Skip to main content


Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 13 July 2010

Question for Short Debate

Tabled By

My Lords, I put my name down for this debate on prisons soon after the general election, which was of course before Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, made a speech that in some ways has stolen my thunder. I remind noble Lords of what he said, quoting a little from his speech. He said that,

“we spend vast amounts of public money on a growing prison estate and ever more prisoners”.

He went to say:

“I am sure that prison is the necessary punishment for many serious offenders. But does ever more prison for ever more offenders always produce better results for the public? Can we carry this argument on ad infinitum? I doubt it … I believe in intelligent sentencing, seeking to give better value for money and the effective protection that people want”.

None of us could dissent from that. It depends how far the Government can go to take these policies further.

In preparing for the debate, I soon realised that one hour was far too short and that in any case we should not consider prisons in isolation but as part of a wider look at the criminal justice system. I am not advocating being soft on criminals; some must clearly be jailed. But I remind noble Lords that in 1992 to 1993, the prison population was 44,628. The most recent figures this month were 85,097. That is an enormous increase. When I was in the other place seven years before, the prison population showed signs of reaching 44,000 and we felt that the world was coming to an end—it was that serious. Our prisons are grotesquely overcrowded. The question is why Britain has the highest prison population in relation to population in western Europe. I do not believe that we are more criminal; the crime rate is going down and went down in the period of the last Government very significantly, but I do not believe that that is due to an increase in prison population. Other countries have shown drops in rate of crime but their prison population has not gone up.

Two years ago, I was part of a group that launched the Prison Policy Group with Members from all parties and both Houses. We were glad to have as a member the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, a former Conservative Home Secretary, who followed a very similar policy to that being proposed by Kenneth Clarke. Our report, Building More Prisons? Or is There a Better Way? states:

“The recommendations of the Carter report on the use of custody, that the Government should invest in another 10,500 prison places to give a total of 96,000 places by 2014, was taken without consideration of any alternative policies. The cost implications of this policy are substantial, £2.3 billion capital and commensurate revenue costs for the foreseeable future. No evidence is available to suggest that increasing the number of prison places to accommodate a population of 96,000 will make England and Wales a safer place”.

We subsequently hosted a number of meetings at which distinguished people from other countries came and explained how they managed to run a safe country with a much lower use of imprisonment than ours and support from the public for such a policy. These meetings were very informative and we kept asking ourselves how it was that Germany, France, Canada—countries not so different from our own—managed with lower crime imprisonment rates and did not increase their prison populations year by year.

It is estimated that 10 per cent or more of the prison population has a serious mental illness. Although prisoner health has improved over the years, most of them receive inadequate treatment. Prison is not the right place for mentally ill people. They should be treated outside prison, possibly in a custodial sense in mental illness facilities, but certainly it is not much good having them in prison—they get out and they reoffend.

Clearly, the incidence of drug taking in our prisons is very high, as is the incidence of drug taking among people sentenced to prison. However, the rehabilitation facilities for drug addicts are not very good in our prisons. They are often not very good when they get out either. Those people should not necessarily be in prison but in places where they can get proper rehabilitation for their condition. Some time ago, the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, produced a report on women in prison. Again, it is fairly clear that we do not need to have so many women in prison. Many of them are not dangerous or a threat to society and could be better dealt with by punishment in the community.

The number of young offenders is very disturbing. They learn some of the arts of criminality when they are detained. We need to look again at whether all these young offenders need to be detained at all or whether there are not alternative ways of dealing with them. A disturbing number of members of the Armed Forces get on the wrong side of the criminal law when they leave the forces. We need to look at the help and support that they receive when they leave the forces and enter civilian life. It is not an easy transition for them, particularly if they have served in Afghanistan. They need more support and counselling to help ease their path to civilian life.

We would save money if we could transfer foreign national prisoners to the countries from whence they came. I appreciate that these arrangements are covered by treaties, but I doubt that they are all covered by treaties. We need to look at that matter. Helping people in these groups may not lead directly to cost savings. However, there would be a saving in the longer term if we could reduce reoffending rates. I believe that dealing with these groups in the way I have suggested would result in reoffending rates going down.

