Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the level of overcrowding in prisons.
My Lords, when opening the debate here on prison reform early last year, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, now our esteemed Lord Speaker, recalled that when in the 1970s the prison population first exceeded 40,000, the Times published a series of articles under the heading “The Prisons Crisis”. Today, there are over 85,000 prisoners and, on present trends, this number is projected to rise in a very few years to over 90,000. Can anyone doubt that today our prisons truly are in crisis—seriously overcrowded, understaffed and volatile—and that the solution cannot be simply to build more, but lies rather in adopting fresh approaches to reducing their population and restoring what is now almost entirely lost: the real prospect of prison sentences actually being used to reform and rehabilitate inmates?
I need spend little time establishing that there are too many people in prison. Numerous statistics bear it out. The percentage of our population serving prison sentences is almost twice that in Germany, let alone Scandinavia, and very substantially higher than in most of the developed world. Our standard sentences are routinely substantially longer than elsewhere. The statistics are yet more striking when it comes to indeterminate sentences: astonishingly, in England and Wales, more people are sentenced to an indeterminate term than in all the other 46 countries of the Council of Europe combined.
Nor, surely, do I need to linger long on the many and acute problems which result from prison overcrowding. Inevitably I must generalise, so let me acknowledge at once the many caring and conscientious prison staff and governors who do their very best to overcome these problems. Their efforts notwithstanding, the consequences of overcrowding are all too evident. Almost one-fifth of prisoners are doubled up in single cells or tripled in cells for two, often sharing an open, unscreened toilet. Many spend up to 23 hours a day in these squalid conditions. Often prisons are without functioning classrooms, workshops, teachers or any of the other services or supports needed to help inmates to deal with problems and prepare them for release and resettlement. In short, warehousing has largely replaced rehabilitation.
Small wonder that prison riots and disturbances are no longer a rarity; prisons are dangerous places. Who can forget the finding by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in July that in not a single YOI is it safe to house a child? Small wonder, too, that in the last year there were more than 26,000 assaults in prison, including more than 7,000 on prison staff, that many prison officers suffer stress-related illnesses, and that there were more than 40,000 incidents of self-harm among inmates and 97 self-inflicted deaths. It is hardly surprising that, as the BMA has briefed, incarceration often leads to deterioration in physical and mental health, with the prisoner’s fragile state of mind all too often having played a part in his original offending. It is unsurprising, too, that the illegal use of drugs and mobile phones and the corruption, addiction, debt and violence that generally go with them represent widespread and persistent problems, such problems unlikely to be eradicated by 300 sniffer dogs and the hand-held mobile detectors promised by the Lord Chancellor in his Evening Standard article last month.
Perhaps least surprising of all is the high rate of recidivism following a prison sentence. In that same newspaper article, the Lord Chancellor expressly recognised that about half of those sent to jail will end up back behind bars. Some years ago, a Home Secretary famously suggested that “prison works”, above all in keeping prolific professional burglars out of our houses. Whether or not that was ever so, it manifestly is not today. Rather, it militates against any chance of effective rehabilitation, and once again we see the crime figures steadily on the rise. So the £1.3 billion now promised to the MoJ should be devoted not to catering for an ever-larger prison population but rather to improving the prison estate and facilities to prepare existing and future inmates for release.
The present continuing upward spiral must end, so let me briefly suggest four basic imperatives as to how—although, alas, with no sufficient time to develop them. First, send fewer people to prison and for shorter terms. Secondly, indefinite sentences, which are now commonplace, should become a rarity. Thirdly, facilitate prison release. Fourthly, drastically cut the number of recalls.
First and foremost, of course, we must end prison sentence inflation—its upward spiral. All too often, we hear of some dreadful fresh offence and, in common doubtless with many others—not just Daily Mail readers—whether it be a case of child cruelty, the torture of some elderly person to extract his savings or the recent spate of moped riders hurling acid into people’s faces, my first reaction is to lock the perpetrators up and throw away the key: avenge the victims or, at the very least, mark society’s outrage by raising the statutory maximum for the offence.
Indeed, that has often been Parliament’s reaction over recent years, but unfortunately—although perhaps occasionally justifiable in the case, say, of terrorist offences—its inevitable consequence has been to ratchet up sentences across the board. Even now, there is under consideration—subject to consultation and apparently gaining widespread public support—a proposal to increase from 14 years to life the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving. Earlier this year, Parliament doubled the maximum sentences available for stalking and harassment offences, variously from five years to 10 and, in aggravated cases, from seven to 14 years. Before that, in 2014, the maximum sentence under the Dangerous Dogs Act was increased from two years to 14 years. In 2015, contrary to the judges’ advice, minimum custodial terms were introduced for carrying knives, both for second possession offences and for first offences where accompanied by threats.
And, of course, by Schedule 21 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the Act which first introduced the ill-starred IPP sentence scheme, the minimum terms to be served by mandatory life prisoners were fixed at substantially higher levels than ever before—through later amendments they have twice since been raised higher still—so they have risen steadily from an average of 12 and a half years in 2003 to, I think, over 21 years now.
The Sentencing Council—a largely judicial body created by statute in 2009—is loyally responsive to these demonstrations of Parliament’s will. As a result, guideline sentences have become progressively longer to maintain some sort of coherence across the entire spectrum of criminal offending. Reducing the length of prison sentences requires, above all, political will, not judicial policy-making. I urge Parliament to amend the council’s statutory remit to include among its aims the overall reduction of the prison population.
If one pauses for a moment and asks in the abstract how long a sentence should be—whether, say, a dangerous driver, a burglar or a historic sex offender should serve 10 or five years, or whatever—what logic dictates that answer? Assuming he does not need to be confined long term for reasons of public safety, but that some immediate custodial disposal is called for, how many weeks, months or years does due punishment—just retribution—require that he be locked up in a squalid cell away from his family and friends, and deprived of most else that makes life worth living? In terms of deterrence, while plainly it is important to catch, prosecute and convict offenders, there is no evidence to suggest that, whatever is fixed as the standard sentence, it is of any consequence in deterring criminal behaviour—least of all crimes of sex and violence. The first imperative, therefore, is fewer and shorter sentences, suspended wherever possible.
Secondly, we should impose infinitely fewer indefinite sentences, of which there are many different kinds, and to which currently over 11,000 prisoners are subject. Inevitably, they suffer uncertainty and hopelessness, unsettling for all those around them, not least their families. As is increasingly widely recognised, the IPP regime is a clear case in point. Despite its abolition in 2012, some 3,300 IPP prisoners are yet to be released, the majority having served for many years—some over 10 years—beyond their tariff terms. Truly, this is preventive detention—in effect, internment. It is a stain on our criminal justice system and it must end.
The third imperative is to facilitate the release of those who have served their minimum terms—indeed, ideally, to release them earlier still. Additional resources should be provided for training, education and suitable courses. Never should release be delayed because the Parole Board is insufficiently resourced to process it speedily. The burden of proving safety for release, which is almost impossible for the prisoner to discharge, should—as the chairman of the Parole Board himself recently suggested—shift on to those seeking his continued detention. Neither should release have to be delayed because of insufficient accommodation in probation hostels for long-sentence prisoners to live in under supervision in the community, the subject of a Times article last month.
The temporary release scheme, whereby prisoners are prepared for release by allowing them out during the day to undertake paid or voluntary work, has been greatly restricted over recent years, most regrettably, despite its previous record of almost 100% success. It should be fully restored. Indeed, I would go further and urge the scheme’s extension to encompass also, whenever possible, those actually serving sentences so that family relationships can be preserved, employment prospects improved and institutionalisation kept at bay.
