had a royal commission into the state of our prisons, except that in 1964 we set up a commission and then disbanded it in 1966 before it completed its work. The principal reason why that committee foundered was that its terms of reference were very wide. If a royal commission were established, it would be important to avoid making the same mistake again. The terms of reference of the royal commission should be limited to three things: first, prison conditions and regimes, secondly, prison management, and thirdly, the use of imprisonment. Although there has not been a royal commission, there have been a number of inquiries into the state of our prisons, from the Gladstone committee of 1895 to the Woolf report of 1991. A royal commission could do worse than reiterate the principles set out over a century ago in the report of the Gladstone committee.

The crucial contribution that the Gladstone Committee made to penal thinking was its insistence that reforming prisoners should become one of the primary aims of the prison system. It argued that prisoners' treatment,

“should be more effectually designed ... whenever possible to turn them out of prison better men and women, both physically and morally, than when they came in”.

This argument is as valid today as it was at the end of the 19th century. Set in today's context, this philosophy would argue for a smaller prison population held in prisons where regimes were based on the need to prepare prisoners for release. For many years, the United Kingdom has had a higher proportion of its population in prison than most other western European countries. We currently have 148 people in prison for every 100,000 people in the general population, compared with 93 in Germany and 85 in France. As a result of our overuse of custody, we tolerate a routine degree of overcrowding which could have shocked the Gladstone committee. It was critical of the fact that the provision of the Prisons Act 1865 that every male prisoner should sleep in a cell by himself had occasionally—I emphasise that—not been adhered to because of the reception of unusually large drafts of prisoners.

Compare that with the position in Britain today, where our local prisons are routinely overcrowded. Overcrowding means that 18,000 prisoners are held two to a cell, built for one person. It means that it is much harder for prisons to provide genuinely rehabilitative regimes which could reduce reoffending on release. It means an increased risk of suicide and self-harm; that point was ably demonstrated by previous speakers. It means that prisoners are often moved before they have finished educational and rehabilitative courses, which could have helped to reduce reoffending. The pressure of numbers also means that prisoners are often moved to prisons far from their homes, making it harder to keep family links intact, even though support from a family can provide a very strong incentive for released prisoners to avoid further crime.

Most offenders who are sent to prison each year in England and Wales receive sentences of less than 12 months. In most cases, these sentences do no good. They do not provide significant public protection, they are too short for significant rehabilitative work to take place, and they are followed by high reconviction rates—that has already been explained by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.

Most of these offenders would be better dealt with by supervision programmes in the community. There are an increasing number of intensive and rigorous programmes, which make real demands on offenders and significantly restrict their liberty. They also hold out more hope of preventing reoffending than a short prison sentence. When offenders are imprisoned, there is overcrowding. There is overwhelming evidence of the importance of rehabilitation in protecting the public from further offending. There can be a significant impact on reducing reoffending from regimes which involve highly focused work on attitudes to offending, help offenders to restrain impulsive and aggressive behaviour, increase their empathy with victims, develop their education and employment skills and provide help with drug and alcohol problems. Getting offenders into jobs reduces their likelihood of reoffending by between one-third and one-half. According to one study, providing offenders with basic skills education cuts their likelihood of reoffending by two-thirds. Offenders who enter and stay in a drug rehabilitation programme have an average rate of reoffending which is one-fifth of their previous level.

The appropriate use of imprisonment and the need for rehabilitative prison regimes are inextricably linked. A royal commission with a remit to examine the use of prisons, the management of prisons and prison regimes could produce proposals for a more rational approach to imprisonment and one with a better chance of protecting the public through reducing reoffending.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for securing this important debate on a royal commission on prisons. It is most timely, particularly as we are about to embark on a course of action that will fundamentally change prison policy as it has been followed by all Governments since the Second World War. We are going to increase our prison capacity to a level which takes us quite out of the west European view of the place of imprisonment in society and more towards the level of the countries which have only recently moved to a democratic form of government. We are also envisaging moving towards vast places of incarceration—carceral villages—each holding 2,500 prisoners and a large number of staff.

Since time is short, I will restrict my remarks to the increase of prison capacity and the decision to spend what I believe is an additional £2.3 billion to take us to 96,000 prison places by 2014. The Secretary of State for Justice told the Royal Society of Arts on 26 March that there is no case for a royal commission because we now have Select Committees. Of course, he is right. In fact, the Justice Committee in the other place is currently conducting an inquiry into whether the enormous sums spent on criminal justice are an effective way to spend so much money.

On 13 May, the chairman of that Select Committee, Alan Beith MP, asked the Secretary of State for Justice:

“Have you not”,


“pre-empted the entire argument and discussion by committing yourself to the Titan prisons and, thereby, really foreclosing large, vast amounts of public expenditure and a commitment to a very large number of prison places without the opportunity of considering whether this money might stop more crimes if it were spent elsewhere in the system?”.

The Secretary of State responded simply by saying that we need a substantial expansion in the number of prison places. Yet, only a few months earlier, he is on the record as saying that,

“you have got to have a rational debate about the number of prison places that need to be provided”.

The report of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, on which the decision is based provided no detailed analysis and no weighing of alternative policy options. We are suffering here from a serious lack of analysis of evidence, of proper research and of consideration of the possible benefits of different options. Therefore, there is a vacuum, which a standing royal commission of some sort needs to fill.

Such a royal commission might look at, among other things, the following questions. Compared with 17 other OECD countries, our spending in the UK on safety and public order functions is the highest. It is markedly higher than in France and Germany, and higher even than in the United States, yet our spending on health is the third lowest. Is that a sensible allocation of resources? A royal commission might also look at the impact on crime of a high use of imprisonment. It would have to conclude that there is no evidence of a clear relationship between levels of imprisonment and crime rates. Countries with high imprisonment rates are not safer than countries with low imprisonment rates. All the evidence suggests that spending on imprisonment beyond the level necessary to protect the public from serious harm is not cost-effective. If a royal commission were to consider all the evidence, it would conclude that the huge expansion being planned could have seriously damaging consequences. It is likely to move money away from the existing prison regimes in all prisons. It could reduce the resources that are channelled to those agencies that can keep offenders out of prison and could solve some of the problems that get them there in the first place.

The policies that we are now following are not based on evidence. They emerged from an unhealthy competition between politicians to use the number of people in prison as a symbol—a symbol that says, “We care about crime. We want people to be safe. Building more prisons is how we respond to the natural feeling that people should not get away with harming others. Sending more people to prison is how we respond to the fact that poor people in disadvantaged areas suffer most from crime”. Giving the public more use of prison in response to those legitimate concerns is a false promise, because imprisonment for the lower level perpetrators, the sick and the addicted brings no safety to those who suffer from crime. Someone needs to say, “We must stop spending our public money so profligately with such high commitments far in the future on something that does little social good and leads to much social harm”. Instead, we need to look at the evidence on how to spend that money on what we know is more effective.

A highly respected royal commission studying and reporting on the use and practice of imprisonment could be a great help to politicians, to get them out of the profligate path that they are taking us down.

My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, I place on record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for instigating it. No one in the Chamber can be in a better position to do so. I, too, am in favour of a royal commission. Such a commission could produce an overall strategy for prisons in the 21st century—a strategy designed to help those who commit crimes to settle back into our community and a strategy that tackles the reason for crimes being committed.

Policy decisions affecting the criminal justice system should not be made in a vacuum, nor should they be made without consideration being given to the impact of any change in policy on the whole prison system. The prison strategy should not, and must not, merely cover a punishment for criminals: it must include a positive attitude toward prisoners while they are in prison and give assistance to them on their release.

Unfortunately, for diverse reasons, over recent years, we seem to have veered away from a supportive role towards what I refer to as the three Bs: bung them through the system; bang them up; and build more prisons—not a good recipe for success.

Today is not the first time that concern has been expressed about our prison system or the criminal justice system as a whole. I remember clearly the horrors of the 1980s—in particular, the riots that began in Manchester prison, which spread throughout the prison system. I lived those riots minute by minute, day by day, because at that time my husband was the chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association. I also remember the report of Lord Justice Woolf on the riots. He wrote of the cancer of prison overcrowding and the starving of resources of the prison system, which resulted in having to resort in daily crisis management.

What has changed? That was more than 20 years ago. Then there was a Conservative Government. Now there is a Labour Government. So the answer does not lie in a change of political parties; it lies in a change of political thinking; it lies in a change of political will. Unfortunately, a constant during those 20 years has been an ever-increasing prison population combined with an ever-increasing prison building programme. Rather like the building of a new motorway, extra capacity is soon used up and cannot cope and the circle continues. Overcrowding has increased. Overcrowding is disastrous. Tension inside prison increases; suicides soar; assaults on prison staff climb; instability becomes the norm.