Some time ago I was talking to a police officer in London who said that he had arrested a young man who had attacked an elderly woman and rendered her unconscious—something for which he would almost certainly go to Feltham. The police officer told me that he went to the young man’s home. His mother was spaced out on drugs and the flat was in a disgraceful condition with dog faeces all over the place. The police officer said to me, “If that young man goes to Feltham, when he comes out he will go back to the same environment and with no help he will revert to his criminal ways”. Surely we have to tackle this at source.

Therefore, I was delighted to read the report by the House of Commons Justice Committee, which came out last December, Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment. That is the theme of what I have to say now. It was an important report with sensible recommendations. I shall quote briefly from one of the findings in the summary:

“a large proportion of the resources necessary to tackle conditions known to contribute to criminality—such as social exclusion, low educational engagement and attainment, drug, alcohol and mental health problems, unemployment and lack of housing—are outside the criminal justice system. Additionally, in many cases the relevant services are provided at a local level, whether by local authorities or third sector, voluntary or community organisations. Similarly, much of the support available for the rehabilitation and resettlement of former offenders is in the gift of such local agencies. In contrast, the costs of custody are borne at a national level from a centralised budget. The overall system seems to treat prison as a ‘free commodity’—even if not acknowledged as such—while other interventions, for example by local authorities and health trusts with their obligations to deal with problem communities, families and individuals, are subject to budgetary constraints and may not be available as an option for the courts to deploy”.

I could not say it better than that. That surely has to be the way in which the Government should move forward if they are to give effect to what the Justice Secretary said.

The Select Committee report stated that the aim should be,

“committing to a significant reduction of the prison population by 2015—especially concentrating on women and those whose criminality is driven by mental illness and/or addictions to drugs or alcohol”,

I have one or two brief questions about the prison-building programme. What will happen to what is being talked about in Liverpool and London? Do the Government intend to continue with the previous Government’s prison-building programme? Is it true that the Government are considering selling off inner-city prisons near to where people live and are reverting to the ideas they opposed in opposition to build Titan prisons on available land away from towns and cities? Can the Minister deny that?

Finally, I shall say a brief word about public opinion. It is important, in changing our prison and criminal justice system, to make local people feel involved and to promote confidence in community sentences.

My Lords, I congratulate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on asking this timely Question between the Secretary of State for Justice's landmark speech of 30 June and the promised Green Paper containing the coalition Government's answer. I welcome the content and spirit of what Ken Clarke said about prisons being places of punishment, education, hard work and change, but how can we effect change in an overcrowded system with a woeful record of failing to protect the public by preventing re-offending, which I understand to be the aim of the criminal justice system of which prisons are a part?

As they look around the prison system, I am sure that the Secretary of State and his Ministers will quickly realise what a priceless asset they have in the many marvellous people who are all motivated to do what is asked of them to the best of their ability. This confirms that at the heart of the problem, and therefore of its solution, are people: prisoners and those who work with and for them. Change means enabling workers to do more with and for prisoners.

This is a song that I have been singing since my first prison inspection in 1995, when I identified some reasons for failure that remain unaltered to this day. I shall briefly outline some of them. First, we need one aim to unite the work of the prison and probation services in their responsibilities for administering sentences awarded by the courts. I suggest that this should be: “To help those committed by the courts to live useful and law-abiding lives”, in line with the 1983 Prison Service statement of purpose and the original “advise, assist and befriend” of the probation service; for prisons must be added the words “in prison and on release”, with the qualifications that prisoners must be treated with humanity and not be allowed to escape.

United by that “doing” purpose, both services should carry out three sequential tasks. First, they should assess what has prevented the individual from living a useful and law-abiding life thus far. Secondly, that should be turned into a programme designed to challenge the reasons, prioritised by severity of symptom and time available. Thirdly, transition and/or aftercare should be arranged; that is, prison to probation, and prison and probation to the community.

To enable helpers to perform more effectively, two organisational changes should at last be made, not least in the interests of saving money. First, prisons should be grouped into regional clusters, as recommended in the White Paper, Custody, Care and Justice, which Ken Clarke will remember from his time as Home Secretary. Regions, including their voluntary and private sector organisations, can then own responsibility for the rehabilitation of their own offenders.

Secondly, in line with the very successful appointment of a director of high security prisons in 1995, bringing a unique consistency to their performance, responsible and accountable directors should be appointed for every other type of prison and prisoner. At last, this will enable good practice somewhere to be turned into common practice everywhere. Finally, in terms of change, I hope that there will be a ruthless pruning of all unnecessary bureaucracy. What is needed to make a national offender management system work efficiently is a structure that enables and supports face-to-face working with offenders—nothing more, nothing less.