The fourth and final imperative is that, once a prisoner has finally secured his release, he should not thereafter readily be recalled. The number of those in prison for breach of their licence conditions has grown from 150 in 1995 to over 6,000 today, including over 700 IPP prisoners, whose rate of recall almost matches their rate of release, an issue on which the Howard League is currently engaged. Recall should be used only exceptionally. As it is, the majority are largely for technical reasons: failing to attend a probation officer appointment, spending a night away from a notified address and so forth. The actual numbers of recalls have grown immeasurably. In 2000-01, there were just over 3,000 recalls to custody. In the year ending this March, over 21,000 were recalled, including 8,000 who had served under eight months. Indeed, since the Offender Rehabilitation Act, nearly 15,000 of those serving under a year have been recalled, generally for just 14 or 28 days. In short, the part-privatisation of the probation service and the eligibility for recall of those sentenced to under 12 months are proving just as problematic as many here predicted when these measures were introduced.
I am conscious that I have had time only to sketch in some of the problems and suggest some of the required solutions. I must end. I have not even touched on many of the problems affecting the Prison Service today—for example, those arising from an ever- ageing prison population, including many serving long sentences for historic sex abuse, cases nowadays representing over half the Crown Courts’ workload. Truly, prisons are in crisis. Indeed, the very fact that over 30 noble Lords, most with deep knowledge and experience in this field, are down to speak is some indication of the enormous public concern about the situation in our prisons today. I greatly look forward to their contributions, all too brief, though, alas, they must be.
My Lords, noble Lords will have observed that we are very tight for time in this debate. I respectfully remind them that when the clock shows three, any further utterances are technically out of time.
My Lords, first, I warmly congratulate the noble and learned Lord on initiating a most distinguished and eminent debate, and on a very thoughtful contribution—as one would expect from a former justice of the Supreme Court.
I particularly welcome the current President-elect of the Supreme Court. When I first became involved in criminal justice matters 42 years ago as a very young magistrate, I became chairman of the juvenile court in Lambeth and was absolutely aware that the judiciary was coping with the consequences of poverty, disadvantage, illiteracy and domestic upheaval. In one young judge, Brenda Hale, I found a person who was interested in debating whether or not sentencing made any difference. I used to sit with a stipendiary who said, “In the public interest you must go to a detention centre”. I used to say, “In the public interest we know that if they go to a detention centre, they have an 80% chance of reoffending”—so a more thoughtful, analytical approach to sentencing is evidently part of this situation. The other areas of IPPs, prison release and cutting recalls are also critically important.
But I am afraid the idea that there was ever a mythical day when it all worked beautifully is nonsense. Dr Helen Johnston of the criminology department at the wonderful University of Hull has done a tremendous longitudinal study of prison, going right back to the middle of the 19th century. She states:
“The use of custodial sentences today are just as financially costly and ineffective as they have always been, and they will continue to damage chances of rehabilitation from the outset. For over a hundred years the use of custody has cut away connections and support-networks in the community. Sentenced offenders lose their residences, their jobs, and sometimes also their family-relationships as soon as they go through the doors of the prison”.
Now, people will talk about prison education and prison health. I felt very strongly about ensuring that prison health was part of the National Health Service, not outside it. But I have a different call for action. When Nick Hardwick stepped down as the Chief Inspector of Prisons, he described as “appalling” the sector’s,
“lack of imagination and … failure of empathy”.
What I am calling for, and believe we are beginning to see, is a real presence of imagination and a much more genuine empathy. I used to have debates in another place in the mid-1980s on prisons. Nobody was interested; it was not a subject that would have attracted as many speakers as there are today. The only way we are going to address these issues is by community mobilisation. This is not just the Justice Department but all departments of Government; and it is not just prisons but whole communities.
I argue that the police and crime commissioners, now in their second iteration, are much more appropriate and able to create partnerships. The new community rehabilitation companies are beginning to work well. Above all, the voluntary sector is now coming forward with massively impressive schemes. I have worked closely with Working Chance, which is working with employers to find work for women prisoners. The wonderful KeepOut scheme in Surrey is using prisoners to educate others.
All in all, we have to work together to create a community for change. We need innovation, ingenuity, collaboration and determination—and I believe we really can turn the tide.
My Lords, I welcome this debate and thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for securing it at such a critical time, as this summer of unrest has shown.
We are facing a crisis that shows no sign of ending. Without a reduction in the numbers going to prison, there can be no solution to overcrowding. Together, England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. The prison system as a whole has been overcrowded in every year since 1994. People in prison, both prisoners and staff, are less safe than they have been at any time, with more self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and assaults than ever before.
I have two suggestions to reduce the numbers going to prison. First, we should urgently review the use of short-term sentencing and reverse the sharp decline in community orders. Secondly, we should stop the imprisonment of women for non-violent offences and invest more in women’s centres. The Government should cancel plans for new women’s prisons and spend the resources instead on a network of women’s centres. Imprisoning women for a short time results in loss of employment and housing—and, worst of all, in their children being taken into care, often with devastating consequences.
The number of women in prison has more than doubled since 1993: there are now nearly 2,300 more women in prison today than there were in 1993. On 16 June this year there were 3,994 women in prison in England and Wales, and 8,447 women were sent to prison in the year to December 2016, either on remand or to serve a sentence.
Most women entering prison under sentence have committed a non-violent offence, with theft offences accounting for nearly half of all custodial sentences given to women in 2016. As a result, most women entering prison serve a very short sentence: 70% of sentenced women entering prison in the year to December 2016 were serving six months or less. Short sentences do not allow for a programme of rehabilitation, education and training to take effect or for the health and social needs that many women face on entering custody to be addressed. Many are already damaged, with 53% reporting having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. There were 12 self-inflicted deaths of women in prisons in England and Wales in 2016. My noble friend Lady Corston made important recommendations in her report a decade ago that are still relevant today.
Reducing the use of short prison sentences would ease pressure throughout the prison estate. They are not only wasteful but ineffective, with 60% of people serving sentences of 12 months or less reoffending within one year of release. Now is the time to rethink sentencing and imprisoning women unnecessarily.
My Lords, being called so early gives me the opportunity to be the first to remind the House that it was the Liberal Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, over 100 years ago, who said that the measurement of a society’s civilisation was how it treated its prisoners. There is no doubt, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, demonstrated in his forensic presentation, that the case for prison reform is overwhelming. As preparation for this debate I read the reflections of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on his five and a half years as prisons Minister—I mean inspector—and over 14 years ago the subtitle of his book, Prisongate, was,
“The shocking state of Britain’s prisons and the need for visionary change”.
Fewer than seven weeks ago, the Chief Inspector of Prisons warned us that the situation was getting worse.
The case is therefore there, so why does nothing happen? One point where I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, is the idea that we would get a more enlightened debate at the other end. I fear that part of the problem of prison reform is that in a way, the whole of our Prison Service is like a paddle steamer driven by two paddles, but they go in different directions. One paddle is egged on by the media, influenced by public opinion and by politicians who, when given the hard choice between backing the difficult decision or playing for the politics of fear, have too often chosen the latter, and by political parties of all kinds, which, when it comes to elections, put out their leaflets telling their would-be voters how crime is rising and how they are going to deal with it. That paddle, pounding away, always makes it difficult to get the case for reform.
We therefore have to understand that the debate today, which will be overwhelmingly in favour of sensible reform, still has to pass that test of how we get a Secretary of State, a Prisons Minister and a Prime Minister who are willing to drive the reforms through. The building blocks are there: the Corston report on women, the Bradley report on mental health, the Harris report on deaths in custody, the Laming report on looked-after children, Dame Sally Coates’s report on education in prisons, and Charlie Taylor’s report on an education-led reform of youth custody. What is required is the political will. I would like to see the Prisons Minister at the Bar. I hope he reads this full debate and takes some courage from what he reads.
My Lords, I salute my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood for tabling this important debate, on an issue that has bedevilled the conduct of imprisonment for far too long. Time allows me to mention only two possible ameliorations, neither of them new, of which I hope the Minister will take note.
Giving evidence to my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf’s masterly inquiry into the riots in Strangeways and other prisons in 1990, the then Director-General of the Prison Service, Mr Train, justifying his contention that:
“for improvement to be solid and service-wide, the canker of overcrowding must be rooted out”,
“the life and work of the Prison Service have, for the last 20 years, been distorted by the problems of overcrowding. That single factor has dominated prisoners’ lives, it has produced often intolerable pressure on the staff, and as a consequence it has soured industrial relations. It has skewed managerial effort and it has diverted it away from positive developments. The removal of over-crowding is … an indispensable pre-condition of sustained and universal improvement in prison conditions”.
