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Prisons: Howard League Commission

Volume 717: debated on Monday 22 February 2010

Question for Short Debate

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the Howard League’s Commission on English Prisons Today.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Howard League for Penal Reform. I welcome the opportunity today to debate the report from the Howard League’s Commission on English Prisons. I look forward to a constructive reply by the Minister and am grateful to the distinguished noble Lords who have put down their names to speak in this debate.

The commission was an independent review of the prisons crisis by some of the country’s leading experts and practitioners who were asked to look radically at the purpose and limits of our penal system early in the 21st century. The final report, Do Better Do Less, was published last July. Key ideas in the report, such as introducing a model of localism in the criminal justice system and advocating the concept of justice reinvestment —to which I will return later—have been echoed in subsequent reports by the All-party Parliamentary Group on Local Government and a recent report from the Justice Select Committee entitled, Cutting Crime: The Case for Justice Reinvestment.

The time is now ripe for urgent reform. In summary, the report advocates a new approach of penal moderation and fundamental reform. One headline is a significant reduction in the prison population and the closure of establishments. Another is localisation, of which more later. Thirdly, there is the replacement of short prison sentences, which achieve little if anything, with community-based responses. Fourthly, there is the dismantling of NOMS, including the break-up of the centrally managed prison service, save for retaining some centralisation for the most serious and dangerous offenders.

The commission’s signal contribution to the debate was to link the penal crisis in our prisons to wider economic conditions and requirements. This was not new, but it re-emphasised that radical reform of the prison system can provide value for money—and save money. With prison numbers almost doubling in the past 15 years, it is fair to say that the imprisonment industry has been booming. Yet, as with many bad businesses, booming turnover has been accompanied by a bust in profit. Our prisons, groaning under the weight of more men, women and children than ever before, are simply unfit for purpose, particularly in being able to achieve any goals other than containment.

The commission identified that the need to reduce public spending over the coming years brought with it an opportunity to inject some sanity, permanence and stability into the penal system. The message at the heart of the commission’s report is in its title: Do Better Do Less. Instead of more legislative hyperactivity in the field of criminal justice and ramping up ever higher the use of costly imprisonment, the commission argued with force for a principle of moderation.

At the core was some well founded research, for plenty of information is available abroad. In its visits to other countries, the commission found that it was entirely realistic to have less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prisons. Surely that is the formula that we should adopt, yet here we are, bumping along towards 85,000 in prison, a figure that will increase as a result of the announcement, which I understand has already been made in another place today, that the early release scheme is to cease in March.

Germany, with 20 million more people than the United Kingdom, jails around 72,000 people, France only 64,000. Yet in both those countries campaigners say that there are too many in jail and call for reform. Are the English and Welsh really any more criminal or likely victims of crime than the French and Germans and our other neighbours? Why do we feel the need to imprison so many more people and what does it achieve?

Worse still than the sheer numbers, the prisons have become warehouses for dumping people with problems that should have been dealt with elsewhere. I would highlight the number of mentally ill people in prison, practically none of whom are dealt with in the way in which they would be in the community, were they to go through conventional clinical systems. In an overcrowded and overwhelmed prison system, those people will never get the help that they need to move on beyond the ever-revolving door. Reoffending rates speak for themselves; for young people leaving prison, the rates rise as high as 75 per cent.

The commission espouses the vision of less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison. The real key to that lies in the communities approach. The commission advocated a more localised criminal justice system, particularly for communities where crime is of most concern and the public simply do not understand why things are as bad as they perceive them to be. The commission’s report advocates devolving criminal justice spending and giving local authorities in partnership with the police the lead role in the fight against crime. It argues that localism should lead to less money spent on process and more on actions, which produce beneficial outcomes for the whole community. What is missing, among other things, is a sense that the public and those elected to represent them have any local ownership of the criminal justice system, a feeling that would be especially useful in producing effective restorative justice.