There is much more that I could add, but, on the basis of what I saw first hand over five and a half years, and have seen second hand for a further nine, without such structural change, I fear that the hope that Ken Clarke has engendered will be extinguished by a dysfunctional system that has failed the public for too long.

I endorse everything that the two noble Lords who have spoken have said. I will not repeat the statistics given by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. In his recent speech, the Secretary of State spoke of the situation as impossible and ridiculous from his perspective as Home Secretary in the early 1990s. It is good to know that the Government are wishing seriously to address the situation, which on their own admission they regard as impossible and ridiculous, in the growth of the prison population.

In his recent speech, the Secretary of State asked how this has come about, but he did not really offer an answer, apart from an assumption that foolish policies have progressively flowed into a sort of mission creep, as reflected in the ever-increasing prison population. No doubt many factors have been at work, but let me offer an underlying cause. Since 1979, we have had what might be called the progressive Americanisation of our society, a process which has brought many benefits. Individual freedom has been encouraged particularly, but not only, in the economic sphere. Things changed somewhat under new Labour, especially in relation to levels of public spending, but the underlying ideology of economic and personal freedom remained largely intact. There have been many benefits from this political philosophy, but the difficulty in basing a society too much upon economic and personal freedom is that it tends to produce exaggerated winners and losers. Over time, the losers easily accumulate into a growing underclass where low-level or medium-level crime is endemic and where criminal gangs can flourish. That outcome has for a long time been very evident in America where the prison population dwarfs our recently inflated levels. We are now beginning to see this in the UK with prisons—full of relatively minor offenders and repeat offenders—too easily becoming academies of crime. The figures for inmates with drug problems are another illustration.

The way forward must be to address the subculture of crime associated with the growing emergence of an underclass. In the longer debate on Thursday, two of my episcopal colleagues will say more on the subject of restorative justice and the role that it should play. However, let me make one broad point in this short debate. Many of those in the crime-ridden underclass have a very low sense of dignity and self-worth. Many come from broken homes and abusive childhoods. That comes home very strongly when you talk to people who are in prison, as I have frequently done. The solution—or part of it—must include a proper recognition of the innate dignity of every human being including, and in some sense especially, those whom society chooses to imprison. On my visits to prisons, I have often felt that the prisoners, for all that they were there to be punished, were not always treated with the dignity that they nevertheless deserved. The refusal to give them the vote is an illustration of that. In my time as a bishop, I have been in a young offenders’ institute where the staff regularly swore at the young people who were imprisoned there. That seemed to be something that the whole system just accepted as a normal feature of prison life, and the governor hardly seemed to be aware of it. I choose that as an example.

Recognising and upholding the dignity of every human being, even when they are being punished by society, is a real mark of civilisation. We are more generally lawless today in some respects; the danger is allowing those whom we imprison to become scapegoats for the rest of society. That cannot be part of the solution. Whatever we do, we have to uphold the dignity of those we choose to imprison.

My Lords, I suspect that I may be a lone voice in this place today, but it would not be a debate without listening to both sides. I was the president of the Police Superintendents' Association when the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, said quite powerfully that “prison works”. He was, of course, right—but he was also wrong. He was right in the sense that if you incarcerate someone for committing a crime, that clearly prevents them from continuing to commit crime against the public during their period of incarceration. It might also work as a punishment and deter the prisoner from continuing to offend—because, presumably, he did not like the experience. It could also deter others outside from committing crime because they do not wish to suffer the same fate. He was also right proudly to boast that crime fell dramatically during his period of tenure at the Home Office. However, Michael Howard was wrong, as noble Lords have expressed well this afternoon, in the sense that experience tells us that large numbers of people who are imprisoned return to crime when they are released from prison.

Where we are failing is in the rehabilitation of prisoners while they are locked up. This requires resources and costs a lot of money. I have talked to many criminals in my 35 years of policing, probably more than many others in this House, and of one thing I am certain—they do not like going to prison. On the other hand, they are all volunteers. We are not in prison; they are in prison. It is the old choice they have: if they commit the crime then, of course, they do the time. But it is not a pleasant experience, as I am sure we all appreciate. Any imprisonment is an unpleasant experience. I think that we could make it more unpleasant by clamping down on the use of things like drugs in prisons and the use of mobile phones to plan and perhaps prepare to commit crime when prisoners come out—particularly for the professional criminal. Those things are tolerated to keep the lid on law and order within prisons.