My noble and learned friend recommended a new prison rule that no establishment should be allowed to hold more than 3% of its certified level of accommodation for longer than three months without the permission of the Secretary of State, about which he had to inform Parliament. The then Home Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Baker, followed the inquiry with a White Paper containing 12 priorities for the way ahead for the Prison Service, including to end overcrowding. Sadly, none has yet been implemented by any successor Secretary of State, nor has the proposed Prison Rule.
My second point involves cell certification, for which, under the Prison Commission, inspectors were responsible, but which the Home Office brought in-house when it took over the running of prisons in 1963. As Chief Inspector, I felt it quite wrong that the Prison Service should be both judge and jury on how many prisoners might be held in each cell. I agitated that I should be made responsible for advising the Secretary of State on when overcrowding had become so bad in a particular prison that further intakes of prisoners should be forbidden—my request was refused.
Of course, ministerial and parliamentary oversight of the numbers, and cell certification by the Inspectorate, will not by themselves, root out the canker of overcrowding. But if the Prison Service’s distortion of its role is to be rooted out, Ministers and officials must stop ignoring, and start listening, to the clarion calls of those who, for years, have been drawing their attention to the damage that overcrowding does to a system for which they are responsible and accountable to the public.
My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for bringing this debate. I rather wish that the slight slip of the tongue of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in first referring to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, as a former Minister for prisons had been true, but there we are.
I recall a visit in my capacity as Bishop to Her Majesty’s Prisons, to one of our prisons and encountering a young man who was visibly distressed and disturbed, sitting against a wall with his hands over his ears, unable to cope with the general noise and hubbub on a prison wing—not least an overcrowded prison wing. I talked to one of the officers on that wing, who was relatively newly recruited and new in post; he was clearly there because of a really positive motivation, wanting to make a difference and with a vocation to work in the Prison Service. However, he was very conscious that because of responsibility to the whole wing, he was unable to give that distressed young prisoner the focused attention that was required.
We have in our prisons many governors, chaplains, staff, volunteers and officers like the one I have just described, who seriously want to make a difference, have a vocation for this work and are committed, and who want to see what is the aspiration of the Prison Service come to fruition, namely to create a rehabilitative culture. Sadly, it is largely a matter of numbers, more particularly, the ratio between numbers and staffing, which frustrates that desire and aspiration in so many ways. So many of the good interventions, programmes and possibilities delivered by staff, volunteers and many others are not able to fulfil their potential in bringing transformation and in turning around people’s lives. If that ratio between staff and prisoner numbers is too stretched, then these programmes cannot be delivered, the relationships are not built and there is no such transformation.
There are two particular things I would like to take this opportunity to address to Her Majesty’s Government. One relates to those, of whom there are far too many in prison, who have serious mental health conditions. Can conversations between the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health be seriously ratcheted up to address that issue, with serious proposals about alternative provision for people for whom prison is not the right place to be because of their mental health conditions? That would have a significant effect on the prison population. Secondly, will Her Majesty’s Government give serious attention to the consultation that is being undertaken by the Scottish Government at the moment, which will bring in a presumption against sentences shorter than 12 months, and to ask whether there are lessons to be learned for the Prison Service on the back of that consultation, and for sentencing policy in England and Wales.
It is crucial, if prison is going to do what we all want it to do, that these issues are addressed, so I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown for bringing forward this opportunity for us to hear the wisdom of so many within this House.
My Lords, there are far too many people in prison who ought not to be there at all. I have been concerned for some time about what can best be described as inflation in the length of the sentences being imposed by the courts. In England and Wales, the average length of a custodial sentence in 2007 was 12.4 months. In March 2017, it was 16.6 months—an increase of about one quarter over the decade. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, pointed out, the tariffs for life sentences have increased too. In 2005, the average tariff in England and Wales was 15.7 years. By 2015, it had increased to 21.2 years. These are shocking increases. Why has this happened and what purpose is it serving? The Sentencing Council should be asked to examine the phenomenon of sentence inflation, to consider whether these increases now serve any useful purpose and to find ways of reversing the increases where they do not.
As for rehabilitation, the effect of overcrowding is that the opportunity for effective rehabilitation is greatly reduced. On the other hand, many more prisoners are being recalled now for breach of licence conditions than ever before. The Transforming for Rehabilitation programme, introduced by the previous Government in February 2015, requires all those sentenced to a custodial term of less than 12 months to be subject to supervision for 12 months on release and to be eligible for recall. Since that date, there have been nearly 15,000 recalls of people serving these short sentences. This means that the number of people in prison on any day for breaching licence conditions has increased from 150 in June 1995 to 6,500 in March 2017—another shocking figure.
After all, the majority of those recalled are being sent back to prison for technical reasons only, such as failing to attend appointments with probation officers. They have not reoffended. They are in prison for a few days only, before being released again. The only purpose of this is to prevent reoffending by further rehabilitation. But what is the point of recalling prisoners for breach of conditions when, due to lack of resources, the rehabilitation element is largely absent?
This, like the IPP problem to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, has drawn attention so frequently, is a policy—no doubt well meaning—that has gone badly wrong. The good intentions that lie behind these measures are not being matched by a commitment to provide the funding necessary to make them work. The Government need to address the reasons for these rises in prison numbers as much as they need to address the physical problems the overcrowding gives rise to.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for facilitating this timely debate and I endorse his comments, particularly with regard to IPP prisoners. The prison system in England and Wales has been characterised for the last 30 years by overcrowding, building programme challenges, disorder and the absence of any reductionist strategy. The number of prisoners incarcerated in England and Wales has risen by 1,200 since May 2017 to over 86,000, despite the fact that fewer cases are coming before the courts. That is not because more criminals are being caught and sent down, but because a higher proportion of offenders are getting prison sentences and those sentences are getting longer, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, mentioned a moment ago.
Projections show that numbers in custody are likely to increase by another 1,600 by 2022. If so, at least one more prison will be needed. Incidentally, our priority in Wales is to secure our first women’s prison. The latest statistics show that not only sexual and violent offenders are getting tougher punishments from the courts. In 2010, less than a quarter of people convicted of theft went to jail, but last year the corresponding figure was almost 30%. Average prison terms as a whole have risen from under 14 months to over 16 months over the last seven years, as has been noted.
Research is needed to clarify whether the courts are hearing more serious cases or seeing more prolific offenders. The reduction by half in the police cautioning rates suggests that in all probability, more less-serious cases are coming before the courts than was the case seven years ago. Since 2010, the proportion of indictable crimes resulting in a community order fell from 25% to 20%. For so-called either-way offences, it fell from 42% to 37% over the same time period. It seems that these options are less attractive to the judiciary.
Violence in prisons is at record levels, including a 20% increase in assaults over the past year. The Howard League reports that 264 men and women have died in the 10 most recently opened prisons since 1997. There have been 8,188 recorded incidents of self-injury and 3,952 recorded assaults.
In a poll published last week, when asked what would be the most effective way of cutting crime, just 7% of respondents said “jail more people”. The majority advocated more police on the streets, better parenting, greater discipline in schools or better rehabilitation, yet successive Governments over the last 30 years have opted for building ever more jails as their solution. We desperately need a new fundamental review of the whole strategy of preventing crime, rehabilitating offenders and building communities at peace with themselves. We need radical new thinking and we need it very soon.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, has highlighted, as have others, the unspeakable toll of suicides and self-harm pointing to the distressing rates of mental disorder in prisons. It is that that I wish, as a psychiatrist, to draw attention to today, since overcrowding is both a cause and a consequence of the negative impact of mental illness. I am not going to plough through the statistics, which are already so well known to those speaking here today, but I concur totally with the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, who said we need a totally new cultural and social approach to address the difficulties of crime and the mental disorder that so often goes with it.