A more responsive devolved system would allow local areas to shift resources smoothly from funding prison places to funding community needs. That is what is described as justice reinvestment, a concept that has come from the United States of America. Some states were unable to balance their budgets because of the very extensive use of prison. Those budgetary crises opened legislators to cross party lines and share new ideas. They mapped neighbourhoods to prison populations, and as a result experts were able to identify what have been called “million-dollar blocks”, so called because it costs $1 million a year to incarcerate a high proportion of the block’s inhabitants. The question that justice reinvestment asks is why we should not spend that $1 million not on prisons but on the area. In states that are pioneering justice reinvestment initiatives, that means reducing the use of prison and closing jails to free up funding so that it can be spent on dealing with the underlying causes of crime in these neighbourhoods. The Government have shown enthusiasm for the community court initiative in Liverpool—and I am delighted to see the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool in this Committee. It has proved to be very successful. The same can occur if they show similar enthusiasm for localisation of imprisonment.

Justice reinvestment is not about alternatives just within the criminal justice system; it is about making partnerships within and outside the criminal justice system. It recognises that the criminal justice system as we have it can be a very blunt instrument, and nowhere is that felt with more frustration than by judges and magistrates as they send people to jail and know that they will be back again, certainly in magistrates’ courts in city centres, probably within a few weeks.

Justice reinvestment, as advocated by the report, also enables localities to tackle issues of education and training, poor mental health and better public amenities, even stairwells, playgrounds and safe places for young people to hang out. Justice reinvestment, as advocated by the Howard League commission, advocates new local strategic partnerships and involves trusting local authorities and communities with responsibility but, I would argue, trusting them with the responsibilities and opportunities that they are best at. Thus, prison and probation budgets would be devolved to their control, giving them funds for justice reinvestment initiatives. If pilot projects were created, as has happened in the United States, I can see no argument contrary to the view that we would see benefit. I urge the Government, and the Minister in his response, to recognise that this report has made a useful and constructive contribution to the debate and that not to adopt it, at least on a test basis, would be an act of neglect.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, on initiating this debate as president of the Howard League for Penal Reform and on the report, which was supported by the Howard League. It is extremely valuable and worthy of a discussion at least as long as the one we will have.

I shall deal with the point mentioned in paragraph 1.14. The page is headed “Wales” and has a green paragraph about Wales, but I do not see much connection between that paragraph and what happens later. It may be a compliment to the president to do it that way, but I am not sure. The point is about the terrific increase there has been in the number of 10 to 14 year-old children in custody in the period studied: 1996 to 2006. There has been a 550 per cent increase in the number of children in custody in that time. That is a very sad and extraordinary situation and, like the report as a whole, it requires urgent attention from Her Majesty's Government. The independent president of the commission was the president of Barnardo’s during part of her time at the commission. I am a member of Barnardo’s, and my wife was on the council for a considerable number of years, although she retired a considerable number of years ago. I take an interest in what Barnardo’s says. As your Lordships will know, the chief executive of Barnardo’s is Martin Narey. He was a senior official at the Home Office, and therefore speaks with a great deal of authority.

Over the period referred to, the number of 10 to 14 year-olds in custody increased by 550 per cent. The principal reason for that is that the detention order, which was introduced in the Bill of, I think, 2000, has greatly opened the possibility of custody for young children and not for serious offences only. For example, you can find yourself in custody for failing to turn up at the times fixed by the board for interviews. The cost of keeping a young person of this order in custody rises up to about £185,780 per annum. As someone remarked, you could have a student at Eton College for six years for that amount, and I humbly believe that, notwithstanding the criticisms that have been made of that venerable institution, the benefits of being there are probably rather greater than those of being in Her Majesty’s custody for a year.

The answer to this question is quite difficult, but the majority of young people in this position have been in the care of the local authority or under the charge of the social services, so people who have already been failed by the system are being failed again, at great cost to the nation. The sooner this stops, the better.