Obviously overcrowding affects prisoners, but it also affects those who work in prisons. Prison staff are just as much the victims of overcrowding as the prisoners. Let us not forget that the living conditions of prisoners are the working conditions of prison staff. If the former is bad, so is the latter.

The Government think that the answer lies in Titan prisons. I shudder at the prospect of them in the United Kingdom. Imagine a disturbance in such a large establishment. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government have considered this aspect of the proposed mega-prisons, and what their answer to such a crisis would be? I am not alone in my fears, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, illustrated. Anne Owers, the highly respected Chief Inspector of Prisons, also has grave doubts about them. In her 2006-07 report, she said:

“On the horizon loom the Titans—2,500-strong prison complexes, flying in the face of our, and others’, evidence that smaller prisons work better than large ones”.

That is a management view.

What do the representatives of those working in prisons think? Paul Tidball, general secretary of the Prison Governors Association is “underwhelmed” by the case for them. Colin Moses, the president of the POA, and Brian Caton, its general secretary, believe that they will be unworkable, as does Harry Fletcher, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers. We need a change of direction, which is why we need a royal commission.

Finally, I know that the Minister recognises the value of those who work in the prison system to that system and to society as a whole, and I hope he will ensure that they are fully consulted on any plans for the future.

My Lords, since I became the Bishop to Prisons last October, I have been deeply impressed by the number of people, the range of organisations and the depth of academic research associated with prisons and penal reform. I have also been struck by the amazing degree of agreement about the problems and the possible solutions. It leaves me wondering why there is such little progress in our society in dealing with these well known difficulties. It also leaves me wanting to add my voice to the call of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for a royal commission.

People end up in prison as a consequence of a failure to relate to other people justly and properly and a failure to imagine what their actions have done to other people and how they have damaged them. If prison is a place for people who have failed to relate humanely and justly, and is there to reform and restore the offender back to society, it follows that it should be a place where offenders learn how to relate humanely and justly. However, the question that hangs over the debate and all our prisons today is whether the prison experience diminishes or enlarges the offender’s potential to relate humanely and justly to others. Despite the excellent work done in the Prison Service and the third sector, I am afraid that it is simply not possible confidently to answer yes to that question. That is why we need a royal commission.

Some of the most effective work that is being done in prison is in restorative justice. A small number of courses are already operating, including some run by the Chaplaincy Service. Restorative justice recognises that the crime does harm to a victim. It acknowledges that crime disrupts the network of duties and responsibilities between the offender, the victim and the community. Most importantly, it makes the offender face their offence, and in the process enables them to discover, or recover, their own humanity. It is where they begin to learn to relate humanely and justly.

The weakness of the criminal justice system and the prison experience is that it depersonalises crime. The strength of the restorative justice process is that it repersonalises the crime by making the offender deeply aware of the human impact of their offence. A recent UK study of victims taking part in restorative justice revealed that 90 per cent wanted to tell their offender what impact the crime had had on them; 80 per cent wanted to be given reasons for, and answers about, what had happened; and 73 per cent wanted an apology.

Not all victims want to come face to face with their offender. However, when the offender confronts his offence by facing his victim, it becomes a significant step in changing attitudes and behaviour. I hope that a royal commission would examine carefully the place of restorative justice in prisons as a pathway to reducing reoffending, which is a government priority. Well resourced programmes, widely available in all prisons, would ensure that prisons become places where offenders learn how to relate to others. There is little hope of a released offender relating humanely and not reoffending if, while in prison, they have been confirmed in their previous attitudes and patterns of behaviour. If prison diminishes the prisoner’s potential to relate humanely, as I believe it does at the moment, we cannot be surprised at the current rates of reoffending. If, on the other hand, prison were to enlarge the prisoner’s capacity to relate humanely to society, not only would we see a reduction in reoffending, but we could also rename the criminal justice system, much more hopefully, the “restorative justice system”.

I give the warmest support to the call of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for a royal commission.

My Lords, I also applaud the securing of this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I remain agnostic about whether a royal commission is the answer. However, I am implacable in my view that prisons in our society are one of the greatest reproaches in the public estate.

The number of prisoners has risen from 45,000 in the early 1990s to 82,000. The interesting thing is that imprisonment rates are not much greater; it is the number of laws on the statute book for crimes that carry custodial sentences that has increased so dramatically. I do not know whether the 44 criminal justice Bills that we have seen in the past 11 years, with more than 3,000 new criminal offences, have a part to play, as well as the increasing length of prison sentences.

The fact is that prisons are the repositories of our social problems. I have four points to make. The first is that we continue to have a financial incentive to incarcerate people. We all agree that prisons are largely populated by people with drug addiction problems, mental health problems and learning problems. The vast majority are dysfunctional people. That is not to say that some prisoners are not bad people who do dreadful things. We all agree that that element of the population should be in prison. However, I believe that what vexes noble Lords is that the vast majority of prisoners are social casualties.

Why were they not picked up by special education, social services, drug rehabilitation programmes or mental health programmes? I can tell you simply. The cost of keeping someone in prison is about £514 a week. The cost of keeping somebody in a psychiatric intensive care unit is £3,766 a week—seven times as much. Every local authority’s health and social services budget is pressed; there is not enough money. When welfare workers who mean well but do not act fast enough let the problem develop, in the end it is the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice that pick up the bill. Prison is a free good, and as long as it is a free good, there will be a financial incentive to use it.

My second point concerns offender health. The Government made a step forward—at last—in claiming prisoners’ health as part of the NHS. I am sympathetic and respectful to the Government, because this will be a ticking time bomb. We see in our prisons one of the highest levels of morbidity; between 60 and 75 per cent of inmates affected by drug addiction problems; 20 times the rate of communicable diseases of all kinds, both airborne and blood borne, including TB, hepatitis C and HIV; massive suicide problems—we have spoken of the desperate situation of the 92 suicides last year; very severe mental problems; and gerontological problems. We have 76 year-olds sleeping on top bunks and people so old that they cannot feed or wash themselves. Are they being treated appropriately in prison institutions?

The NHS now has responsibility for prisoner health. It has to commission, and to follow guidelines and NICE protocols. This will lead inevitably to a ratcheting-up of standards, but at great cost. However, above all else, we must have localisation: programmes for health, mental health and drug addiction that can be integrated between the prison and the community. These are not conditions that can be treated within the context of a three-month or even three-year prison sentence, let alone in circumstances where at no notice prisoners are moved from pillar to post. It is interesting to note that the highest incidence of suicide occurs one month after a change, be it admission, change of prison or release.

That brings me to my next point: rehabilitation. Precious little planning is made for rehabilitation in the community. These are people with few emotional, physical and financial resources. When they go back into the community they feel lost and thus find it easy to fall back into old ways. My call is for a renewed effort by the TUC, the CBI and chambers of commerce to play their part in employing former offenders. There is not a company in the country that does not tell us about its policies on the environment, diversity, women and volunteering, but I want to know about their policies on employing former offenders. Doing so should be the sign of an enlightened company in which people are proud of employing former offenders. I do not pretend that that is easy; noble Lords know that my work is in the employment search field. I also want to know about the Government’s policy in this regard.

As regards employment, we need a renewed and sharper focus on prison education. I simply highlight the work of the Open University with the prison establishment to develop educational facilities. Only 1.5 per cent of men and 1.7 per cent of women prisoners are enrolled, but perhaps not surprisingly the completion rate is higher than elsewhere. On the other hand, the conditions and background of many involved are not at all easy. I hope that we can do more to help those working with the Open University.

The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, talked about the Government and the Prison Service. I believe that we can and must do more to change the views of the public. We have changed views on racism, gender, smoking and seat belts, and we must now do more to create a climate in public opinion that encourages the Government and the Prison Service to become more enlightened and productive.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, who has made a number of important points, and to listen to the range of experience and expertise lined up to speak in the debate. I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham on securing this debate and forcing us to think once more, in a strategic fashion, I hope, about what is to be done about our prison system. Many people, having done the job he did as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, would have been content to put their feet up and take a certain satisfaction from the sense of a job well done, but not my noble friend. The energy and dedication with which he has continued the battle in this House to get a prison system of which we can feel proud rather than ashamed are most admirable. This debate is apposite because, of all the topics that exercise your Lordships, the question of how many people we send to prison and how we treat them there probably causes as much heart-searching regularly as any other topic I have heard discussed in this House.