The National Audit Office’s excoriating report on mental health in prisons, published in June this year, paints an alarming picture of what prison is for someone with mental health problems. Admirable intentions are not being delivered on the ground and cannot even be measured. We put money into policies and we have no idea whether they are being delivered, simply because we have no way of measuring and there is nobody who can do the measuring. So policy ambitions are not being addressed. Of course, the prison regime is most likely to lead to depression, anomie and disturbed behaviour. Inside prisons the situation is dire. There are long waiting lists for mental health clinics. Dozens of new prisoners arrive every week and spookily disappear just as quickly as they arrive, either discharged on the constant merry-go-round or moved to other prisons on the great train traffic to somewhere else. That totally curtails the ability of psychiatric and mental health services in prison to address the problems. Since we have Spice these days, which is the new flavour of death in prisons, matters are getting worse.
Preparing for this debate today I asked a colleague who works in the forensic service in Birmingham to tell me about a recent visit to prison to see patients there. He said, “When we arrived, so-called recovery worker ‘offenders’ outnumbered the exhausted looking prison officers, who encouraged us to wander between wings unescorted. No one recalled asking us to attend and, as we sat waiting, prisoners came to see us, seemingly unnoticed by prison officers, questioning us about psychoactive drugs and so on. Offenders were friendly enough, but it felt like a phase of pre-anarchy as boundaries were breaking down because of the lack of staff available to deal with what appeared to be a very disturbed group of prisoners”.
My time is up, but it is clear that we cannot continue with this shameful position. Yes, we could have more mental health services but, frankly, it will not make any difference unless we solve the problem of how we are pouring people into the criminal justice system.
My Lords, we are all extremely grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, not only for today’s debate and the manner in which he introduced it, but for all he has done over so many years to bring this to the notice of your Lordships’ House.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, reminded us of the Churchill test. We should be collectively ashamed that we have failed it. We should constantly remind ourselves that punishment is sending somebody to prison, and the purpose of prison is rehabilitation. That has been neglected and forgotten for so long. One of the reasons, I fear, is the commercialisation of prisons. I really feel that incarcerating people is the role of the state and I do not believe that private prisons should have any part of it.
Many things can be done to avoid custodial sentences. I saw at first hand in Northern Ireland the very effective community restorative justice scheme. We could do much more on that front. We should set ourselves a target that by 2025 no prisoner should have to share a cell. Every prisoner should have an individual lavatory in his or her cell. No prisoner should ever be locked up for more than 12 hours in 24—and preferably for less than that—and should be given reasonable and challenging things to do while in prison. Every prisoner who remains clean of drugs and mobile phones and does not partake in violence should qualify at a very early stage for remission. Those who do not should have their conduct drawn to their attention by not being eligible.
We have to try to reduce the prison population. If we do not, we will continue to connive at perpetuating a blemish on our society. We are collectively indicting our own civilisation on our civilised values. I hope that the Secretary of State for Justice will heed my call for a target date and will set about achieving it.
My Lords, in this debate, for which I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, I wish to focus on one aspect only—the impact of overcrowding on self-inflicted deaths.
The number of self-inflicted deaths has risen sharply in recent years. In the year to June 2017, for example, there were 97 suicides. This was a slight fall from the previous year’s figure of 107 but a steep rise from the 53 reported in 2012. People in prison are between five and 10 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. This number is far too high. It is also important to note in relation to this the number of incidents of self-harm. There were nearly 40,000 incidents reported last year, up 24% on the previous year.
Overcrowding in prisons and the shortage of prison staff impact on the safety of prisoners, especially the vulnerable, in a number of ways. For example, there are fewer staff available to keep an eye on prisoners and especially to develop enough of a relationship with them to notice when something is seriously amiss. There is less time to observe any change of mood or to interact with them. Prisoners interviewed about the situation said that it was very difficult to speak to their personal officer as they were always far too busy. This is further accentuated by the loss of experienced staff and the advent of new staff without the necessary experience and training to look for signs of distress. Vulnerable prisoners need to be able to trust staff enough to confide in them when they feel suicidal. They can do that only if there is some face-to-face contact.
Overcrowding also means that there are fewer education opportunities, workshops, teachers, healthcare resources or resettlement and support services for the size of the population the prison holds, resulting in prisoners spending up to 23 hours a day in their cells. It means they are unable to go to classes or to engage in other activities to help them cope, including being able to speak on the phone to loved ones. It means that prisoners are more likely to miss their regular health checks because of a lack of prison staff to escort them.
The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s annual report for 2016-17 said that,
“suicide prevention procedures are still badly in need of updating and streamlining, without which I continue to question their fitness for purpose”.
Overcrowding also means that whenever a risk issue arises there will be total lockdown of the prison for 23 hours, increasing the sense of isolation of prisoners.
It is a terrible sadness when someone commits suicide, a tragedy which is felt very grievously by the family and friends of the person concerned. When a person is in prison the state has a particular responsibility to do all it can to ensure that they do not develop a state of mind where suicide is what they are tempted to do. Prison can lead to a sense of isolation, mental fragility and a feeling of hopelessness. For the reasons that I have outlined very briefly, the present overcrowding makes the situation much worse and is totally unacceptable.
My Lords, for many years I was a member of the board of visitors—now known as monitors—at a young offender institution. The 2016-17 report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales should make people who read it realise that improvements must be made. I did not see monitors mentioned once. I ask the Minister: are monitors still involved in trying to highlight needs and improve conditions, as we did? What is their present role? When 78 of the 116 prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded there are many risks.
Things have changed over the years and they are now much more complex. There has always been a problem with alcohol abuse, but prisons are now recording surging levels of violence, self-harm and drug use. It is deeply concerning that the incidence of self-inflicted death and self-harm among women in prison has risen dramatically. Many young adult prisoners spend less than two hours a day out of their cells. It is no wonder that many are depressed. Is this due to shortages of staff, or could the system be more humane? How is the drive to recruit more prison officers proceeding? Are there facilities to train them adequately?
Apart from overcrowding and the shortage of staff, there is the challenge of prisoners with mental and physical health problems and a growing population of elderly prisoners who need extra care. If there was a more comprehensive aftercare system for vulnerable prisoners when discharged, with ongoing rehabilitation and a place to live for those who are homeless, maybe there would not be so much recidivism, which is one reason for prison overcrowding. Discharging vulnerable prisoners on a Friday, with no care plan in place, is asking for trouble. What hope is there for a better system?
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, on this debate and on his excellent opening speech. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust. In this short time I will raise three issues relating to overcrowding. First, as we have heard, reform is urgently required of indeterminate sentences for public protection. I support an approach recommended by the Prison Reform Trust, based on the three principles of convert, protect and rehabilitate. IPP sentences should be converted from indeterminate to fixed-length sentences, starting with the shortest tariff lengths where the greatest injustice seems to have occurred. The public should be protected with a guaranteed minimum licence period for all cases following release. As to rehabilitation, we should ensure that a proper investment is made in the support of IPP prisoners after release.
Secondly, as we have heard, overcrowding has a dramatic impact on the health and well-being of prisoners. Despite improvements in prison healthcare following the transfer of commissioning to the NHS, overcrowding limits the opportunity for effective treatment, particularly for those with mental health problems, learning disabilities and other complex needs. We know that 26% of women and 16% of men said that they had received treatment for mental health problems in the year before custody and that three in 10 people assessed in prison in 2015-16 reported that they had a learning disability or difficulty. The national rollout of liaison and diversion schemes can therefore make a real contribution to reducing overcrowding. Following my report in 2009, and the support of successive Governments, 75% of the country is now covered by such services, with the ambition for 100% coverage by 2019-20. Such services include: street triage, where the police and health staff work together on our streets to identify and assess people requiring crisis care intervention; and health staff working in police custody suites and the courts to identify and assess people with health needs. This would enable the police to make more-informed decisions on charging, proportionate to the offence that has been committed, or consider the option of diverting the person to appropriate health and social care facilities and services. The courts would then receive information about the mental health and other complex needs of the individual at their first appearance, enabling magistrates to make a more timely decision, reducing the use of remand—particularly important for women offenders—and using community sentences with treatment orders instead of custodial sentences.