My Lords, noble Lords will recognise that I am in no way an expert on the prison system. I have only two locus standi for being here. First, I chair my party’s working group on localism and how to decentralise Britain. Secondly, I was involved in the Offender Management Bill some years ago, and spent some time talking to people in prisons and probation services around Yorkshire on what the Bill would mean for the prison system. I became less and less convinced of the case for NOMS as we went through the Bill, and more and more sceptical of the entire ideology of new public management.

I viewed with immense enthusiasm a quotation from Geoff Mulgan, of all people, in this report:

“There were never any serious theoretical, empirical or popular arguments in favour of centralisation … overcentralisation tends to be associated with poorer performance, and decentralisation with better performance”.

That is one of the more important messages of this report.

The other important message is that giving way to what the report calls “penal populism”, and which I would call the clamour of the Daily Mail simply to lock people up and forget about them, leads to greater expenditure and worse outcomes. I note that the United Kingdom now has the highest spending on law and order in the entire OECD—a point to consider when we think about future cuts in spending. Social care is cheaper; probation is cheaper. Above all, local management not only is cheaper but has much more effective outcomes. Many of us have seen local magistrates’ courts being knocked down and moved away from towns to regional centres.

The whole process of justice and social care is becoming less and less local, and it is now quite evident that we need to localise justice, offender management and looking after those who have started in care and are likely to go on being in care until they enter the prison system. I met a number of people in Leeds prison who were called POPOs—prolific and persistent offenders whom the prison officers assured me they had seen before and expected to see again and who would go on being recycled through the prison system until, in their mid to late 30s, they would finally grow out of it. I was also shocked to discover how much prisoners were moved around the system out of their own region. They lost touch with their families and were therefore likely to come out of prison without the framework that they needed to prevent reoffending.

I strongly support the report. I particularly support the whole idea that the offender must be seen not just as an individual but as a member of a community, and must be encouraged to go back into that community. That community also needs to be involved in the whole process. Liverpool has been mentioned. I should also mention Chard in Somerset, in which the Liberal Democrat-led council has done a great deal to experiment usefully with restorative justice. That seems to all of us to be the way forward. We welcome the report. Sadly, we also welcome its condemnation of one of the greatest failures of new Labour over the past 12 years.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, and, like other Members of this House, I am very grateful to the Howard League for producing this report. I also welcome and support the remarks made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, about children, about which we have had many debates on the Floor of this House.

When I read the report, I could not help reflecting on the fact that, in the Army, if you were told that you had to write a report on something, the first thing you did was go to the library and look up all the other reports on the same subject. You looked up all the recommendations that had been made, what had happened to them, and why, after all those other reports—there were usually a dozen—you still had to do the same thing.

The first thing I opened was the bibliography. I looked in vain for two documents which I very much hoped would be there: one was the wonderful report on the riots in Strangeways Prison and 23 other prisons, written by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, in 1991, and the other was a White Paper, Custody, Care and Justice, agreed to by all political parties, which took the Prison Service into the 21st century, based on a real crisis. I looked for those documents because there were 12 objectives in that report with which, at the time, everyone agreed. I shall quote four of them: to end overcrowding; to improve co-operation with other services and institutions by working closely with the probation service and by membership of a national forum and area committees; to increase delegation of responsibility and accountability to all levels with clear leadership and a published annual statement of objectives; and to develop community prisons which will involve the gradual realignment of the prison estate into geographically coherent groups, serving most prisoners within that area.

That was 19 years ago and absolutely nothing has happened. Here we are with another report saying exactly the same sort of things, but bringing them up to date with justice reinvestment, which I support, with the dreadful story of the hyperactivity of new Labour, with all its Bills, its new crimes, its overcrowding and more prison places but no progress other than an increased reconviction rate. I welcome the four ideas, including the significant reduction in the prison population; investment in localities, exactly echoing that; and the replacement of short prison sentences with community-based responses.