The first duty of any state is to protect its citizens, both from without and within. That is why I was somewhat surprised and shocked when I heard the Lord Chancellor, the right honourable Kenneth Clarke, pronounce that he was not in favour of short prison sentences. I agree that a short sentence does not allow training and rehabilitation, but it sends a very powerful signal to a recidivist bully or anti-social lout that his—and it usually is a him—behaviour and response to the courts will not be tolerated. I have often heard it said that it is not the prison sentence that deters but the fear of being caught. Again, I do not accept that. In the area that I policed, in the north-east of England, crime was rampant in the early 1990s. We arrested, time after time, the same offenders, took them to court and they were released time after time on bail and continued to offend. Arresting them did not seem to have a great effect. If anything was proof that fear of being caught without a proper sentence was not a deterrent, that was it. The public got fed up with anti-social behaviour in the late 1990s, which was why the anti-social behaviour order was brought in. That results in imprisonment only if all the conditions of the order are continually broken.

The public are fed up to the back teeth with what they see as soft options for people who ruin the lives of victims. The nub of it is that generally such behaviour does not touch the lives of Members of this place, but it hits people on housing estates and people in deprived communities, who are trying to eke out an honest living for themselves and their families. We owe it to them to use prison in a sensible way, as a final deterrent for those who refuse to comply. We need to use prison and to change the rules for those who do not know any rules.

My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for arranging this debate. I declare an interest as an honorary research fellow at the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College, London. I, too, welcome the recent statement by the Secretary of State for Justice about a new start in penal policy. I noted the view that emerged from his speech about the value of looking at evidence, and evidence will be the subject of my brief remarks this afternoon.

In his recent speech, the Secretary of State for Justice noted the difference in prison population between what it is today and what it was when he was last in that position. He may also have noted that when he was last responsible for prisons, there was in his department a high-level research unit, the Home Office Research Unit, which was the envy of the world and whose products were read all around the world. I very much hope that the Government will restart putting such high-level and objective work into the public domain. Research and evidence are a good basis for a new policy. I want to look at three areas where evidence might be helpful, although I entirely accept that, in the end, there are political considerations. However, evidence is a helpful start.

First, it is said by some that crime has gone down but that there are more prisoners, so the first must have been caused by the second. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has said, it is hard to find the evidence to sustain that proposition or to square it, for example, with what happened in New York where, between 1993 and 2001, violent crime decreased by 64 per cent, while the prison population dropped by 25 per cent.

Secondly, we know from a mountain of research, particularly a study carried out by Edinburgh University over many years, studying hundreds of children and young people, that putting children and young teenagers into prison is one of the worst decisions we can make if we are aiming at a safer society. That should only be done in the most extreme circumstances.

Thirdly, I suggest that the Minister asks the researchers at the Ministry of Justice to produce a paper showing what makes people turn away from crime and change their whole way of life. I think that such research would show that it is relationships with people who are not involved in crime, it is having bonds linking them to law-abiding society, and it is helping them to change their image of themselves. A policy based a little more on evidence than on what we have seen in the past 10 years would undoubtedly produce better results and a safer society. Does the Minister have any view on the report in the press this morning that Tim Godwin, the new deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has called for money to be taken from prisons and to be given to community-based schemes for offenders?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for securing and introducing this debate. Like other noble Lords, I greatly welcomed the Justice Secretary’s initiative on prison reform, particularly his speech on 30 June at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. As we all know, and as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, emphasised, the prison population in England and Wales has reached a record level of 85,000. It has almost doubled during the past two decades, and we must be one of the only countries where this has happened. Our prisons are overcrowded; we have the second-highest incarceration rate in western Europe. If I may draw the Committee’s attention to the ethnic minorities, it is striking that they constitute just over a quarter of the prison population while being no more than 9 per cent of the population at large and that nearly 56 per cent of ethnic minority prisoners are black Britons. In fact, more black Britons are in prisons than in universities.