Thirdly, the current delays in transfer from prison to psychiatric units of prisoners approved for such a move exacerbate the overcrowding problem and is totally unacceptable. I therefore hope that the Minister will support the continued development of liaison and diversion services and see it as part of the solution to the intolerable overcrowding in our prisons.
My Lords, in April it was reported that in the previous 12 months there were 344 deaths in prison, up by 19%, of which 113 were self-inflicted. Self-harm incidents increased by 24%; assault incidents were up 27%; and assaults on staff were up by 38%. All this was described as,
“a relentless decline in safety”.
Prison officers cannot be expected to deal effectively with this crisis when their own numbers have been reduced over the past seven years, from 25,000 to 18,000. Compromised safety, the associated violence and the availability of drugs, especially psychoactive drugs such as spice—even entering prisons by drones—and plummeting morale among staff, is not an environment conducive to reform, rehabilitation or a reduction in reoffending.
Half of 15 to 17 year-olds in young offender institutions have the literacy or numeracy levels expected of a seven to 11 year-old. This pattern repeats itself among prisoners who have no qualifications, about half of whom are functionally illiterate. Victor Hugo was right when he said, “He who opens a school door closes a prison.”
Prisoners whom I met during a visit to Birmingham prison told me that, unless we break the Gordian knot that ties them into a pattern of reoffending and reimprisonment, their lives will become utterly devoid of hope. What is happening to the Government’s proposals for getting prisoners into jobs after release, for ensuring that prisoners learn English and maths and for league tables to evaluate progress on education? Where do education, training, secure schools and young offender institutions fit into the long-term strategy?
I have drawn the Minister’s attention to the 60% of prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months in custody who go on to commit further crimes and to the overall reoffending rate of 45%—one of the highest in Europe—reflecting the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe, with 148 prisoners per 100,000 of the population.
This is not just about a failure to promote reform or to work out how many prisoners can be crammed like sardines into a tin. Consider also the danger of prisons being used by jailed hate preachers acting as self-styled “emirs” to capitalise on gang culture to recruit susceptible inmates. Or consider the consequences of open-ended sentences for non-violent prisoners, who are captives of a system that seems too often to have forgotten them. We then see some of the other dimensions of jails that have become simmering cauldrons of unrest.
As others have said, we need an entirely new culture in our prisons and a different attitude to the way in which we run them—one that passes, as the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord McNally, said earlier, the Churchill test of civilisation. These are just some of the reasons why we should all be grateful to my noble and learned friend, Lord Brown, for laying this Motion for debate before your Lordships today.
My Lords, the facts have all been stated, and the reports are labyrinthine. We understand the heart of the difficult arguments, and now it is time to move towards answers and solutions, to cut the cost to the public purse and to stop the unnecessary incarceration of men and women who do not need to be in prison.
I start with a reflection on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, about empathy. In order to help me think a bit better about this debate and issue, I visited a lifer just three weeks ago in one of Her Majesty’s prisons in Kent. I had an hour and a half with a man who is serving nearly a 20-year sentence and has done nearly 10 years already, and found him sensitive, erudite, thoughtful, persuasive, interesting, challenging, and with deep intellectual pursuits. However, he had been written off at one point by the courts as simply a man to be thrown behind bars with no early point of release. That made me realise that not just that man alone but multitudes of others, both men and women, need to be let out of prison considerably earlier.
When we apply the empathy test to understand that a man or woman has changed and their character has been reformed, instead of pouring £50,000 on average of my tax money into sustaining that man in prison, I would rather invest the money instead in enterprise and employment. I would rather secure him into a way beyond the prison. I would rather let out multitudes of men who have shown the ability to seek character reform and therefore see them productive taxpayers contributing to society—maybe held under some form of a licence and check, in order to secure society’s desire to see punishment done. But I would not wish us to continue to have a system that simply pays into a pot that contains but does nothing to reform and to rebuild.
This Government, along with the previous Government, have spent millions—I think the estimate is in the region of £54 million a year—on character education in schools. That is vital expenditure, and we all agree with it. Why not spend tens of millions on character education and development and supportive networks for offenders and those within prison, and once they have passed the test of responsible citizenship, give them the opportunity for work and responsibility? Why not invest our tax resources instead in their futures, and not in containing people in the despair and hopelessness of prison?
My Lords, our prisons are a national embarrassment. Fifty years ago, I served as trustee of the William House Trust, a home for discharged prisoners in Manchester providing accommodation and employment help. I want to focus my remarks on the need to reduce recidivism by providing training and employment opportunities for offenders.
The retailer Timpson is probably the best example in this regard, with 10% of its workforce ex-offenders and the provision of training opportunities in prisons. Other companies have some sort of involvement: Boots, Greggs, Halfords, McDonald’s, Pret a Manger, Toyota and Whitbread. But they and others could do so much more. There are huge opportunities, particularly in the hospitality sector and within building trades, both of which have severe skills shortages. I have six specific recommendations.
First, prison governors should build bridges with firms in their locality and liaise with local chambers of commerce. National employers should encourage local managers to visit prisons and establish a dialogue.
Secondly, the Ministry of Justice should appoint a senior, perhaps retired, person from the private sector to work full-time on encouraging employers to participate, ideally perhaps a major national figure.
Thirdly, public companies should report their involvement in this whole area in their annual reports.
Fourthly, the Justice Secretary and Ministers should create an award, similar perhaps to the Queen’s Award for Enterprise or Investors in People, and have an annual awards event acknowledging best practice in this area.
Fifthly, employer organisations such as the CBI, the National Federation of Builders and the British Hospitality Association should be pressured by the highest levels of government to assume greater responsibilities for promoting this work.
Finally, many prisoners have particular trades or skills. Those should be utilised, and the prisoners rewarded for passing on their expertise to other inmates wherever possible. Offenders should be used for smaller building and maintenance project work within their own prisons, preparing them for future employment on release.
My Lords, I will focus on one aspect of my noble friend’s Motion. My only real experience, I am glad to say, of prison life comes from the many years I spent as a trustee of the Koestler Trust, which the Minister will know seeks to provide prisoners with access to the arts and the means to participate in the arts: competitions and material, for example, for the visual arts, music and writing.
It is difficult enough to fulfil these noble aims even when prisoners have the space and time to work on those disciplines. But when prisoners are locked up for 22 or 23 of the 24 hours, and barely have the space to humanely cohabit in their cells, the arts tend to be the first thing to go out of the window. If we seek to reduce recidivism and show that there is another path, we simply have to be a more enlightened society. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, rightly reminded your Lordships that the way in which a society treats its prisoners is a test of its civilisation. In the light of the statistics given by my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, I wonder whether the Minister would consider that we pass or fail this test.
I have seen the quite remarkable transformation that can be achieved by giving an incarcerated person the means to express themselves through acting, music-making, painting and writing. A prisoner wrote to me to say that, had he had the ability to play an instrument when he was a young and wild man, he would not now be serving life for murder. Artistic expression can afford an outlet for turbulence, frustration and pent-up violence, and that release is a vital part of rehabilitation. Without it, more prisoners will turn to drugs, not simply to relieve boredom but as a means of psychological escape.
Overcrowding in prisons is severely hampering the opportunity for rehabilitation and the shining of a light in a dark place to illuminate a more redemptive path.
My Lords, people are in prison because they have offended against the rules of a civilised society—and that society should demonstrate and reinforce its own civilised values and intentions when it denies offenders their liberty, as so many of your Lordships have said. The vivid undercover filming by “Panorama” inside HMP Northumberland recently laid bare our failure to do that. It captured the anarchic reality, the Hogarthian horror, of a typical modern British prison: extensive drug use, fevered volatility, prisoners both threatening and frightened, and staff powerless and stressed—conditions in no way conducive to addressing offending behaviour.