Three weeks ago, I was in Libya advising the Libyans to do exactly the same thing. The Libyans have now gone further than we have as a result of our advice based on this document. To the dismantling of the National Offender Management Service I say, “Hear, hear”; it is a monster and it is a bureaucratic disaster. However, I have one problem with the break-up: it is about to appoint a new chief executive. It is very dangerous to appoint a new chief executive to an organisation which has clearly failed without being quite clear what that chief executive is to do, particularly as the Conservative Party has already announced that it intends to do something about NOMS as well. That is another matter.

Finally, on local partners, yes, they are waiting for that and we all know that they want to do it. Why on earth have we not listened to the advice on which everyone agreed 19 years ago?

My Lords, the Howard League for Penal Reform has provided us with a huge service. The Commission on English Prisons Today offers us detailed statistics, robust analysis and radical recommendations. In my visits to prisons, bail hostels and community sentencing programmes as bishop for prisons, I often hear people echoing what is in this report. Why, then, is this not already public policy? We know that prison has the threefold function of punishment, protection and reformation but unfortunately we allow the media focus on punishment to distort our public policy. The punitive element seems to obscure every other aspect. As this commission demonstrates, we are left with a criminal justice system that is financially wasteful, educationally ineffectual and socially negative. In other words, a better system, as proposed here, would save public money through greater and better community sentencing, reduce reoffending with local programmes on restorative justice and enhance social stability through local, strategic interventions. These are the messages that all of us concerned with community justice need to get out through the media and bring to bear on public policy.

It is extraordinary that millions of pounds can be found to build more prison places, while budgets are squeezed and purposeful activity in prison is reduced. We are putting more and more damaged people into prison regimes that are less and less restorative. That is not a recipe for a stable society, let alone a humane one. This is not about being soft on crime. It is about understanding why and how people get into crime, and why and how they get out of it.

In the faith sector, huge independent and voluntary resources are already being deployed in the rehabilitation of offenders. They would have a key role to play in the commission’s proposal for local strategic partnerships. But if we look at interventions to prevent criminal behaviour, we cannot ignore the role of the family. On listening to prisoners, I am constantly struck by how much of their behaviour can be traced back to parental neglect and family dysfunction. We need bold, new initiatives that will target the hard-to-reach parents.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, I was pleased to see that the commission had visited the community justice centre in Liverpool and had observed its success in working collaboratively across the criminal justice system in addressing criminal behaviour holistically. This is a government initiative and a government success on which they should be congratulated. However, when you ask why this approach cannot be adopted everywhere, the same issue—that of money—arises. Surely, as this commission suggests, it is profligate spending to build prisons and to incarcerate at huge public expense, when you could spend less money by diverting from prison those who could be punished and rehabilitated in other ways.

My Lords, I do not congratulate the noble Lord on getting this debate, because that is easy. But I thank him for doing so, because it is something he might not have done. It has provided us with an occasion on which to discuss this extraordinary and important report, although I recognise what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has said about it being, in a sense, an echo of something that has been said previously. However, it is said in a different voice and has a different scale of detail. It lays much more emphasis on the most important aspect of this issue; namely, the role of the community.

Seeing a right reverend Prelate behind me tempts me to say that when God asked Cain where his brother was, Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. The answer should certainly have been yes, because that is the basis of community. People are built by their homes—we have heard references to failed parents—and by the communities in which they live. They should be able to be safe in their streets, to know each other and to look out for each other’s children. That is the basic pillar on which society rests.

When someone gets damaged and is not supported by the system, they are taken out of their community, put into a prison miles away and then shunted around. The answer to this is to localise the prison service and its management, to stabilise and reduce its population, and to have recourse to the community to pick up the results and make a far better answer of it.