I shall not take up valuable time by rehearsing the catalogue of woes that afflict the prison system at present. Other noble Lords have already done that more than adequately. I shall put them in the context so brilliantly analysed by Professor Nicola Lacey of the LSE in her recent Hamlyn lectures, to which my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham referred. The woes afflicting our prison system result from a drift from moderation or tolerance towards a culture of severity, repression or control which characterises our penal system at the beginning of the 21st century and is clogging up our prisons, despite falling crime rates and the best intentions of the Labour Government.

Ministers will know, from our debate earlier this year on the report by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, that I favour a change in our institutional arrangements for dealing with these matters to ones based more on consensus than an adversarial approach. However, would a royal commission on the prison system supply what is needed? Certainly, judging from this debate, plenty of people will be ready to write its report, but I have some doubt about the proposal, as presented, for a royal commission.

To begin with, the commission would need to encompass the criminal justice system as a whole, not just the prison system. Prisons cannot be divorced from our whole society’s approach to crime and punishment. The Howard League has established the Commission on English Prisons Today, a valuable initiative which should inject and stimulate new thinking. Could a royal commission add value to that? The precedents are not encouraging: that on the criminal justice system in 1993 under the noble Lord, Lord Runciman, had few tangible outcomes. In the 1960s, the one on the penal system broke up in disarray, as the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said. It will always be difficult for a body with a broadly based membership charged with looking at fundamental principles to reach consensus on something so hotly contested as the aims and methods of the penal system.

However, we need a forum in which penal policy can be formed and tested against informed and expert opinion. Those who resigned from the 1960s royal commission believed that the search for agreed basic principles was a fruitless exercise but that a programme of pragmatic, experimental change might afford a way forward. That led to the establishment of the Advisory Council on the Penal System, a successor to rather than a carbon copy of the Advisory Council on the Treatment of Offenders, which preceded the royal commission between 1944 and 1964.

I am grateful to the staff of the Library, who drew my attention to an article in the Political Quarterly for 1979 by Rodney Morgan and Brian Smith, chronicling these developments. They argued that radical analysis of existing policy and the formulation of long-term policy solutions require independence from the intricacies of current administrative exigency, the constraints of party political ideology and the vested interests of personnel constituencies. The advisory council undertook a number of focused studies with circumscribed terms of reference and published nine reports between 1966 and 1980, but it did not survive Mrs Thatcher’s onslaught on quangos.

Would a revived advisory council or something like it do the trick? That is not clear. Professor Lacey argues that systematic differences between political economies organised along different lines create regularities affecting the penal culture which are more or less stable. Regularities such as these give us rates of imprisonment at eastern rather than western European levels. The whole process is underpinned and reinforced, as we have heard, by a political and media culture in which parties vie with one another to see which can be toughest on crime. That in turn creates what Professor Lacey describes as a “prisoner’s dilemma” from which escape is difficult. A revived Advisory Council on the Penal System, or perhaps a permanent sentencing commission, could help point the way out of the prisoners’ dilemma towards a penal policy that met at least some of the aims of both the Government and their critics.

In any event, I very much hope that, after today, the Minister will agree to take this discussion forward with a view to the debate having some practical outcome, so that it does not become just an academic exercise.

My Lords, this is a timed debate. It will finish at 18.28 pm. We are running some six minutes behind; that will come out of the Minister’s speech, unless the remaining speakers speed up.

My Lords, I shall do my best. This debate of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, could not be more timely or important and I thank him for it. The state of our prisons today is a tragedy for those imprisoned. The overcrowding is now 9,000 over the maximum capacity and rising, and the necessary regimes and services to provide for their needs are thus seriously undermined. Evidence abounds of severe cuts in training, education and mental health services and of other services being unable to meet the ever-growing need—I have had the most terrible briefing from the BMA on its concern—and suicides are rising. The catalogue is frightening.

It is a tragedy for the prison staff who have to work in these conditions, where it is a miracle that things have not already collapsed, and it is impossible for them to do their job as they should and could. It is a tragedy for the families outside, where tens of thousands of children lose a parent to prison every year and become more likely as a result to become involved in the criminal justice system. And it is a tragedy for each and every one of us in society today, where reoffending is between two-thirds and three-quarters, where people do not feel safe or confident in our prisons or the criminal justice system, and where we are all being diminished as a society in the process.

Extraordinarily, while we imprison more people than any other country in Europe, and criminalise young offenders in particular, the Government response is to commission more of the same at a cost of billions. This includes $2.3 billion for the Titan prisons, which all the evidence shows are the antithesis of what should be done to create a humane, effective prison system. The Government pay lip service to the importance and effectiveness of community penalties while requiring cuts over three years in the budget of the Probation Service, which manages these offenders in the community. The £40 million allocated earlier this year to the service is matched by these budgetary cuts, thus making the government support a chimera.

I chair a £4 million initiative called Rethinking Crime and Punishment which has for seven years been looking in depth at the uses of custody and its alternatives. Our manifesto, which is launched here next week, strongly supports, on the evidence, community penalties for all but the most violent, dangerous and prolific offenders, for whom prison is clearly necessary. This means reallocating those billions to community alternatives where reoffending is significantly lower, damage is reduced, prisons can do their job and, above all, society is safer.

I entirely support the call of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for a royal commission on prisons. It would give an opportunity to stand back from an issue that has become so politicised and distorted, so driven by events and short-term advantage and concerns about appearing soft on crime, and instead to look dispassionately at what we really want from our criminal justice system. It could make recommendations in a strictly evidence-based, thoroughly researched and thoughtful way at arm’s length from government.

Some noble Lords may remember a precedent; it has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Low. It was not exactly a royal commission but an advisory council on the treatment of offenders which was set up in 1966 and produced some seminal reports. Its members included the great Baronesses, Lady Serota and Lady Wootton. It gave rise, inter alia, to community service, which was carefully implemented through pilot schemes. Sentencers and the community were both involved before the scheme was rolled out nationally. A royal commission should, of course, carefully select its expert members and have a well focused remit. We would all benefit from such an exercise.

In the midst of all the detailed argument, I want to bring us back to the fundamental thinking which we need now by quoting the inimitably eloquent words of a Liberal Churchill in 1910. He said:

“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state, and even of convicted criminals against the state, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes, and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if only you can find it, in the heart of every man—these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it”.

The quality of our civilisation, the strength of our nation and the living virtue in it are indeed being put to the test. We must not fail it.

My Lords, the British Crime Survey reports that crime has decreased by 42 per cent since 1995, which is a welcome statistic. However, there is precious little evidence from any reputable research that our existing penal policies have contributed to that decrease. It is arguably a reduction in spite of those policies, not because of them. The overall realities of penal policy are a brutal nightmare, although it cannot be said too often that there are many valiant, dedicated, inspired and totally committed people within the police, prison, health and other services, struggling to achieve a more civilised and effective culture. And prevailing culture is obviously fundamental to sustaining qualitative improvement.

The harsh realities bear repeating. Reoffending remains high with two-thirds of prisoners reoffending within two years. Within one year of release 76 per cent of children under 18 reoffend. Almost 20,000 men and women have to exist in inadequate cells designed for only one person. At the beginning of June 2004 there were 74,850 people in prison. A year later this month it is 82,791. This is a trend that will bring us to 100,000 by the year 2012. Amid the overcrowding in prisons the number of suicides is frankly appalling. There were 92 in 2007. In 2007 alone, eight women took their own lives, equalling the number for the two previous years combined. Seven under-21s took their own lives in 2007, compared with only two in 2006. The youngest was just 15. On top of all this, there is substance abuse and self-inflicted wounds.

How can we call ourselves a decent, civilised society with all this grim evidence of wasted, stunted lives? Our prisons are full of people who should be in secure, specially equipped centres specifically catering for mental health. Again the facts are shocking, with 90 per cent of prisoners having a diagnosable mental health problem and 70 per cent having two or more such problems. These prisoners are vulnerable to bullying, substance abuse and damaging cell relationships. They have difficulties securing access to appropriate healthcare and counselling. There is little opportunity to resolve traumas originating in past life. I have seen for myself how arrival procedures in prison can be highly stressful. Screening for mental health problems is too often minimal. The absence of anything like sufficiently meaningful daytime activity severely aggravates the situation.