How has this happened? It has been a particularly egregious failure of government. Since 2010 there have been five Secretaries of State and a succession of U-turns. The result, as others have said, has been: like-for-like sentence inflation; 25% of prisoners in overcrowded cells; prison staff reduced by 7,000; the leaving rate for officers in this high-stress occupation an unsurprising 10%; 25% of staff now inexperienced and in their first two years of service; and, in spite of a policy reverse and a fresh recruitment drive, a net increase in the 12 months to 31 March this year of just 75 staff. Yes, recruitment has improved since, but still more slowly than prisoner numbers have increased.
The recent prison riot at HMP The Mount occurred when only 20 officers were available over a weekend to supervise 1,000 prisoners under a severely restricted regime. In round figures, deaths in custody are up 20%, self-harm 25%, and assaults on staff 40%—all in one year. These rates of increase are truly alarming and can only prompt grave concern about the immediate period ahead.
What is needed is not more obfuscatory press releases from the MoJ, with numbers unaccompanied by any convincing narrative at all, but an integrated and convincing five-to-10-year plan that moves us ahead of the curve and contains prudent forecasts of prisoner numbers, with plans to build an estate without any overcrowding and with a plan for officer numbers that will allow our prisons to become controlled, disciplined and civilised. Will the Minister agree today to produce such a plan?
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, is to be thanked for this timely debate. As some noble Lords are aware, the diocese of Southwark contains five major prison establishments: Belmarsh, Brixton, Thameside, Wandsworth and Isis—though I hasten to add that that last name relates to the river goddess. It is my practice to visit them at the invitation of each Church of England chaplain who holds my licence.
The issue that I wish to raise in this debate is the level of staffing. Issues around the number of inmates and physical space also relate to issues of access and staffing, the activities that staff enable and the relationships that are nurtured. While Her Majesty’s Government announced their intention to recruit an additional 2,500 front-line staff late last year, that came in the wake of a reduction of over 6,000 staff, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has attested, which has compounded the consequences of overcrowding and a rising prison population. The fiscal imperative of staff cuts being played out in our prisons is very risky. For anything meaningful on the landing, spur or wing, one needs staff. Staff will best and most confidently carry out their duties if they know and trust that an able colleague has their back. Proper staffing allows for supervision outside cells and in activities that augment skill, self-insight and a capacity for fruitful encounters on release. As in so many professions, the relational element is key to success.
Educational activity and training for work has suffered only marginally from the cuts, but at the expense of everything else. The named-officer scheme is moribund. Within prisons, the availability of officers to inmates has significantly diminished; they are much less available for association periods or to build relationships, discuss and spot problems, offer advice or discreetly receive information relevant to the security of the prison. We need to ensure that more than basic security, administration and escort is being delivered constantly. I am aware that inmates wishing to attend chapel or Bible study are not able to do so because staff are not available to escort them. This is detrimental to the humanitarian standards that we would wish to see in our prisons. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, has drawn attention to the high incidence of suicide in our prisons.
We need to offer our thanks to those who work in our prisons, excellence in which is promoted by the Butler Trust. Prison chaplains minister daily to enable inmates to face life as it is and life as it may be. Their contribution and that of many volunteers has an enormous impact in difficult times. The Lord Chancellor seeks a proper emphasis on rehabilitation in our prisons. It is imperative that we work together to increase hope and ensure that words and aspirations are matched by actions and delivery. There is an urgent need so to do.
My Lords, I have thought for some time that we should look at the differences in practice exemplified by other countries with lower rates of imprisonment to see what can be learned from them. In 2012 the National Audit Office spoke of the potential benefit of conducting more research into prison population trends in other countries, and a report from the Criminal Justice Alliance identified some structural features of European criminal justice systems that appeared to be associated with lower rates of imprisonment. These uncannily anticipate all those advocated by my noble and learned friend Lord Brown in his masterly introduction to this debate. They include the greater use of suspended sentences and greater restraint in the imposition of imprisonment for breaches of a community penalty; lower maximum sentences and going rates for particular offences; much less use of mandatory minimum and indeterminate sentences; and the treatment of problems of mental health and drug dependency much more as matters for health and social care than for the criminal justice system.
All these approaches and more are adopted elsewhere. The numbers in prison are lower and the sky does not fall in. We should look not only at the prosecution and sentencing practice of other countries but at what they do instead with those offenders, particularly categories of offender who are no longer sent to prison.
Another report, entitled “A Presumption Against Imprisonment: Social Order and Social Values”, written by eight leading criminologists and academic lawyers and issued by the British Academy in 2014, came to very similar conclusions. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, referred to the guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council. These are based almost entirely on the symbolic significance of a prison sentence in reflecting the seriousness of the offence, with little or no regard for instrumental objectives such as making it less likely that the offender will re-offend, protecting the public, or making amends, for example through compensation, community service, or apology. With the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, I want to see the council’s guidelines reviewed in the light of the comparative evidence to which I have drawn attention.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 contains provisions that are designed to have an impact on the numbers held on remand if there is little likelihood of a custodial sentence, and a wider range of options for dealing with breaches of community sentences. These have been much less remarked on than the provisions designed to cut the legal aid bill. The Ministry of Justice is about to undertake a post-implementation review of LASPO, and I hope very much that it will give as much attention to the provisions in the Act designed to reduce the numbers in prison as it does to those designed to reduce the numbers receiving legal aid.
My Lords, we are dealing with a problem that successive Governments have failed to solve for over half a century. The cause of that problem is that we send far too many people to prison for far too long: far longer than is necessary for rehabilitation and far longer than is needed to provide an effective deterrent.
How about punishment? That is a legitimate object of imprisonment. The man in the street and, particularly, the victims of crime want to see criminals pay for their wrongdoing, and depriving them of liberty is a legitimate way of satisfying society’s demand for vengeance. But the man in the street is not best placed to decide how long criminals should be kept in prison by way of punishment. That is not a simple task, and ultimately it is Parliament that performs it by laying down a framework of maximum and minimum sentences within which judges exercise relatively limited discretion. In performing that task, Parliament should have regard to the heavy cost to society of keeping people in prison to punish them.
As your Lordships have heard, there has been a phenomenon over the last 40 years of “sentence creep”, brought about largely by well-intentioned but misguided legislative intervention. What is needed is a change in the public attitude to keeping people locked up in prison: a recognition that the cost to society of this form of punishment is prohibitive; that the cost of each year that a man spends in prison simply by way of punishment is depriving us of resources that could otherwise be used to meet urgent social needs, including those that prevent young people turning into criminals. To bring about this change in attitude calls for leadership and courage on the part of Government. The aim should be, for a start, to halve the number of those in prison. IPP prisoners should be released. Old men who no longer pose any threat should not be held in expensive custody. Most importantly, legislation should reverse the trend of requiring ever longer sentences.
This is the ideal time to do that. Current legislation that deals with sentencing extends to over 1,300 pages. The Law Commission has recommended a simplified sentencing code but its recommendations are only procedural. It makes no recommendations in relation to maximum and minimum sentences. These should be reduced, and in some cases removed, to send a signal that the current scale of punishment in this country is unnecessarily severe and beyond our means. Finally, consideration should also be given to a period of prescription for all save the most serious crimes.
My Lords, I am conscious that many, if indeed perhaps the majority, of your Lordships speaking here today have had first-hand experience of the prison system from an executive, supervisory or regulatory perspective. My own experience, by contrast, has been limited to visiting the seven prisons in the county where I reside. These visits have provided me with the experience to have an appreciation of the recent comments of the president of the Prison Governors Association, particularly regarding drugs and Islamist extremist activities.
I have had a number of conversations regarding prison officer numbers, the benefit of new, purpose-built prisons as opposed to outdated buildings, which are inefficient in every sense, and the issues surrounding IPP offenders. However, I have been drawn to three particular aspects of the prison system that seemed so anomalous that I subsequently drew them to the attention of the then Secretary of State for Justice, and I think that it is worth reiterating them now in the context of this debate on prison overcrowding.