Prison is obviously not the answer, as all the research that I have consulted, with which noble Lords will be familiar, has shown. We have one of the highest crime rates in western Europe although we lock up so many, so obviously there is no correlation between the two. Public fears about safety have not subsided in spite of our locking people up in those large numbers. As the last election showed, it was the third concern after the economy and immigration. The reoffending rate is as high as 50 per cent; in fact, it goes up to 60 per cent when we look at those given short-term sentences.

Prisons are also extremely costly—something like £39,600 per year. As the Justice Secretary pointed out, it costs more to maintain a prisoner than a boy at Eton. Those who do not reoffend suffer from mental ill-health and remain social misfits who cannot hold a job after they come out. So far as ethnic minority prisoners are concerned, they experience a greater amount of racism and victimisation in prison than outside. They come out very bitter and angry and fuel the ranks of those who wish this society ill.

Basically, the prison system does not work. It crashes and keeps recycling the vulnerable, the mentally ill and the failures of our society. This has to stop. There should be more emphasis on rehabilitation and reintegration into the community than has been the case so far. We should also involve charities and the third sector and fund them from the saving that we would make by making sure that people are not locked up. In fact, as the Justice Secretary said, it might be a good idea to think in terms of paying them by results so that for every prisoner who does not reoffend the third sector receives a certain amount of money.

I have always thought that large prisons are a bad idea because they militate against rehabilitation and integration. Small prisons that are close to the community, like we used to have in older days, make it easier to establish familial contacts and facilitate integration. In this context, it is striking that Canada had a wonderful experiment in the 1990s when it reduced the prison population by 11 per cent. In within seven to eight years, the crime rate fell by 23 per cent in cases of robbery and assault and by 43 per cent in cases of murder.

I shall end by asking the Minister three very simple questions. First, has any analysis been made of how the cuts in public services and welfare provisions are likely to impact on the rate of crime? Secondly, what is being done—indeed, do the Government have any plans at all—to reduce the ethnic minority population in our prisons and to conduct a study of what prison has done to them when they come out? Finally, and this was part of the Lib Dem manifesto and is something which I subscribe to, is it the Government’s policy that there will always be a presumption against short jail sentences?

My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. I welcome this debate, particularly the contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. It qualifies him to join the coalition. At a time of swingeing cost reductions when every item of public expenditure is to be scrutinised carefully for cost-effectiveness, we must question the benefits of the prison expansion strategy, particularly as the annual cost of keeping someone in prison is now £45,000. This means asking some fundamental questions. Why do we need to build so many prisons? What is the purpose of prison and who should go there? When offenders are jailed, what should be done to rehabilitate them?

The prison system is seriously overcrowded. Seventy-eight out of 137 jails are holding more prisoners than they were built for, and 20,400 prisoners—a quarter of the prison population—are held in overcrowded cells. The results of all this are inhumane conditions and the risk of self-harm and suicide. It makes it harder to provide rehabilitation programmes, thereby increasing reoffending on release. Prisoners are moved part-way through education or rehabilitation courses, and many are held in prisons far away from their home areas, making it hard for relatives to visit and increasing the risk of family break-up.

So is it vital to end prison overcrowding? Is a strategy of prison expansion the right way to do this? If past experience is any guide, the strategy seems doomed to failure. The present process is like trying to run down an escalator which is moving ever more rapidly upwards, and the prison expansion strategy has absorbed ever-increasing resources which could otherwise be spent on prisoner resettlement, alternatives to custody, crime prevention and victim support, precisely what the coalition is asking for.

Most of the offenders jailed in this country receive short sentences. I shall give the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, an example. They spend no more than six months in custody. These short sentences are absolutely pointless because they make no point whatever. They are far too short for sustained rehabilitation programmes but are long enough for offenders to lose their homes and jobs, which makes them more likely to reoffend. Two-thirds of short-term prisoners are reconvicted within two years of release. We need a strategy to reduce the prison population to levels more comparable to our European neighbours. When we examine legislation, prisons should be removed as an option for low-level, non-violent crimes. Courts should be prohibited from using prison, except for dangerous offenders, unless they have first tried an intensive community supervision programme. Health authorities should be compelled to devote adequate resources to diverting mentally disordered offenders away from prisons. The number of people jailed for breach of licences should be reduced by a wider use of other penalties for breach before resorting to custody. Strong measures should be taken to tackle the disproportionate use of imprisonment for offenders from racial minorities.