The Howard League for Penal Reform, the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health and other similar organisations, together with enlightened thinkers with frontline experience within the Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice, are brimful of sound analysis of what needs to be done. There is an urgent need to provide a forum in which this wisdom can be brought to bear. The notion of Titan prisons, with all the rationalising talk about centres of excellence, economies of scale and the best possible use of expertise, cuts very little ice with those with mainstream experience and responsibility. Most of the reputable research suggests that, to make effective progress with rehabilitation—which must surely be the only sane, overarching objective, not least on grounds of economic sense—smaller, more personal units are above all what is needed, particularly for the young. The Titan proposal is flawed from the start and should be fundamentally reviewed before we embark on yet another counterproductive exercise entailing the waste of huge amounts of taxpayers’ money. I have always believed that the concept of what we have traditionally called royal commissions has a big part to play in a healthy democracy. Free of short-term electoral preoccupations, and not egged on by the worst elements in the media, a royal commission is able, with gravitas and care, authoritatively to build up an understanding of what is really the nature of the social challenge confronting us and to propose a sound, strategic approach to answering it on which the debate about legislative requirements can focus.

Building on the work of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the recent excellent and telling report by my noble friend Lady Corston, I believe that there is no issue which more requires a royal commission than this one. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for having introduced this Motion today.

My Lords, I, too, endorse that sentiment and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on bringing this matter for debate before your Lordships' House. A country is judged by its performance regarding its prison system and penal policy. We are told by the noble Lord that prisons are in crisis and the speeches have bristled with human rights issues and personal tragedies. The Howard League’s figures on prison suicide are terrible to read; in the case of women, especially, the figures have leapt by 167 per cent over the past couple of years, and the under-21s likewise. The youngest, a mere 15 years old, has already been mentioned.

The tasks of such a commission should be to look at the comparative figures for the UK versus other countries and, if it was appointed tomorrow, at the currently rising numbers in this country looked at on their own. I shall give noble Lords a few figures. My source is the International Centre for Prison Studies—this is the realm of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern—and the figures are very up-to-date. I shall use the unit of measurement used in the centre’s national reports of number of prisoners per 100,000 head of population. The figure for the UK, which we have had already, is 152. I gather that in some countries, including the United States, Russia and other eastern European countries, the figures are way higher. We may be talking about 600 or 750 per 100,000 of population, but I shall ignore those and come closer to our coastline, starting with Scandinavia.

I think we would all assume that in Scandinavia we will find a small number of prisoners per 100,000—at least I would—and so it is: Denmark has 66, Sweden 79 and Norway 75. There is an interesting parallel here. An organisation called Transparency International publishes an annual league table on the most and least corrupt countries in business dealings. It is based on businessmen’s evidence. Up at the top, in the sense of being the least corrupt, come the Scandinavian countries. It is rather interesting that these penal figures correspond.

For France, the figure for prisoners per 100,000 of population is 91, for Germany it is 88, and Italy 75. We creep over the 100 mark with the Netherlands. Then there is the very startling result for Spain; I think the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, himself would be surprised. It tops the UK, with a figure of 154. There has been a tremendous increase in the Spanish prison population, from 35,000 in 1992 to 70,000 in June of this year.

I also looked at the number of juveniles in prison. In the UK, 2.9 per cent of the prison population are defined as juveniles, minors and young prisoners. There may be some irregularity in the figures because the exact language may not be capable of totally accurate translation country by country. In Scandinavia, the figure in Denmark is 0.1 per cent; in Norway, 0.3 per cent; and in Sweden, 0.2 per cent. In France the figure is 1.1 per cent and in Germany it is higher, at 4.4 per cent. Then there is the astonishing figure of 11 per cent for the Netherlands which includes imprisonment outside institutions. In Italy, the figure is 0.9 per cent. We are not the worst in percentage terms—we are beaten by Germany and the astonishing figure in the Netherlands.

On the occupancy level of prison accommodation, the figure for prisoners in the UK is 113 per cent against 100 per cent accommodation. Spain has the astonishing figure of 140 per cent, Sweden 106 per cent and France 118 per cent. All the others are below 100. Our figure is worrying.

The royal commission should then look at the causes of our high figures. There are four possible things to look at: the restrictive attitude to bail; the restrictive attitude to parole, because of the fear of letting somebody out who commits a crime within 24 hours; the indeterminate sentences, where people linger; and long sentences, where there has been a huge change from the pre-war era. At that time about 9 per cent of male prisoners were serving three years or more. The comparable figure for 2002 was that 61 per cent of male prisoners were serving longer sentences. We have switched to long sentences.

I will have to stop now, but I want to say one word on Titan prisons. The idea of a Titan prison creates dismay in my heart. With 2,500 prisoners locked up in a single building, what will happen if there is any sort of riot, industrial action or any of the things that we have been reminded of? What will life be like for those prisoners if they are being bullied or there is some sort of sexual aberration? You can imagine conditions of total horror. I close on that note. I hope there is still time for some rethinking there.

My Lords, during the 1970s, when I was a member of the Parole Board for England and Wales, the prison population was half what it is today. We would have been deeply shocked had we foreseen that only 30 years later the numbers in prison would grow to over 80,000.

My noble friend Lord Carter of Coles, whose review of prisons has already been referred to, has demonstrated how the increased use of prison in sentencing has rendered the capacity of our prisons inadequate. In the light of that, despite some of the comments made this afternoon, he inevitably had to propose significant enlargement of the prison estate. He had to propose something of that order. Yet he knows, and the Government repeatedly assert, that government policy is to reserve prison for the most serious and dangerous offenders. Indeed, community sentences have increased at an even greater rate. Such sentences are rightly preferred when sentencing in our criminal courts not only because our prisons are currently full but because prison has so many deleterious consequences in terms of so many aspects of institutionalisation and the harmful influence of the prison culture.

If community sentences are to be more effective and if they are to receive wider public acceptance and support for what appears to be a soft alternative option, more consideration needs to be given to the value of publicity for the sentences awarded. Last week the Evening Standard reported:

“Company bosses who employ illegal immigrants are to be named and shamed in a further attempt to crack down on people-smuggling, Ministers announced today”.

In the other place, my honourable friend Liam Byrne, the Minister with responsibility for immigration, said that the names of companies and directors would be published on the UK Border Agency website. Why should that idea not be pursued in other types of criminal case? I know from my own experience in business and trading standards that naming and shaming businessmen guilty of offences such as fraud can be a powerful deterrent to the majority of businessmen who are concerned with maintaining a good reputation among their peers and customers.

There was a time when local newspapers used to publish extensive reports of court hearings, such as in local magistrates’ courts, and of the convictions. In the 19th century local newspapers had pages devoted to local court proceedings. That is rare nowadays and a major deterrent aspect of criminal convictions and sentences has been lost. Except in very serious cases or those where the accused is a celebrity—how unfortunate it is to be a celebrity, because the people convicted may have their convictions and sentences recorded in the newspapers—most people need have no fear whatever that their neighbours and workmates will get to know about it.

I could if I had more time quote extensively from modern judges—even though the former Lord Chief Justice has left the Chamber—but I shall confine myself to the great Jeremy Bentham, who said that publicity is the very soul of justice. When, as is the case today, few people attend court proceedings and newspapers rarely report them, some other means should be found to keep the public informed, perhaps by way of appropriate websites or otherwise.

I welcome community sentencing schemes not only for the inherent value of restorative justice—a phrase to which I was glad to hear the right reverend Prelate refer—but especially if there is some visibility to the public of community service in action. A recent Ministry of Justice paper records Mike Wells of the London Community Payback Scheme as saying:

“The offenders wear yellow jackets and the superior has an orange one. We put a board up saying it’s a Community Payback Scheme. And we leaflet the area so that everyone knows we are there and can see justice in action”.

I recommend that kind of publicity. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who initiated the debate, that I doubt the need for a royal commission on prisons because so much information is known, but if there is to be such, it should be broader, dealing with sentencing of all kinds.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for this debate. If a standing royal commission takes place, it should not sit on a shelf. It would need to look also at aftercare and resettlement, because reoffending rates remain high, with two-thirds of prisoners reoffending within two years of release. That figure goes up to 76 per cent within one year of release for young people under 18. Many of them come from care or are homeless. Children under 16 should not be in a prison situation, especially a Titan prison, but in a secure school, having full-time education, plenty of exercise and support in changing their habits. There should be zero tolerance of bullying. Many of those young people have truanted from school, been involved with drugs and alcohol, and have a chaotic lifestyle. They should be given the chance of challenges such as those provided in the camps in America, where activities like those offered in the Duke of Edinburgh schemes are undertaken.