If a prison governor is obliged by law to take responsibility for the repair of grade 1 and grade 2 listed buildings, it is quite possible that he cannot afford to make those repairs. In response to health and safety regulations, he may have to close those buildings to prisoner access. If the buildings have provided the location for recreational activities or have been the site of vocational or basic skills training which will facilitate employment for prisoners upon their release, similar to those programmes run by the Clink Charity or Timpson, their closure has a psychological impact as well as a physical one. However, the most obvious consequence is a reduction of utilisable space, which in turn adds to the sense of overcrowding. When choosing which old prisons should be closed, I suggest that this consideration should be factored into the argument.
The second consideration arose from observing the increasing number of prisoners who do not have English as their first language, and indeed in some cases barely speak or understand English at all. The need to have translators in court, the difficulty sometimes of obtaining suitably qualified candidates to translate and the delays incurred thereby have been well documented elsewhere. However, when the same problems are exacerbated in prison, a failure by prison staff through no fault of their own to communicate effectively with inmates, and the inability to comprehend inmates’ various dialects and vernaculars and the issues that are particular to their tribal differences, cause delay in administration, which in turn restricts the execution of the system, which in turn leads to overcrowding. I am aware that there is no speedy resolve to these language problems, other than to hasten repatriation where appropriate.
The third consideration arises from looking at the times of prisoner release. If we are endeavouring to assist offenders to integrate back into society as quickly and smoothly as possible, surely one of the worst things we can do is to release them so late in the working day that the safety net of the probation service is unable to be on hand to help them. Release late on a Friday afternoon, with limited ready funds and no protected environment within which to reside, must surely contribute to a higher possibility of reoffending than might otherwise be the case, with the subsequent prison overcrowding that comes as a consequence.
As a further observation, the closure of some of the prison farms has also had detrimental effects. Notwithstanding the rights and wrongs of the financial debate over whether the sourcing of such food is cost effective, providing offenders with the opportunity to work on the land, away from the immediate confines of prison buildings, has the double benefit of, first, creating less physical overcrowding pressure on these buildings during daylight and working hours, and, secondly, providing the advantage of working outdoors for those whom it temperamentally suits and the possibility thereby of obtaining a training that can have a benefit when they are released.
My Lords, the fact is that overcrowding and staff shortages are significant factors in the current failed system. As the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, and the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, have commented respectively, women and people with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable. Current conditions exacerbate their mental health problems and increase the risk of suicide and sexual assault. Women offenders often have histories of mental illness, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder, and prison is a re-traumatising experience for them. Gender and disability awareness both need to be improved, as does appropriate diversion to mental health services.
There is positive work being carried out in prisons. An important example is work carried out by chaplains, as has been mentioned by some Members. This is especially important during people’s first days in prison, when they are at particular risk of self-harm, bullying and isolation. I would like to share the words of one Catholic prisoner, who said:
“On the very first day I came into prison, my chaplain came to my cell. I was devastated getting into prison, but she encouraged me”.
Prison chaplains are trusted by prisoners. They are able to help counter the negative effects of overcrowding by offering personal and pastoral support to the prisoners in their care. I hope the Government will continue to recognise the vital work done by chaplains. But this work is often hindered by the pressure that our prison system is under. Recent research by the Catholic Church found that a quarter of prisoners reported problems accessing chaplaincy.
Pressures created by overcrowding also threaten to undermine the quality and provision of family contact in prison—something particularly relevant to mothers with dependent children. As the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, stated in a recent review, family ties are as essential to rehabilitation as education and employment. Prisoners who have regular contact with their families are 39% less likely to reoffend. Family contact is often support by voluntary organisations, such as the Prison Advice and Care Trust. From 2015-16 they supported 96,000 adults and 20,000 children to visit family members in prison, as well as running hundreds of relationship and parenting education programmes for prisoners and their families.
Can the Minister assure this House that neither family contact nor access to chaplaincy will be deprioritised despite the pressures of overcrowding?
My Lords, I apologise for arriving five minutes late for the opening of this debate. Please forgive me. It has nothing to do with a lack of interest in this subject. I am very interested in prisons, because prisons are an enormous social machine for producing something we do not want to produce. They are an emergency response to a crisis that is largely around poverty, a lack of good education and other key things. When we look at the average prisoner, we often find average prisoners have a number of similarities.
I, for example, was an average prisoner. I was put away at the age of 14 for stealing a bike. I find it a bit difficult that most noble Lords who have spoken so far talk as though we have now entered a time when we have become aggressive towards people who are doing wrong. Putting a 14-year-old boy into a short, sharp shock, kicking him all over the place for three months and then bringing him out and expecting him to be a good citizen—that sounds pretty mean to me, let alone giving the same boy a three-to-five-year custodial sentence at the age of 15 for stealing £5. What are we talking about? Are we talking about a different world? Have we moved on and are we only now being really terrible to our prisoners?
I find this difficult. I am sorry to raise the issue because I am sure it is looked upon as an illiberal response, but I would like us to look at history and at the ideas around our present situation. My problem with this debate is that it seems a bit like the NHS debate. The NHS debate is enormous, but it always deals with the NHS as though its problems did not arise from the fact that we do not spend the amount of money we should be spending on preventing people from becoming ill. When you go to the hospital across the road, as I did with a doctor, and you find out that 70% of the people there have done things against their own bodies, or they have not taken the right approach, it becomes clear that we need to move towards prevention.
We have a prison population full of people who have failed at school. I failed at school, as did most of the people I knew in prison. When I go into a prison, I ask a simple question: “How did you do at school?”. Virtually all—80%—of them will say, “I failed at school”.
We have these big engines that drive forward. Until we move on to prevention, until we start to dismantle poverty, we will have overcrowded prisons. I am sorry to say this, because overcrowded prisons are not prisons that work. We can be as clever as we like and come up with all sorts of solutions, but let us stop the churn; let us stop the arrival of people in prisons. That is the big, revolutionary need in terms of our thinking.
My Lords, I join those who have thanked most warmly the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for having made this debate possible. I would also like to say how much I admire the fact that this is not just a debate he has secured; he provides consistent and impressive advocacy on the need for change, not least in the prison system.
It is quite clear from what we have been hearing today that the penal system has failed in its prisons. We see violence, suicides, self-harm, bullying and reoffending. These issues are brought into already dislocated women’s lives and, above all, we have the issue of broken homes. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said, prisons are full of people who should not be there. This is never truer than in the case of prisoners will mental health issues. These prisoners require specific, carefully designed places in which their mental illnesses and difficulties can be tackled constructively.
I emphasise the importance of what the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, said. There is an urgent need for a review of our whole penal system—of what it is we are really trying to respond to. We are constantly tackling this with a piecemeal approach. I suggest that, whatever comes out of that review, one thing will remain true. Above all, it will be about rehabilitation. If our system is not rehabilitating people, it is a total failure. There needs to be a culture and a professional commitment at all times to rehabilitation. Rehabilitation means recognising that prisoners are individuals. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, spoke very powerfully, as usual, about his experiences in this sphere. It is true that, if we are going to be successful in rehabilitation, we have to see how we work together with individuals to rebuild their lives constructively.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, was also right. We all have a heavy responsibility to resist the cynical populism of the press and too many of our political colleagues when it comes to the challenge of prison reform. What we have now is generating crisis, not overcoming it.
My Lords, I wish to say something about the position in Scotland, which has had its own national prison system since the middle of the 19th century. After steadily increasing over a number of decades, the total prison population in Scotland is showing signs of stabilising. Indeed, the average daily prison population in Scotland has been decreasing. In 2011-12, it was 8,179, whereas five years later it was 7,552. In August of this year, it was under 7,500. Since the number of bed spaces in the 15 prisons in Scotland is currently over 7,900, it is not surprising that there is little evidence of overcrowding in Scotland’s 15 prisons.
The most marked decrease has been in the number of young offenders. This points to the success of a whole system initiative which has encouraged a number of actions such as early intervention, opportunities for diversion from prosecution and support from the court process. For initiatives such as this the relatively small size of Scotland has assisted in bringing together the responsible agencies, sharing good practice and developing good teamwork.