The most commonly advanced purposes of sentencing are punishment, containment, deterrence and rehabilitation. Society has the right to punish offenders in order to protect the weak from victimisation, but punishment does not have to mean imprisonment. Many community supervision programmes are intensive and rigorous, make real demands on offenders and significantly restrict their liberty. Deterrence is, quite frankly, overrated. Those offenders who plan their offences plan not to get caught. They believe that they can avoid detection. Many other offenders commit their offences thoughtlessly or impulsively and, for them, rational considerations of deterrence hardly come into it.

Research has shown that the highest reoffending rates result from punitive approaches, such as the boot camps in America. The lowest reconviction rates result from regimes which work to change offenders' attitudes and behaviour. We should be aiming to provide practical help for prisoners: accommodation and drug rehabilitation programmes interact with each other because it is easier to hold down a job or sustain a drug rehabilitation attempt. We should regard the size of our prison population as a national disgrace. Instead of a prison expansion strategy, we need a strategy centred on reducing the unnecessary use of prison.

My Lords, I declare an interest as I have a close association with a charity called Safe Ground, which works in prisons and addresses the third point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. May I say how much I agree with her about how effective it is and how difficult it has been to get funding and attention from a Prison Service obsessed with targets and tick-boxes? I hope that that will not be a characteristic of the Prison Service of the future. I greeted Ken Clarke’s announcement with total delight. I have waited 15 years, which is most of my time in this House, for a Home Secretary about whom I can say that—and at last I have one. If we can get the people out of prison who should not be there—principally, to my mind, those with drug and mental health problems—and treat them properly elsewhere, we would make the space in prisons for prison to work properly and do what it should be doing to rehabilitate the people who are in there.

There is no time to put what I am going to say in context, I shall just fire off words of advice at the Minister and hope that he takes them. First, he should not abolish NOMS but allow it to evolve. When you make big reconstructions in places such as the NHS and schools it takes a couple of years for the system to stabilise, for everyone to know what they are doing and for it to become easy to work with again. Prisons just do not have that resilience. There are no populations of qualified professionals such as doctors and head teachers around to bring a system back to normal quickly. It has taken five plus years for NOMS to settle down. It has at last got some degree of stability. Parts of it work very well but there are elements of extreme waste and misallocation, which I am sure this Government will take a knife to. But, for goodness’ sake, allow the structure to evolve rather than shake everything up again, which will make it impossible for other people to work with it. We must also look carefully at this election mantra of payment by results. The only people who can stand that are big commercial organisations. How can little charities, focusing on one part of the problem, ever live under that sort of structure? You will lose an awful lot of good work if you make that the centre of what you are doing.

Secondly, take a lesson from schools and make governors and management teams stay a decent length of time. What would you think of a school which changed its headmaster every 18 months or two years? You would never send a child there, and quite right too. It takes time for a governor to get to grips with a prison. They need to be there five or seven years to make prison somewhere where the governor is the governing influence rather than the bureaucrat in the middle of tick-boxes and targets. You have to learn more from schools than that. You have to support and find ways to involve governors stuck in prisons in outside things, but for goodness’ sake leave them in charge of prisons. The Prison Service could take a lesson from Teach First. Having really high-quality people in a profession makes an enormous difference. You cannot easily take people straight out of university or school into the Prison Service; they need to spend a bit of time in the world first. There has always been a connection with the services and a good flow of people between the services and the Prison Service. There is no reason why that cannot be made into something much more formal whereby we take the best people coming out of the Army, train them up and support them and get a really high-quality cadre into the Prison Service, making it something which people look up to, as they should.

Ministers have set out on a 25-year journey. This is real long-term stuff. The Secretary of State for Justice should be there for the full five years of the Government. The Prisons Minister should be there for the full five years of the Government. If you have rotating Ministers all the time, it is terribly difficult to keep long-term objectives in mind. Your job as Ministers is to take the flak and to stand up there while the Daily Mail throws stuff at you. Things go wrong in prisons. You must have the courage of knowing that you are not risking your next promotion by getting some little thing wrong and running for cover, as Ministers have done so often in the past 15 years. We want to see courage and commitment right at the top.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Dubs. This has been a useful debate but he was right to say that it is much too short. However, it is important to discuss issues when we get the chance, even though there are honestly held different points of view, as there are on this issue.