Prison health is now the responsibility of the NHS, which I welcome. However, there is no national information on the amount of resource being spent by PCTs on commissioning prison mental health care, either from specialist mental health trusts or as part of the day-to-day work of primary care teams. Nor is there any way of comparing what is spent on prison primary care with what is spent outside. With so many health problems existing in prisons—whether physical, mental or dual-diagnosis, which is a combination of mental illness and addiction—and elderly long-term prisoners, there is no way of judging whether this level of provision meets the health needs of prisoners. Many of these mental health patients should be out of prison and treated in secure mental health units where their conditions are understood.

An article in the March/April edition of Diabetes UK’s magazine says that prisoners with diabetes often pay a high price in health terms, struggling to square self-management with the prison regime, which is not helpful to prisoners. A prison officer called Andy Cross at HMP Woodhill, a category A remand prison, is a diabetic himself. He helps prisoners with their diabetic problems and advises prison staff on how to manage diabetic prisoners when things go wrong. This include hypos due to low blood sugar or glucose. Prison staff often mistake hypos for behaviour problems. Andy has become a diabetic liaison officer for the Prison Service. There are many public health needs in prisons. Recent developments include a specialist TB nurse at Pentonville and a hepatitis programme across London, while the Health Protection Agency is setting up a prison network across the country. One could have a royal commission for the prison health service alone.

My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for instigating this debate. I declare an interest as an adviser to the trustees of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health. In these few minutes I shall concentrate on the area I know best in the prisons debate; namely, mental health issues in prisons. I suggest that what we can observe going on in the recognition and treatment of prisoners with mental illness is enough of an issue on its own—let alone everything else that noble Lords have talked about—to make it clear that we need a royal commission on our prisons to take a calm, dispassionate, expert and accurate look at what is going on, and to recommend, in a cross-party, cross-expert way, a true change of direction.

Wearing my rather eccentric Prime Minister’s Champion for Volunteering hat, I am at present working on a review of volunteering in the criminal justice system. There are thousands upon thousands of wonderful men and women doing all sorts of incredible things as volunteers in our prisons up and down the country. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, paid tribute to them. They get precious little thanks or chance to meet each other, but they are checked by the Criminal Records Bureau to ensure that they are the right people to do the job. Nevertheless, in some circumstances, a positive result from a Criminal Records Bureau check might give you just the qualification you need to be the mentor for some young offenders who are very troubled. They need to know what others who have been there have now discovered. I wonder if we should be thinking differently about that; a royal commission could do so.

My other real concern is that those volunteers say that their freedom to work effectively in closed institutions relies entirely on the attitudes of the governors of those prisons. We should be under no illusions. That is one of the reasons why we need a royal commission. Prisons have become our last closed institutions. They are being used to warehouse people, many of whom should never have been there. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, said, perhaps it is for reasons of cost.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, has already said that there is a huge prevalence of mental health problems in prisons. Ninety per cent of prisoners have diagnosable mental health problems, compared to around 20 per cent of the general population. Seventy per cent have two or more mental health problems, compared with 5 per cent of the general population. That means that mental distress is both more prevalent in prisons and much more complex than in the general community. The default prisoner—the general, normal prisoner, as it were—is someone with a complex mix of mental health issues, substance abuse issues and other problems that have rarely been managed well by the public services.

Yesterday the Sainsbury centre published From the Inside, a report on what prisoners and prison officers in the West Midlands have said about the impact of imprisonment and aspects of daily life in the prison environment which affect them. The prisoners said that they were most bothered by bullying, other inmates, having no one they trusted to talk to, substance misuse—a huge issue—unresolved past-life traumas and difficulty accessing services, particularly healthcare and counselling. What does this tell us? It tells us that mental health issues in our prisons will get worse and that both staff and prisoners know it. That, if for no other, is a reason for having a royal commission.

There is one other issue that we ought to look at and a royal commission could examine. The Government are undoubtedly to be given credit for handing over prison healthcare to the National Health Service. We were all immensely relieved to see that happen not very long ago. At the moment, £20.8 million a year is spent on mental health care in prisons through NHS inreach teams; that is about 11 per cent of total prison healthcare spending, or just over £300 for each member of the prison population. The really worrying thing about that is that it is only about one-third of the amount required to offer what government policy stated it would do—that is, to give equal standards of care to those inside prison and to those outside it. We need a royal commission to look at this. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, pointed out, we are at the top of the league in spending on prisons, but towards the bottom on health. These people are sick. They need treatment. A royal commission could guide us in the right direction. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and very much support his proposal.

My Lords, your Lordships have heard countless reasons for supporting this excellent Motion, so persuasively proposed by my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham. Not the least of those is the all-too-apparent growing unease among practitioners and the public about whether the prison system has a deterrent effect and is fit for today's purpose. We must have an independent and objective look—a non-political look, if you like—at whether a greater use of community and restorative justice sentences would produce far better results and, incidentally, cost taxpayers much less. We have heard the extraordinary figure that we spend a higher proportion of our GDP on law and order than any other OECD country. That alone is pretty odd.

However, we cannot complain that this Government have been inactive on crime. Over the past 10 years we have seen a torrent of some 50 criminal justice Bills and a positive tsunami of new imprisonable offences. We are told that the crime rate has fallen, but that is certainly not reflected in the number of people in prison, as we know. Your Lordships have heard how numbers continue to rise. The effect that overcrowding is having on staff and inmates alike is an increasingly visible cause of concern. Nor has there been any decrease in the reoffending rate; 65 per cent of released prisoners are reconvicted within two years, as we have heard. For the youngest men—I totally agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, that they should not be there in the first place—the figure is an appalling 76 per cent within less than a year of release. That is why I hope that the urgently needed policies to reclaim these youngest offenders for a satisfying, crime-free life will continue to be seen as a priority by the Government, whether or not there is a royal commission. What is needed on release is a blitz of support for young offenders from professionals, volunteers and local employers to ensure that there is somewhere for them to live, a job and/or skills training, and, above all, a mentor.

The noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, mentioned women prisoners. When women are in prison many children suffer as a result. It has long been accepted that a prison system designed on military lines by men for men is patently unsuited to women's rehabilitation needs. Last year’s Corston report, echoing many previous reports on women and prisons, recommended an entirely different strategy of small, local, community-based rehabilitation units. Encouragingly, the Government had accepted 40 of the 43 recommendations, but now, this very week, we had the sad announcement that they are rejecting the basic Corston analysis and we are back to square one.

The Government do not seem to understand that many view as completely illogical and contradictory their acceptance of the Carter plan to build up to three Titan-style prisons. Anne Owers, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that this flies,

“in the face of our, and others’ evidence that smaller prisons work better than larger ones”.

Not only does this move in the opposite direction to Corston, but it flies in the face of the Government’s own plans for far more “localising” of education, health and social support services and indeed their whole social inclusion agenda.

Corston, once in place, would have been a logical part of the preventative strategy for families at risk that the Government have enacted and reinforced with their own, crucial, Children and Young Persons Act. A royal commission’s independent, objective view of the whole Corston/Titan conflict would itself be invaluable. So, too, is the more radical approach to prison which is beginning to gain ground and is perhaps even beginning to be discussed in some government circles.

Louis Blom-Cooper, a distinguished barrister in this field, has just published a book which argues that 60 per cent of the prison population should not be there. He proposes that any future building projects should end, and that there should be a reduction of prisoners over the next 10 years to 50,000. Of course, we must always lock up dangerous criminals, but if we are increasingly saying that for most offenders prison does not work, and that many more community and restorative justice sentences should be imposed, with responsibility for those passed to the offender’s local area, then there is surely some logic to this challenging proposition.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for providing us with the opportunity to talk about prisons. I declare an interest as a non-executive member of the National Offender Management Service management board and its audit committee. However, the points I wish to make are my own, not those of any board or committee.

Over the past decade spending in real terms on prisons is up by 37 per cent. However, the prison population has risen by around a third over the same period and continues to rise because more offenders are going to prison, and for longer. Until, and unless, it becomes dangerous to take any more prisoners, our prisons have to accept whoever the courts so decide to send there.

Since 1995 there have been no category A prisoner escapes. In the five years from 1991-92 to 1995-96 there were 19 category A escapes. In 1996-97 there were 33 escapes from closed prisons; in 2007-08 there were four. In 1996-97 there were 1,115 abscondments; in 2007-08 there were 513, lower than at any time in the past 10 years. From 1990-95 there were 11 prison riots, including in Manchester, which lasted, I believe, 25 days. Since 1996, there have been just three major riots, and in all three cases control was regained within less than 12 hours and no prisoners escaped. That is hardly a sign of a failing system.