Page 145 of the House of Commons Justice Committee report refers to the experiment in the Deschutes County of Oregon, USA. The experiment devolved the management of youth offenders, excluding violent offenders, to the local authority and, to a certain extent, delegated the funding thereof. The report only summarises the statistical findings. The detail can be found on an Oregon website. The cost of incarceration by the county per day was greater than that provided by the state—$202 a day as opposed to $166. But the average length of stay in the correctional facility was 4.4 months, as opposed to 8.3 months. Therefore, it costs a good deal less. The cost of aftercare/parole was $62 a day, as against $20 when administered by the state, so it cost a great deal more. The average stay in aftercare/parole was 11.5 months, as opposed to 14 months—so, again, the cost was much less. The total cost per case was $48,396 when locally done, and $65,866 when done state-wide. The approximate saving on the current value of the dollar is $13,232 per case, and the actual outturns for reoffending are exactly the same, so the result is the same for a much cheaper price. If you add into it all the localism in this report, you will have a fantastically improved system.

My Lords, like all other speakers in this debate, I recognise the wealth and significance of this report, and I believe very deeply that we ignore its research and recommendations at our peril.

The report shows that our policies on imprisonment over the past 30 years have been laced with inconsistencies and misconceptions. The central irony is that while crime that is recorded by the British Crime Survey has fallen by 45 per cent in the past 15 years, the prison population has gone in exactly the opposite direction, more than doubling between 1992 and the present year. That is a very sobering central irony in the whole situation.

Parallel with this development, and certainly not unassociated with it, is the fact that Her Majesty’s Government have, in each of the past 13 years, added on average 100 brand new offences that carry a custodial sanction: that is, something in the order of 1,400 offences in the past 13 years. Since 1997, Parliament has passed no less than 23 criminal justice Acts. It is worth noting that between 1925 and 1985—a period of 60 years that included a world war and all the disruption of its aftermath—only six criminal justice Acts were regarded as necessary: one every 10 years.

As the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, and others have mentioned, we incarcerate 153 persons per 100,000. That is more than any other country in western Europe bar Spain, which has a figure of 160, and Luxembourg, for some reason—presumably because of the number of banks that it has every acre—which has a figure in the order of 155. We incarcerate 60 per cent more people per hundred thousand than France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Irish Republic. I ask the same question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile: are we 60 per cent more wicked, more criminally disposed, than the people of those countries, or is there another reason? I believe clearly that there is. There is mass hysteria in the community about imprisonment that has been brought about by successive Governments, who have led people to believe that you can wave a magic wand and that crime will simply disappear.

Opposition parties have shown that that is wrong, as they are entitled to do, but have given the impression that the Government of the day are presiding over a mounting crime wave. That is not the case. The ordinary citizen could certainly be excused for believing that we were going headlong down the path to disaster in relation to crime. Tabloid editors have predictably seen it to be to their profit to perpetuate these myths. Yet, for all the hysteria, the system has failed. Nothing shows that so remarkably clearly as this report. The system has failed to reform or assuage public fears, and in every respect. The statistic of two-thirds of persons being reconvicted within two years clearly shows that.

There is an alternative, as shown in this report. The situation calls for change not only in policy but also in the psychology of the whole community. It is possible to reduce the prison population in a sensible and safe way. It has been done before. Between 1908 and 1939, the prison population was halved. That was done by long-sighted people with vision and resolution. It is exactly what has to be attempted now. Whichever public leader stands up and advocates this policy will be traduced and vilified. He will be said to be a namby-pamby, starry-eyed romantic—but he will be sane. He will be putting forward a better idea and vision than what we have today in our brainwashed society in relation to imprisonment.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, for securing this debate. The growing prison population and further increases in the number of offenders who return to custody are complex issues that require a multifaceted solution. It is encouraging to see that the Howard League has produced a thorough and informative account of the problems facing our prisons today—and the possible solutions.

The commission’s research shows that there has been a marked rise in the number of ethnic-minority prisoners, especially Muslims, compared to a lower increase in the number of white inmates. It goes on to reveal that the number of Muslim prisoners has doubled over the past 10 years and now stands at nearly 10,000 persons. This is particularly disturbing as Muslims account for 3 per cent of the total population in Britain but make up almost 11 per cent of the prison population. Why has this unacceptable situation arisen and what remedial action will be taken to address this alarming trend?