The right honourable gentleman the Lord Chancellor said that his priorities are,

“to protect the public, punish offenders and provide access to justice”.

Given that speech, it seems to me that those who believe that prison should rarely be used as a form of punishment have become a little prematurely overexcited. To be fair to the Lord Chancellor, he is starting a discussion which has a long way to run, and even longer to go before legislation on sentencing and other measures is discussed in Parliament. Debate is a good thing, of course, but it is important—particularly for those who believe that he is going to satisfy their every wish—to read his whole speech and not just the parts of it that you want to read.

For our part, we think it is important to imprison serious offenders, but we also think that it is important to seek to rehabilitate them, whether inside or outside prison. We believe thoroughly in community sentences but they must be sentences that really mean something and, when breached, eventually invite custody. As the chairman of the Magistrates’ Association said in response to the Lord Chancellor’s speech, and indeed as the Prime Minister’s mother said—if she was rightly quoted by her son—from her experience as a magistrate of long standing, many shorter sentences are imposed on those who constantly breach the chances that they have been given. I am afraid that we cannot escape from that, however much we would like to do so. Indeed, one reason why the number of domestic violence offences has gone down is that domestic violence offenders now sometimes receive short sentences of imprisonment. No one thinks that there is no problem with short sentences—of course there is—but it is perhaps not quite as simple as some have made out, even in this debate.

When in government, we spent a huge amount of money on increasing learning in prison, on prisoner work and on dealing with drugs in prison, with an additional allocation to NHS primary care trusts for the total targeted implementation of the integrated drug treatment system. What will happen now if the PCTs are abolished? Outside prison, large amounts were successfully spent on dealing with youth offending so that, now that fewer young offenders enter the criminal justice system, there is a fall in reoffending and a smaller number of young offenders in custody than there were a few years ago. There is also the Corston report and the money that has been spent in implementing that. However, the spend on probation increased hugely by, in real terms, nearly 70 per cent between 1996-97 and 2007-08. It is sad to think that the budget, which we set of £870 million for the year 2010-11, has already been reduced by £20 million by the new Government. Goodness knows what is to come.

Therefore, although we make no apologies for our policy towards an increase in custody for those who deserve it, we point out the obvious: that non-custodial disposals are expensive, too, if they are to work. The Lord Chancellor was honest when he said that,

“I … cannot promise that we will be investing vast amounts of public money into non-custodial sentences across the country”.

My point is that prison is expensive—of course it is—but so are alternatives that also work.

I end by asking the Minister a couple of questions which I hope he will answer. First, does he agree that, as the figures make clear, there has been a substantial decrease in the level of crime over the past 15 years? My second question, which is linked, is: if the answer to my first question is yes, does he seriously believe that the decrease in the level of crime has nothing whatever to do with the fact that more people are in prison for longer? If that is the Government’s view, then many ordinary people who have been, but are no longer, the victims of crime will be horrified.

My Lords, I have already said in the margins of this debate that we really need at least five hours to cover the issues. I shall start with the point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach. There have been decreases in crime. I shall leave it to the criminologists to decide the reasons for that. I am sure that one of the factors, not only in this country, but in most advanced countries, is that we have gone through a period of considerable increases in prosperity, and there is a correlation between periods of prosperity and levels of crime, but I would rather leave that to the academics. The point was made earlier that when criminals are in prison, they are not free to commit crimes. I once attended a lecture by a former prison adviser to Ronald Reagan who estimated that the right prison population for Britain to guarantee that all the crime-committing criminals were off the streets was about 180,000.

What has caused the Lord Chancellor to raise this issue is that there is concern that prison has produced a whirligig of people going in and coming out which needs serious debate. That is why I welcome this debate and the others that will follow it—indeed, there is another on Thursday. The Lord Chancellor deliberately provoked the kind of discussion that we hope will bring forth ideas about our approach to these matters so that we can see if we can find something better. I am not here to say that the previous Administration did nothing right in their 13 years. Indeed, they did a lot of good things. We would be wrong if we did not face up to the fact that prisons produce more criminals and therefore there is a reasonable desire to look at rehabilitation and alternatives to prison.