Reoffending rates have fallen in respect of those serving prison sentences and those serving community sentences. For those discharged from prison, comparing 2005 with five years earlier, the proportion reoffending within one year has fallen from just under 51.5 per cent to just over 49 per cent, with the number of offences committed by those offenders—mainly with respect to those sentenced to more than 12 months—also falling.

I would not wish to suggest for one moment that the current Chief Inspector of Prisons believes that everything is as it should be in our prisons, as her introduction to her most recent annual report, for 2006-07, makes clear. That introduction contains the following statement:

“Nevertheless, it is a credit to those running and working in the prison system that prisons have remained as safe and decent as they have, in this period of unprecedented pressure—facing not only increased numbers, but also increased expectations. Prisons remain, overall, better places than they were 10 or 15 years ago, and a number of the prisons inspected this year had progressed, against the odds”.

Evidence shows that recently inspected prisons are performing better against the four tests—safety, respect, purposeful activity and resettlement—that the chief inspector uses to assess the health of a prison than in previous inspections. Some 130,000 individuals a year go through the prison system. The number of self-inflicted deaths in 2007 was 92, which was higher than in the two previous years but marginally lower than in 2003 and 2004. The three-year rolling average has continued to fall, and it is my understanding that the number of self-inflicted deaths this year to date is below the number at the same time last year, although that situation could, unfortunately, change very quickly. No self-inflicted death can simply be accepted, but the trends do not suggest that prisons are in a downward spiral, despite all the pressures on numbers.

There has also been a reduction by more than 60 per cent in the past 10 years of drug misuse in prisons, as measured by the random mandatory drug testing programme, which, subject to what a pending report may have to say, is in my view a credible programme. There is evidence to suggest that intensive drug treatment, provided it is followed up in the community, can reduce reoffending levels by at least 10 per cent.

Increasing good work continues to be done, through a variety of sources, in providing programmes for offenders to reduce the likelihood of their reoffending and to increase their prospects of securing employment or a place on a training or educational programme on release. Likewise, considerable effort is put into trying to ensure that there is appropriate accommodation for an offender to go to on release. Our prisons exceeded the targets set on the number of offender behaviour skills programmes completed and on employment and settled accommodation for offenders on release.

Our prisons have been and continue to be the subject of reports. There was the CRE investigation, followed more recently, for example, by reports either concluded or in train from my noble friends Lord Carter of Coles, Lady Corston and Lord Bradley. There is also a further report by David Blakey in relation to drugs in prisons. The Chief Inspector of Prisons reports on establishments and other issues affecting our prisons. The independent monitoring boards at prisons also produce reports, as does the ombudsman for the Prison Service. Our prisons are subject to parliamentary scrutiny through Select Committees and the National Audit Office, as well as Parliamentary Questions and debates.

I do not believe that the state of our prisons necessitates or justifies yet another investigation by a royal commission. It is true that in her most recent annual report the Chief Inspector of Prisons said that either a royal commission or a major public inquiry like the Woolf inquiry was needed, but that was in relation to developing a penal policy for the future, which is not what is being called for in the Motion. I do not believe that our prisons, and those who work in them at all levels in a wide variety of activities, get the credit they deserve for what they achieve despite extremely challenging circumstances. Already there are, and continue to be, numerous reports, investigations and reviews of prison activities and procedures. The evidence does not show that we have a failing Prison Service and does not provide a case for yet another investigation through a royal commission on the state of prisons.

My Lords, at this late stage of this excellent debate, with most of the arguments already made, repetition or summing up seem the only options available to me. I fear that I am only qualified to do the former with the limited oxygen that I have left. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, who said that long-term prison policy has never been in greater disarray.

There has been no discernible unified strategy for at least the past 40 years or more, so I am certainly not attempting to make political points when I say what I have to say. Nor am I in the business of joining the chorus of mostly ill-informed media comment about the prison estate—the headline stories about people trying to break into, chiefly, open prisons, or the disgraceful luxury which exists behind prison walls. All too few of those who write about such things have ever actually ventured inside a prison. I declare an interest as a former magistrate who has visited most parts of the estate, from local and training prisons to secure training centres.

I am certainly not criticising the Prison Service itself, for it is surely right to acknowledge the commitment and, often, sensitivity of very many in that service, who achieve much with slender resources, often in very difficult circumstances. For a minute noble Lords should contemplate the roads that we have been tempted down in the past in an effort to deal with the inexorable rise in the prison population. These include the short, sharp shock; the use of prison ships; the overuse of police cells; disused army camps; and now, heaven forefend, the construction of what I call “mega cans”—after all, it is an American idea, and surely “Titan”, being god-like is too positive a word to be used in this context. The Government are free to have the copyright of this idea, if they want it.

Defenders of the present arrangements point to the £1.7 billion currently earmarked for additional accommodation, albeit the wrong kind in the eyes of many. Warehousing, as it is correctly called, will undoubtedly facilitate containment. What about the other more productive policies—the policies which declare, unambiguously, that in order to cut the 64 per cent reoffending rate, there should be reasonable time out of cell, not the planned 3 per cent cuts, which will lead to weekend lockdowns? There should be meaningful education programmes, and work and training should be widespread and fulfilling, as exemplified in the charity Fine Cell Work.

There is no overall standing-back strategy to put all these factors together and make coherent policies from them. A royal commission would provide such a platform. Can I ask the Minister two questions? I will build on the invaluable comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger. We are all aware of the distress felt that those with mental health problems should be locked up in general prisons. As a former magistrate, I well remember the sinking feeling one had when confronted by an offender with obvious learning disabilities. One had no means of disposal relevant to his or her condition. Some of the former maximum security mental prisons were closed many years ago, no doubt for good and humane reasons, so that we now have only three in the prison estate. Where are their successors? Are there any dedicated prisons in the pipeline for those with learning disabilities, who need to be constrained for their own safety and ours? If not, why not? What is the current position about the availability of NHS facilities for offenders with mental health problems, who pose a threat only to themselves?

My second question relates to the sentencing process. Does the Minister feel that magistrates, for example, would benefit from a greater insight into what prison can do for offenders, before they embark upon the sentencing process—in other words, by having some sort of informative guide provided by the Prison Service? Before there is any spluttering about the Prison Service interfering in the judicial process, I stress that the suggestion is that this initiative should be purely educational and helpful. It should certainly be without any steer as to the outcome of any proceedings.

There are many strands to put together, most of which have been enumerated in this excellent debate, so ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham. The case for a royal commission is crystal clear. I am sure that it is a conclusion with which the eminently fair and reasonable Minister will agree. It is society which is in the dock here—not a Labour Government, not a Conservative Government, but all of us. It is not too much to say that we are now at a crossroads. Are we going to turn that crossroads into a roundabout, as has so often been the case in the past? Or are we, for once, going to venture down the right road, confident in the lead given by a successful royal commission?

My Lords, I rise to add my small voice to a debate on a very important issue and to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.

It is often said in debates that everything that can be said has been said, but not by everybody. We have been privileged today to have listened to a preview of the evidence that would be given to a royal commission on prisons. Every strand of concern has been exposed. There have been one or two political swipes, which is understandable and acceptable, but, by and large, we have had the voice of experience.

All too often, prisons—those in them and those who work in them—have, sadly, been used as a political football. What we have heard this afternoon should encourage the Minister to consider the possibility that after 15 years since the last commission, perhaps now is the time to initiate something similar. I speak as someone who had the privilege to be the parliamentary consultant to the Prison Officers’ Association some 20 years ago. In that capacity, I visited 32 prisons, from the north to the south. The public sometimes do not appreciate our criminal system—criminals are sentenced, they are sent to prison and the doors clang behind them. As far as the public is concerned, that is the end of it. However, inside those prison walls, there are not only those who have committed crimes, but those who work in prisons at various levels. I hope that this debate will highlight the issues that need to be resolved. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, in defence of the existing system and its successes, but that ought not to blind us to the fact that while I have been involved—for, say, 30 years—the prison world has undergone a revolution not only in numbers, but in the nature of the crimes that people commit, the nature of the people who are incarcerated, and the style of society. Inside prisons, prison officers do their very best.

I am not privy to inside comment, but I have listened to the debate for the past two and a half hours and been very impressed by the quality of the background and erudition of those who have taken part. The Minister may tell us that there is a strategy; but there are those who will say, “Tell us what it is, and we will be able to comment”. If there is a strategy, a direction and a plan, with no disrespect to the Minister or his colleagues, who have an impossible job to do, he could take the evidence from this debate and say to his colleagues that there is a feeling that now is the right time to take the heat away from the present debate. Sadly, as issues come up, as disputes emerge, as crisis after crisis comes along, there is a feeling that one is in the middle of a battle. You win one battle and you have another battle to face; you are in a war. The Whip has kindly pointed out to me that my time is up, so I will sit down and hope very much that the Minister has kind words to say about the Motion.