The annual report by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons draws attention to the fact that approximately one quarter of Muslim prisoners said they felt unsafe. More than 30 per cent stated that they had been subjected to bullying by prison staff. I acknowledge the reality that prison staff do a tremendously difficult job. However, any type of bullying is unacceptable. Will the Minister be forthcoming in revealing what measures the Government will take to remedy this situation?

A survey by the Muslim Youth Helpline highlighted that 63 per cent of reoffenders felt that they did not have the help they needed upon leaving prison. Some 82 per cent stated that faith-based support networks in the community would have prevented them returning to crime. It is therefore important to encourage and increase the number of prison volunteers from all faiths, while recognising that there is an important role to be played by religious leaders in our communities. Does the Minister agree that a greater emphasis should be placed on helping communities to develop faith-based projects that specifically target offenders?

The commission’s research shows that between 2004 and 2008 the number of foreign national prisoners rose by 29 per cent. I believe that those who enter our country and breach our laws have lost their right to a place in all areas of British society. We should therefore aim to speed up the deportation of foreign national prisoners before the end of their sentences, and extend automatic deportation to prisoners from non-EU countries who are serving sentences of less than one year.

There is a correlation between overcrowded prisons and the number of inmates who are committing suicide. This tragic state of affairs calls for greater attention concerning the mental health of inmates as well as their overall well-being. Prison is a deplorable sanction for young people, and should be reserved for only the most serious youth offenders. This view reiterates the ardent belief that child welfare is paramount to reducing youth crime and curbing reoffending rates. Our justice system should be fundamentally based on the principles of enforcing punishment and educating prisoners. Investments made in crime prevention measures will pay dividends in efforts to counter reoffending.

My Lords, from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, as it were, I welcome this report—and not only because it confirms my own prejudices. I have never been attracted by the sort of sentencing policy that tests the machismo of the current Government. Rather, I regard a willingness to work at the harder options—community-based responses are not a soft option, if properly structured—as a test of a community’s dignity. We must not underestimate the need to win the hearts and minds of the community, nor the difficulty of that task. Community-based responses need to be accepted.

This morning, in a local shop, I overheard a discussion about a number of burglaries that had taken place locally, where someone commented: “Lock ’em all up, that’s what I say”. That is an instinctive reaction from both a victim and a potential victim. As the report says,

“once the punitive genie is out of the bottle, it is not easily put back”.

The report refers to a characteristic of a more,

“moderate approach to penal policy”,


“a mass media relatively uninterested in crime and punishment”.

That could not be said of the media in this country; they carry a heavy responsibility, and the right reverend Prelate’s term “distortion” was a temperate one.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Wallace for covering the issue of localism. I hope that stronger local partnerships are ideas whose time has come; they have been bubbling up for a little while, with other organisations looking at the same issues. We know that the risk of reoffending is much reduced by stable housing, employment, drug treatment planning and programming and family and local contacts—all things that are the very stuff of local partnerships. Education and training are vital; an offender needs skills to go straight. Partnership work between business and prisons or other penal schemes can help to achieve purposeful activity. I have one specific question for the Minister; do the Government recognise all this as an appropriate component in the Total Place work that is now being carried out, up and down the country, and is sponsored by the DCLG?

The report also mentions prisons built under the public-private finance initiative, an issue presently being considered by your Lordships’ Economic Affairs Committee. A good privately financed prison should be not just about bricks and mortar but also about facilitating a modern, productive regime through the bundling of building and services.

I was also interested in the report’s references to New York City being,

“in the midst of national mass incarceration”,

but it has reduced crime and the prison population. I wonder whether that goes with the broken-windows approach of tackling crime at the lowest level to seek to stop it escalating. That was pioneered in New York.

I congratulate the Howard League. If prison does not work, then more of the same will not work either. I believe that the report has identified and described what is far more likely to work.

