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Prison Reform

Volume 769: debated on Tuesday 15 March 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the total number of prisoners on their plans for prison reform.

My Lords, we do not need to reduce the prison population in order to reform our prisons. We will always provide sufficient prison capacity for those committed by the courts and aim to manage the prison population in a way that gives taxpayers value for money. Prisons must be places where offenders can transform their lives. We are therefore modernising the estate and will give prison staff greater freedom to innovate. Only through better rehabilitation will we reduce reoffending and cut crime.

My Lords, at least three recent reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons have demonstrated how difficult it is to achieve the Government’s worthy objectives of rehabilitation when there is a very large prison population and a much reduced staff managing it. Is it not time that, alongside the rehabilitation policy, Ministers began to look at why we imprison a larger proportion of our population than any other western European country, thus committing huge amounts of taxpayers’ money to a system which does not sufficiently reduce reoffending?

The Government are always anxious to find out why we imprison so many people. Of course, imprisoning is done by judges, not by government. We believe that the way to reduce the prison population is to tackle reoffending. Fifty per cent of adult prisoners are reconvicted within one year and 60% in less than 12 months. We aim to get to grips with that reoffending, and that will reduce the prison population.

My Lords, does not that answer indicate precisely why the Government have a problem? If those are the reoffending figures, why is that happening? Is it not true that there are simply insufficient staff in our prisons to escort prisoners to, for example, needed mental health appointments, to the classes for which they are booked or indeed to the exercise and other facilities that would enable them to go along the path towards rehabilitation? How will that rehabilitation take place?

In the last year we have recruited 2,250 new prison officers—a net increase of 440—and we are continuing to recruit at that rate. We have given prison officers all that they have asked for in terms of the recommended rate of pay. We very much applaud prison officers in the very difficult task that they have to perform, and I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in offering their condolences to the family and friends of Adrian Ismay, a prison officer from Belfast, who unfortunately died today.

My Lords, I read in the Times recently that the Secretary of State is going to put family at the heart of prison reforms. Can the Minister expand on those plans and the progress that has been made there?

My noble friend is quite right to focus on the importance of family. According to research by my department, families are the single most important factor in helping prisoners to resettle on release. A number of prisons have developed visitor centres and are doing their best to make the contact between families and prisoners as pleasant as possible. This is important because, first, the families are, after all, not doing a prison sentence and, secondly, it encourages prisoners to remember that their roots in the community and in their family are the key to not reoffending.

My Lords, the Minister has recognised that we cannot hope to tackle prison overcrowding without improving rehabilitation and thereby reducing reoffending. But is it not the fact that we cannot hope to improve rehabilitation without reducing prison numbers? Can the Minister tell us how the Government will break this vicious circle?

The noble and learned Lord, with all his experience of the system, will appreciate that we have a duty, and therefore have to have the ability, to house all who are sent to prison by judges. What we are endeavouring to do is to identify the causes of reoffending. Once we have done that, we hope that that will reduce the numbers. If judges feel it is appropriate to sentence offenders to particular sentences, it is not for the Government to reduce those sentences simply to make the figures balance.

My Lords, I am sorry, but if we are going strictly in turn, it is the turn of the Labour Benches. However, I know that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has been trying to get in. Therefore, if we go next to Labour, I suggest that we then go to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf.

My Lords, the Minister will know that in the nine years since the publication of my report, the reason that the number of women in prison has decreased is because of the establishment of a network of community women’s centres, which have been used by the courts to help those women turn their lives around. Under the new community rehabilitation contract regime introduced by the coalition Government one women’s centre, Alana House in Reading, has been closed because its CRC, MTC Novo, has refused to fund it. Other women’s centres do not even know what their funding is going to be after 1 April. Does the Minister agree that the inevitable result of this will be an increase in the women’s prison population?

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s contribution to reducing the population of women prisoners and her concern for them. Of course, she will be pleased that their number is lower than it has been for a decade. We hope that we can reproduce the best practice found in Holloway—albeit it is closing—and in the women’s centres in making sure that the arrangements in prison are those best suited for women and their rehabilitation.

My Lords, is it not right that the inflation in sentences—they are longer than they have ever been—is caused by action taken by Governments, and not by judges, to impose fixed sentences? These sentences form rocks that the rest of sentencing has to accommodate. If that were not the case, sentences would be shorter, because judges are prevented from imposing the sentences that they otherwise would by the fixed-sentencing policies of the Government of a particular time.

I am grateful for the contribution made by the noble and learned Lord. Of course, this Government and the coalition Government before them were very much against fixed sentences. It was the coalition Government who repealed, for example, provision in relation to indeterminate sentences for public protection. In the eight criminal justice Acts that were passed by the Labour Government, extraordinary inflexibility was given to judges in passing sentences—that is one of the results in terms of the prison population. We are endeavouring to give as many resources as we can to the Parole Board to make sure that those prisoners will be released when it is safe to do so.