My Lords, I support the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and congratulate him on his speech. I propose to concentrate on the entirely non-political issue of how our prisons are run—their management. As I have studied the matter, it seems to me that the inheritance of today's management from the past is daunting. The 2007 edition of the Oxford Handbook of Criminology states that robustly independent critical chief inspectors have repeatedly identified “appalling” and “unhealthy” prisons in which regimes are impoverished and the staff culture is antagonistic. Prisons are costly, overcrowded, a constant management headache and apparently difficult places in which to maintain a positive regime.

The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, wrote that the heart of the problem of the Prison Service is the absence of a business-like structure; it does not have the benefits that flow from people knowing what to do and how to do it; and to whom they are responsible and accountable. The problem has been compounded, in the view of the writers of the Oxford Handbook, by considerable tension between Ministers and senior prison executives and between individual prisons and headquarters. We are told that both have led to frequent organisational changes. On that, I would say that that such an experience is immensely undermining of the confidence and effectiveness of senior management. I have known men of outstanding ability seeking to run public sector organisations in which there were ambiguities and changes of this kind and departing in despair.

The handbook also refers to costliness. In any organisation, two issues matter: unit costs and how effectively the units are used. On unit costs, the Carter report of 2007 says—I find this difficult to believe—that the full pay package in public sector prisons is 61 per cent higher than in the private sector counterparts. This may be a reflection of the inadequacy of pay in private sector prisons; I am in no position to judge. However, Carter tells us that labour costs are due to rise in the next four years from 80 per cent of total prison budgets in 2006-07 to more than 90 per cent in 2010-11. In such circumstances, there is a premium on the highly effective management of resources, particularly of people.

In contrast to what is required, Carter tells us that organisational structures are outdated and inflexible, with too much emphasis on grade and not enough on role. He says that the modernisation of the prison workforce is long overdue to address what he describes as the costly, outdated and inflexible pay and grading structures. He criticises the lack of adequate information for effective management and financial control, and says that the prisons lack a standard operating model to address a widespread variety in staffing levels and regime provision. Prisons cannot do a good job unless managers have clear stable objectives, clear accountability, authority, freedom to get on with the job, excellent financial information systems, guidance from a standard operating model, and strong backing when they take measures to deal with the management issues facing them.

Of course overcrowding and the frequent movement of prisoners associated with it compound the management problem. If, as was reported in 2004, the average tenure of governing governors in an establishment is still only one year and nine months, that would add to the management problem.

I support the Motion, not because the Government are inactive or because Ministers have been the least bit incompetent—indeed, there has been a flow of measures—but because this kind of management issue needs to be tackled. This is a matter for professional managers. I was alarmed to hear the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, say that there was no director of operations except in high-security prisons. This is a big management problem that needs to be tackled by excellent managers, and I hope that the Government will take that point on board.

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on once again giving us the benefit of his experience in bringing this Motion before the House.

The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, referred to his experience in the 1970s when he served on the Parole Board and when the prison population was about half what it is today. I recall as a recorder the last enlightened period of prison management. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, was the Home Secretary and did his best to drive down the prison population as opposed to putting it up. I well remember his advice. Many people were opposed to the direction in which he sought to drive policy.

We must ask ourselves whether society feels safer today with 82,000 people in prison than it did in the 1970s. Is our security any better when the proportion of the population in prison is, as my noble friend Lord Dholakia and the noble Lord, Lord Neill, pointed out, so much higher than in our European counterparts? Is London safer than Paris or Copenhagen? One has only to ask the question to realise that the number of people in prison does not make for a safer or happier society. One of the reasons for that—I am sure there are others—may well be that if you double the number of people in prison, you also double the number of people who come out of prison. They come out with the wasted lives to which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred—lives that have been wasted because no attempt has been or can be made in prison to address their social problems of illiteracy, mental ill health, drugs and so on. I recall a client of mine saying that it was easier to get drugs in prison than in the outside community—they were freely available. Despite everything that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has said, I do not think things have improved since then.

The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, put his finger on it when he pointed out that prison cannot work in the present situation because overcrowding destroys any chance of tackling these social problems. My noble friend Lady Linklater drew attention to the tragedy of prisoners’ families; the fact that, every year, tens of thousands of children lose a parent. Those children grow up to be the criminals of tomorrow: that is something that is frequently forgotten. Lock up more people and you create greater social problems among the families who are left behind.

What is the solution? The noble Lord, Lord Rosser—very bravely, if I may say so—has been the only noble Lord to support the status quo. He tells us that things are better now than they were, and that he does not see a need for a royal commission. The noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, was doubtful about the benefits of a royal commission, because of the history of royal commissions that sat in the past. He wondered whether we should revisit the advisory council for the penal system which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater pointed out, produced wonderful reports in the 1960s that led to community sentencing and so on.

The noble Lord also wondered whether a permanent sentencing commission might be the answer. I immediately thought of the sentencing commission promised by the Prime Minister in his legislative programme—his pre-Queen’s Speech that we heard recently. The proposal for a sentencing commission was endorsed by the Lord Chancellor, Mr Jack Straw, in another place. What is this talk of a sentencing commission? They are putting forward into the legislative programme a sentencing commission on which the working group is still consulting. I declare an interest as a former member of that group. Such was my position, I felt that I could not remain a member, and anything that I say about it is derived from documents in the public sphere, in particular the consultation document that the working group has issued.

Noble Lords might think the term “sentencing commission” raises the prospect of breaking the cycle, bringing down numbers and bringing in reforms—but not a bit of it. It is derived from the report in June last year of the noble Lord, Lord Carter. In Securing the Future, he proposed a major new building programme to increase capacity to a net 96,000 places by 2014, and recommended that long-term measures should be taken to avoid continuous and expensive prison building. The Titans project, which many noble Lords have criticised, was derived from that report.

The noble Lord sought to link resources with sentencing. At first blush, that seems sensible; but on examination it is not. The proposal that the working group put forward in its consultation document—it does not support it, but has merely put it forward for consideration—is based on the Minnesota or New Carolina system in the United States. A grid system has been introduced so you know what a sentence is going to be and time is added on for previous convictions and mitigation ceases to be important. The system produces something the Home Office might like: it forecasts within 2 per cent of target. But in Minnesota it has put up the prison population annually by 6.6 per cent since 2000 which, although I am not a mathematician, suggests that prison numbers double in the space of seven or eight years if that percentage rate of increase continues.

The sentencing commission the Government are considering and on which the working group is working does not in any sense address all the problems that noble Lords have talked about today. That is why I support the concept of a royal commission as put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. There are important questions to be asked. Who should be in prison? Should it be the 1,000 women being held on remand, as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, told us? Should it be young people, whose futures are made even bleaker by their time in prison? What sort of offence should send people to prison? That is the first question: who should be there?

The second question is: what is the right balance of occupancy that enables prisons to be used in a creative way and that offers the possibility of rehabilitation? If we are overcrowding prisons to the tune of 113 per cent, which means that three people have to share a two-man cell, there is no opportunity for that work. The royal commission could address that issue. What resources are needed? Are they needed to build more prisons like the proposed Titans or should they be used constructively to enable people released at the end of their sentence to become involved in society? The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, referred to the essential need for jobs and housing for prisoners when they come out, as well as families that are still intact. My noble friend Lady Neuberger referred to the critical question of mental health and all those who are locked up when really it is treatment that they need.

The issue is politicised and has become increasingly so throughout the 1990s and into this decade. We have to have an independent view so as to bring some sense into prison policy. That is why we shall back the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in this crusade.

My Lords, in this debate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, calls attention to the case for a royal commission on the state of prisons.

By a unique blend of complete mastery of his brief, trenchant parliamentary interventions and a relentless determination to persuade the Government of the error of their ways, the noble Lord has succeeded in driving the disgraceful state of our prisons way up the political agenda.

Above all, he has instilled in us a sense of urgency about the need to implement the policies he advocates. I recall very well experiencing that sense of urgency during the long passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill earlier this year when so many of the issues ventilated today were thoroughly discussed. It is because of his view that time is at a premium that I question whether the establishment of a royal commission is really the best way of achieving the noble Lord’s own objectives. Royal commissions are not normally associated with expedition, although I accept that some have taken evidence and reported more quickly than others. Nevertheless, a royal commission did not seem consistent with the need to get on with things. Moreover, and perhaps more to the point, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is very clear about what changes he wants. He does not need to wait for the royal commission to tell him what to do.