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Elton, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, for giving us the opportunity to debate the Howard League report. Sadly, we have only four minutes each to speak and only an hour for the whole debate. Perhaps the usual channels would consider a fuller debate on this matter in due course. We will also be debating some of these matters later in the Chamber, when the Minister repeats his Statement on prisoners’ early release. At this stage, we are debating a much broader strategy about prisons and, on that occasion, we should be able to listen to what the Government are doing or claim they are doing.

In the time available, I shall not set out the entire opposition policy on prisons, which was set out very ably by my honourable friends in another place in their report of last year, Prisons with a Purpose. I commend that to the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, and others and I hope that they will look at it. In the title of that document, Prisons with a Purpose, my honourable friends made it clear what they thought prisons ought to do: for example, that people should emerge from prisons in a better state than when they went in. One of the problems, which will be addressed in the Statement later, is gross overcrowding within the prison system, which makes it is very difficult for prisons to achieve much in the way of improving the lives of prisoners and making them more fit to face society when they are released.

Our brief debate has been very useful and a great many ideas have been put forward by all who have spoken. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern was quite right to highlight the dramatic increase in the number of 10 to 14 year-olds in custody. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, was also right to draw attention to the problems of NOMS, with which virtually everyone who has spoken in the debate would agree. The Minister will have to address the defence of NOMS when he replies, if he can.

We would agree with the vast majority of the report’s recommendations and the general direction that it takes. It is an excellent report. However, in some respects it is perhaps a little optimistic in that it goes further than we would as regards closing prisons. We are in a very strange state where the Government are boasting about a dramatic reduction in levels of violent crime but, as the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, pointed out, despite the alleged drop in the levels of violent crime, we have seen a dramatic rise in the number of people going to prison.

We offer broad support for the report, while being careful to state that implementation would be possible only when resources allowed. Some speakers referred to the very severe constraints as a result of our current economic position—I think particularly of my noble friend Lord Elton, who referred to the Oregon experiment with localism, to which the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, also referred. That is a way of looking at things in other ways, which might lead to a reduction in the costs that this will impose on the taxpayer.

I welcome the chance that we have had to debate these matters briefly, and look forward to the Government’s response.

My Lords, I start by paying tribute to the Howard League for Penal Reform and to its president, the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. I thank the Howard League for the chance to discuss the important and radical report that it produced last summer and the noble Lord for introducing the debate. I also thank all other noble Lords who have spoken.

We very much welcome the contribution that the report has made to a continuing debate, although we do not of course agree with all its conclusions. The report argues for “penal moderation”. The Government agree that the use of prison must be effectively targeted, but we are in no doubt about the important role that prison continues play in delivering a fair and just society for victims of crime, the general public and communities. Prison remains the right option for dangerous, serious and the most seriously persistent offenders. To that end, we have increased prison capacity by more than 25,000 places since 1997, and are committed to increasing net capacity to 96,000 places by 2014, following the report of my noble friend Lord Carter. We will always make sure that there are enough prison places for those the courts sentence to custody or place on remand, and we make no apology for that. Resource spending on prisons was 42 per cent higher in real terms in 2007-08 than was the case in 1996-97.

One consequence of providing that additional capacity is that we can now withdraw the end of the custody licence scheme, as my right honourable friend the Justice Secretary told the other place earlier today and as we will discuss later. That scheme was introduced in 2007 as a temporary measure to ease pressures on the prison population, and we now have sufficient headroom in the estate to withdraw the scheme. We have always made it clear that the scheme would be temporary and it is right that we have ended it as soon as it was safe to do so. However, we do not believe that the Government are engaged in unthinking “hyperactivity”, as the report and some noble Lords have alleged. We are thinking through carefully the establishment of this new capacity, with a close eye on the needs of offenders. The new prisons, each of around 1,500 places, that were announced a few months ago, will be built in areas where places are most needed. That will ensure that prisoners can be held closer to home and will reduce the number of times an offender is transferred between establishments, which we know disrupts rehabilitative and educational programmes. We have increased investment in education provision, which is a critical part of rehabilitation, from £57 million in 2001-02 to more than £175 million in 2009-10. In 2008-09, nearly 38 per cent of offenders entered employment, training and education on release, and the figure into this year shows continuing increases each month.