It is impossible for me to cover all the issues. There are two points about ex-servicemen, and both have been made. There are a worrying number of ex-servicemen in prison, and there is a need to look at this issue. I understand that prison in-reach promotes the wide range of help and support available to veterans, but we should do more. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I have thought for a long time that we should do far more to recruit ex-servicemen into the probation service and the Prison Service because many of the skills taught in the modern military are readily transferable. When I have read of some dreadful case of a young social worker going to deal with a problem family and being unable to gain access to a vulnerable child or whatever, I have thought that perhaps an ex-serviceman with a little more life experience might have got that access. That is a resource we should look at.

It is equally so with mental health. There are far too many people in our prisons with mental health problems. We are committed to improve offenders’ access to services that deal with the priority areas of mental health and learning disabilities. It was pointed out to me the other day that, even apart from mental health, the scale of illiteracy in prisons suggests that there is a linkage that may relate to the points that were made about a lack of self-appreciation. If you are illiterate, you tend to have a poor opinion of yourself in a society that depends so much on communications.

Young offenders have also been mentioned, and the how, why and what of the remarkably good figures on the drop in youth offending. However, we must follow the line of keeping young people out of the prison system if at all possible and look for alternatives. That is true, too, of women offenders. The Government are committed to looking at how to divert women away from crime and tackle women’s offending effectively. We broadly accept the recommendations of the Corston report in this area.

I am not sure whether I can cover the other points that were made in this response. I noted the idea from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, of regional clusters and directors with specific skills for prisons alongside a pruning of bureaucracy. On new prison build and the shape of our prison estate, we will have to look at what the sentencing review and what some of the initiatives launched by the Lord Chancellor’s great debate produce before we make a decision on that. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester rightly warned us about the academies of crime. I welcome the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, because it is very important that we remember the victims as well as the criminals. Ken Clarke keeps on telling all his Back-Benchers that he did not say that short sentences can never be used or should be abandoned. I urge all noble Lords to read the whole speech; it is well worth it.

I shall stop trying to respond to the specific points, because I have run out of time. We are looking at ways in which to divert funds from custody to community work. However, as has been recognised, there will always be a need for prison, either because of the seriousness of the crime or the continuing risks posed to the community. Public protection remains paramount but, to echo my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor in his recent speech on criminal reform, prison is not just a numbers game. It is not about how many offenders we can lock up or simply reducing the prison population for the sake of it. The challenge that we face is far greater than simply getting the numbers right; prison must be a place of punishment but must also rehabilitate offenders if we are to stop them committing crimes again and again. About half of all crime is committed by people who have been through the criminal justice system before, which is hardly surprising given the limited available time—a point that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, made—to work on offenders during short sentences.

What use is a short period in prison if a prisoner will simply return, not having changed his ways in the slightest? We must do more to tackle the root cause of reoffending. In practice, that means prisons that are also places of education, hard work and an opportunity for change. For example, the Government are currently exploring how prisoners could spend more of their time in productive, meaningful work. It also means community sentences that are rigorously enforced and giving offenders the chance to find a job and accommodation and become drug free.

All this sits in the wider context of our commitment to conduct a full assessment of sentencing and rehabilitation to ensure that it is effective—effective in deterring crime, in protecting the public, in punishing offenders and in cutting reoffending. We need a new, intelligent approach that often recognises the circumstances of the individual case. As has been mentioned, the Government alone cannot, of course, do that. The private and voluntary sectors must be engaged, and our aim is to empower communities to take responsibility in this area. We are looking at alternative custody projects, which provide the courts with enhanced community sentencing options. I have been interested by one such which was initiated by the previous Government on intensive probation supervision. We will look at the outcome of that, but again it is very cost-intensive.

My attitude has never been one of reform for reform’s sake, or because of commitment to some woolly liberalism. The noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, is right to remind us of the victims, but I am committed to this programme because common sense and practical politics dictate that we explore alternatives to that endless and expensive whirligig of crime, imprisonment, release and reoffending which marks out the failures of our present system. It is all too easy, as has been said, to be intimidated by the cheap populism and “bang ’em up” mentality of the popular media. Perhaps that is the advantage of having a Lord Chancellor at 70 and a Minister of State at 67; we have no long-term ambitions other than to make sure that this policy works. We will resist that temptation and, with the help of debates like this, explore alternatives to a prison system which neither successfully deters nor sufficiently rehabilitates.

Committee adjourned at 6.20 pm.