Now I discover that the noble Lord has in mind not the usual royal commission but the special model of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. It would, as I understand it, undertake regular investigations by independent experts of particular issues. I readily accept that such investigations are necessary. However, I am not convinced that they are best conducted by a royal commission rather than, say, by a Select Committee—or, indeed, by an outstanding independent organisation like the Howard League for Penal Reform. Like my noble friend Lady Bottomley, I am an agnostic on that matter. Nevertheless, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has identified an important gap that needs to be filled, whichever institution is best suited to undertake the task.

However, by far the most important factor in transforming the appalling state of our prisons will be the policies that Governments pursue. That is why the unremitting pressure from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on Ministers in Parliament to change their policies is absolutely fundamental to making any progress at all—and far more important and productive than anything the royal commission could achieve.

My Lords, I only have limited time to respond and I must leave the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, a little time to wind up today’s extremely good debate. Having visited a number of prisons in the past 12 months, I am sure that my noble friend Lord Graham is right. We have, as he said, seen a 30-year revolution and, despite the many criticisms that we have heard today, I have been impressed by some improvements that have taken place in the past few years. It is right for me to pay tribute to all those involved in doing that. Today’s debate is, of course, focused on the concerns—the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, emphasised that—but we also need to put it into some perspective, as my noble friend Lord Rosser did.

I understand the desire of some noble Lords to remove the issue of prison policy from party politics: I have often listened to debates about the National Health Service where the same point has been put. Yet I would caution an attempt to think that prison policy can somehow be moved offshore. While I do not agree with the analysis of the Government’s achievements, or otherwise, in relation to prison policy by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland—far from it—he is surely right that responsibility must ultimately rest with the Government, who are accountable to Parliament. It is right for responsibility to be there. It will of course be guided by committees, by the Howard League, by noble Lords and by many other people with a legitimate interest in prison policy. However, we should be very cautious about removing accountability and responsibility from where it should be.

The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, who speaks with great experience, referred to the number of Ministers responsible for prison policy over the past few years. As someone who has taken a rapid turn around Whitehall in the past two years, I have a great deal of sympathy with his view. I certainly agree that, however ministerial chairs change, it is important to have consistency in policy and that people who run and work in prisons, and people who volunteer there, are clear that there is such consistency over a number of years.

My noble friend Baroness Gibson talked about the three Bs. The Government take a balanced view about the purpose of prison, which is both to punish and to reform offenders, but it is also important that the public feel safe and secure.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, asked about the purpose of prison policy, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, asked who should be in prison. As I said clearly during the passage of the beloved Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, prison is the right place for the most serious and dangerous offenders. It should be tough. It deprives offenders of their liberty. It is challenging and robust. However, it is important that people in prison not only pay their debt to society but are also given the chance to change their behaviour.

We fully accept the benefit of community sentences. The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, knows that I have a particular interest in the subject. In response to my noble friend Lord Borrie, I agree that name and shame and the visibility of community sentencing have a place. The key is ensuring that members of the public understand the contribution which people on community sentences can make to society. I pay tribute to the Probation Service for the outstanding work that it does in this area.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, asked whether society feels safer. That is perhaps a subject for further debate, but our policies are aimed at increasing the focus on making communities safer. We have seen a one-third reduction in crime since 1997. I believe that we are more effective at reforming offenders and we have seen a reduction in reoffending rates. We want to see those rates come down further, of course, but we should not ignore the progress that has been made.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas—we debated this only two or three weeks ago—that my understanding is that prisons have tightened up considerably. The results of mandatory tests have shown considerable reductions. Of course, that is not everything and there are issues about its robustness, but the ONS has said that the drug testing regime gives a reasonable judgment on trends and I do not think we should ignore it.

My noble friend Lord Hoyle and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, rightly drew attention to the challenges facing women prisoners in particular, and to the impact on their families and children. My honourable friend Maria Eagle this week provided an update on the implementation of the Government’s response to the Corston report and I hope that noble Lords will take the opportunity next week to meet Maria Eagle and the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, to discuss that progress.

It is right that we should have heard a great deal about self-harm and suicides. As my noble friend Lord Rosser suggested, the figures for 2008 showed 29 deaths, compared with 43 at the same point in 2007. I am well aware of the risk of reading too much into that given the vulnerability of individuals coming into prison and the inevitable moves in statistics, but we are very exercised about the matter.

My noble friend Lord Judd and the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, referred to the social casualties, as she described the many people who end up in prison. I fully accept that if some of the statutory agencies involved had intervened and done their job properly, it is quite possible that some people would not have ended up in prison. Of course, we all know the statistics for children in care and the outcomes for them. There are many other instances. I fully accept that we need to ensure that there are not perverse incentives for statutory agencies in the way that she suggested. However, there are examples of very effective local co-ordinating arrangements between the various agencies which are beginning to have a positive impact.

The question of health is important. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, raised an interesting point about diabetes. Overall, the transfer to the NHS has been an outstanding improvement and I pay tribute to primary care trusts, many of which have taken on this new job with enthusiasm. But as the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, said, the mental health of many of our prisoners continues to cause great concern. The Sainsbury Centre is doing fantastic work in this area. The review by my noble friend Lord Bradley focuses on all these matters and I hope that, because it is a joint review with the Department of Health, we will be able to ensure that the necessary changes take place in NHS provision.

The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, raised the issue of magistrates. My understanding is that they do get an insight into the challenges in prisons, but I will refer his comments to the Magistrates’ Association.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, was not able to speak because his name was left off, but he wanted to raise the issue of dyslexia. In our debate on youth justice only two weeks ago we heard an inspiring speech by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I agree with him and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that dealing with this at an early age and ensuring that prisons know about the issue could have a positive impact. I say to my noble friend Lord Hoyle that there have been improved educational achievements in our prisons. The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, was right that we need to do more on employment after being in prison, particularly with public sector employers. The private sector in many ways has shown itself to be more progressive. It is central government departments, local government and the National Health Service that need to do more but we will certainly do what we can to encourage them.

The right reverend Prelate was right to raise the matter of restorative justice. The fourth report on restorative justice, looking at cost-effectiveness, has come out recently. I look forward to a further debate on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, continually pushes me on the issue of prison service management and both he and the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, raised some interesting points. As a connoisseur of managerial restructurings in the health service, I am wary. All management structures depend on the people. I am impressed by the governors I have met in the past year. Of course we need a structure that makes sure that they can deliver effective management with clear consistency and I agree with the general points that both noble Lords made. I think the new arrangements being developed will help us in this direction. My noble friend Lord Rosser also spoke on this.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Neill, that the issue of international comparisons warrants consideration. One has to be careful not to draw too crude a comparison between different systems but it is right that we look into that.

My noble friend Lord Borrie and other noble Lords raised the question of prison populations. The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, is a great warrior, critical of the Government in this area. I understand her concerns and the concerns about Titan prisons. I suspect I am not going to persuade your Lordships on the merits of Titan prisons but I will have a go. I understand what the noble Lords, Lord Hurd and Lord Neill, said about the culture of big prisons but Titans are not intended to be warehouse-sized prisons. They enable us to make a fast injection of capital funds and to ensure that the best design and some of the facilities currently missing from our prisons, such sports facilities, can be built in. I say to my noble friend Lady Gibson, that we can build security in as well. I hope that noble Lords will agree that this gives us an opportunity to build in some of the many things that they have asked for.

I must finish now to give the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, an opportunity to speak. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland: there are so many committees and reports that at the end of the day, I am not sure that a royal commission, in itself, would add very much to the current debate. The key thing is government accountability and departmental responsibility, as well as ensuring that there is a proper, consistent policy on prisons. I believe that we have that, and we are committed to taking it forward in the next few years. As ever, we will be informed by the vigorous debate in your Lordships' House.

My Lords, in the very limited time available to me, I should like to thank most sincerely all those who have spoken. They went to enormous trouble to prepare what they said and many interesting and useful points have been made. I also thank the Minister for his usual careful and thoughtful reply and for managing to pick up an enormous number of points in a very short time.

I remain, as noble Lords will understand, concerned about management. We have heard of improvements in single issues but they are not being co-ordinated to make an effective whole. The same applies to the vast number of reports and initiatives being produced. They all contain good points but are not being corralled. We see the tinkering of management and hear of improvements but I still think that underneath it all, the Government would benefit from regular exposure of what they have in mind to the sort of body I talk about. It would benefit everyone, not least those people, to be in touch with Government.

We have had an extremely good debate of very high quality; it has been very good for the House. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.