We are also committed to providing alcohol and drug treatment for offenders in prison. The Committee will know that since 1996-97 funding for prison drug treatment has increased 15-fold with the introduction of the integrated drug treatment system, in particular. We are working with the third sector and the private sector further to improve the drug treatment framework available to offenders, as well as strengthening the continuity of support between prisons and the community. We have also done good work on alcohol offending.

In our view, prison remains a key, valuable and necessary element in our criminal justice system, but the Government agree that less serious offenders can often be better dealt with in the community. Therefore, we have programmes in place to divert offenders from custody when appropriate, including vulnerable women offenders. The female prison population decreased by 5 per cent between June 2008 and June 2009. Following the report by my noble friend Lady Corston, we committed to reduce the women’s prison estate by 400 places by March 2012. We are providing £15.6 million of new funding over two years to provide additional services in the community for women offenders who are not a danger to the public and for women at risk of offending.

We are also committed to action on diverting offenders with mental health needs, where that is appropriate. In response to the Bradley report, we published a national health and criminal justice delivery plan in November last year. We are committed to developing those policies further. Offenders with mental health needs and vulnerable women are not the only groups where we have seen the population falling or where we are putting into place measures to reduce the population. We have seen a decline of more than 600 in the population of under-18s in custody in the past 16 months.

We cannot be accused of treating prison as the be-all and end-all of the criminal justice system. We have ensured that the courts can use tough community punishments in place of short custodial sentences where doing so is justified and proportionate. Community sentences allow for direct payback to the community, while interventions that help offenders tackle the causes of their behaviour are provided. These sentences are enforced rigorously, with more than 90 per cent of offenders who fail to comply returned to court.

Within this broader approach to the promotion of community sentences, we are doing some important focused work on seven intensive alternatives to custody pilot projects currently under way around the country. They are targeted at offenders who would otherwise receive short custodial sentences. Nearly 1,000 offenders have started intensive orders in the pilot areas. The projects have developed innovative partnerships with the police and the third and private sectors to give offenders opportunities to turn their lives around or face swift and tough sanctions. The projects, which are being evaluated, have engaged with the courts to build sentencer confidence in intensive community orders as a robust, demanding and effective alternative to short-term custody.

The commission argues that local communities should have a role in managing offenders, and we agree. We introduced community payback, enabling the public to have a say in what unpaid work offenders carry out in the local community. Local agencies must work together to tackle what is a shared problem, to reduce the social and financial costs of offending and to improve life for local communities. The integrated offender management model, local commissioning and the introduction of probation trusts increase the scope for local flexibility and innovation. Crime and disorder reduction partnerships, working within local community justice boards, play a key role in reducing reoffending, bringing together and co-ordinating the actions of housing providers, health services, local authorities and other key players. Restorative justice has the potential to be an important part of community engagement, and we are moving actively towards a culture of more visible justice with a stronger focus on encouraging offenders to be more directly accountable to communities. We have also seen restorative justice being used in a pioneering way in the youth justice system.

If I had time, I would talk about the justice reinvestment programme in the United States. We have the Diamond Initiative programme in London, which we believe shows real promise. I do not have time to go into that today.

Moving on from the use of prison and community sentences to the institutional framework, it will not surprise the Committee that we do not agree that NOMS should be abolished. The recent reorganisation means that the prison and probation services are working together more closely than ever before.

If there are any questions that I have not answered— I am conscious that I have not answered all of them— I will write to noble Lords with answers.

I finish, first, by reminding the Committee that crime has dropped by more than a third and that the chance of being a victim of crime is at an historic low—these are important considerations; and, secondly, by reiterating our thanks to the commission, to the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, and to all who have contributed to such an important and thought-provoking report and debate.