The adequacy of prison accommodation can be thought of in terms of bed spaces, but that, of course, is not the whole picture because the question is, what accommodation is provided that is adequate and suitable for the various categories of prisoners? One I mention briefly is that of older men of 60 years or more. That category has been increasing in Scotland, perhaps due partly to the increase in the number of prosecutions for historic sexual offences. That makes a demand on a system. The Chief Inspector of Prisons in Scotland recently reported that there is insufficient accommodation available for older prisoners who have problems with mobility and chronic health conditions.
The other category is that of women prisoners. In recent years there has been a doubling of their number. Many were frequent reoffenders and had complex needs to do with their social circumstances, histories of abuse and mental health and addiction problems. A commission under Dame Elish Angiolini, a former Lord Advocate, concluded that Cornton Vale Prison, which housed the majority of women prisoners, should be removed as it was not fit for purpose and should be replaced. Overcrowding had caused problems for the management and staff and inhibited opportunities to rehabilitate women and reduce their reoffending. Their mental health needs were not being addressed adequately and there were high levels of self-harm and a lack of constructive and meaningful activity. I am glad to say that Cornton Vale is now being replaced with a smaller prison for more serious offenders and a number of community systems which will cope with offenders closer to home. I am glad that these steps have been taken.
My Lords, I think we all know the nature of successive reports on prisons from those whose task it is to assess them. These reports tell of a sorry state of affairs. They tell of the dreadful numbers of suicides, of self-harm and violence in custody and of the squalor in which many prisoners have to live. Then there is the matter of the darkest blot on our national escutcheon—the many prisoners held back in jail despite the fact that their tariffs under indeterminate sentences have long run out. This must be dealt with before any long-term reforms can be effective. As for our reoffending figures, we seem to have learnt nothing from other countries whose reoffending rates are less than half of ours. This, too, is something which must be, and can be, improved, but it will not be while the overall size of the prison population is obstinately stuck where it is, or rising.
If any other public service were in the position of our prisons, radical measures would have to be taken, and quickly. In the case of Britain’s prisons, this becomes more and more essential as the years go by, and the clear priority must be for a significant drop in overall numbers. The present numbers ensure that rehabilitation comes way down the priority list.
The staff in prisons undertake a complex and difficult job; that the situation is not even worse is testament to the skills and commitment with which they undertake daunting work on behalf of the rest of us. But too often their focus is on running a decent and safe regime, lacking the resources to cater to the needs and difficulties which many prisoners experience. An ex-governor has suggested that a prison population of 25,000 would be appropriate on the grounds of public protection. With such a number, meaningful rehabilitative work becomes a possibility, yet we continue to fill our prisons to excess, setting all involved up to fail. It must be our responsibility to find out why we persist with a formula which is ineffective.
What we must see is a review of our sentencing regime with a view to reducing the numbers of people we send to prison and the length of sentences. It will need steely resolve by a Government prepared to argue their case with media and public. There are no easy answers, only complexities, contradictions and hard work. Until this review is undertaken and its recommendations put into effect, the miserable state of our prisons will remain unaltered, and the same old cycle will stay to haunt us.
All this is happening while innumerable individuals and charities work nobly to turn the tide. There is a distinct danger that their faith and enthusiasm will fade as they listen again and again to the familiar cries for help. This danger can only increase if we fail to re-examine the sentencing regime which has raised the numbers of prisoners to unsustainable levels.
I know that our Government have much urgent business to complete, but the state of our prisons and the intolerable burden we place on the Prison Service continue to shame us and remain a danger to the stability of our society.
My Lords, we have heard a series of excellent speeches dealing with the problems in prisons. I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, on achieving this debate. I also congratulate those who have already taken part in it on what they said. They have shown a picture which is beyond dispute—our prisons are in a state of crisis. This has happened notwithstanding the fact that excellent work has been done within prisons and excellent reports have been produced from time to time which have shown what is needed in our prison system. We have to decide on an alternative method for preventing the present position continuing. This has given me cause for thought over a long period.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, was good enough to refer to my report, which I think was produced nearly 30 years ago. In it I tried to identify a means of putting a brake on overcrowding. That I was right to do so was made apparent by what we have heard today. However, it is equally clear that the brake I then suggested was, first, not implemented and, secondly, would almost certainly have failed. We have to realise that forces are at work which we need to tackle. I thought at the time it was created that the Sentencing Guidelines Council was an excellent idea. However, instead of helping the situation, and through no fault of its members, its remit had the opposite effect. I say that having been the first chairman of the first incarnation of that body. In our system very powerful forces, coming largely from Parliament, continually drive up sentences and there is no equally powerful force which has the opposite effect of reducing them. That is what we have to focus upon. This is a very relevant time to act, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, pointed out, given the changes which are going to take place in relation to the sentencing code. Therefore, I suggest that we have to give the Sentencing Council a new remit whereby, if sentences are increased, it has to make recommendations under which they can be reduced. Unless we get a balancing factor of that sort, I am afraid that the present problems will continue.
My Lords, it is indeed a great honour to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and to have had an opportunity to hear his wise words. In preparing for this important debate I lifted down from my shelf my much annotated, very tatty and extremely heavy copy of the Woolf Report 1991. I looked through it again and reflected briefly: if the Government of the day had implemented the noble and learned Lord’s recommendations, how different our situation now would be. It is a huge pity that that did not happen. On the same shelf I have the Corston report, the Bradley report, the report on justice reinvestment produced by the Justice Select Committee when the noble Lord, Lord Beith, was its chair, and many others. The proposals are all there on how to reduce our high and wasteful imprisonment rate, while ensuring that crime is dealt with effectively.
I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for initiating this timely debate, and I thank him also for his dogged determination to get justice for the over 3,000 prisoners still serving indeterminate sentences for public protection, which is indeed a blemish on our system.
During my working life I have visited places of imprisonment in 50 or so countries, covering all the regions of the world—countries in wealthy western Europe and countries in desperately poor parts of Africa. I have concluded from these experiences that it is unwise to expect too much from imprisonment. It is best not to dream too much about what prisons can achieve on their own. Many speakers have analysed and highlighted in this debate the damage that imprisonment causes to individuals, social stability, family ties, self-esteem and ability to function in the outside world.
Reducing the use of imprisonment is not, however, impossible. In 2008 there were 3,000-plus young people in custody; in June this year, the figure was 924. This was done without changes to the law on sentencing; it was done by parts of the system working together. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, will know how this was done as he chaired the Youth Justice Board through much of those years. The lessons from Scotland—brought to our attention by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen of Whitekirk—are also well worth studying.
I would make two proposals to the Minister. First, a radical review could be a very practical and sensible way to proceed. Secondly, would she consider inviting the Secretary of State for Justice—who has a very good reputation—to find the time to listen to the views of some of those in your Lordships’ House in whom so much wisdom on this subject resides?
Your Lordships have subjected me to conflicting tensions of great hope and great despair. The great hope arises from the number, the intellectual force, the charity and the authority with which you have spoken on a subject of vital importance. My despair arises because with the exception of about three speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Bird, it has been assumed that the problem that needs to be solved is how you treat criminals. But the problem would be solved with much less expenditure and much greater effect if you focus on how you treat children so that they do not become criminals.
In the three years, 45 years ago, that I was Minister for Prisons, I walked into a similar and, in fact, more intense crisis than the present one. I had a chart on the wall showing that if 12 more people had been given custodial sentences we would have had to trigger executive release—to let people out before the end of their sentences. Willie Whitelaw—the late Viscount Whitelaw—was my boss, so I was a very anxious man, but we avoided it. When I resigned from the Government some years later I founded a charity to keep children out of prison. I discovered that by spending small amounts, mostly through voluntary agencies, to give young people the vent for their enthusiasm, energy and enterprise which they do not get without help, before it drives them into criminality, you can prevent them becoming criminals. Some £50 spent there can save £50,000 later. Can the Government get their collective act together and have the Treasury preside over a review about how to stop this catastrophic nonsense and tackle the problem where it actually begins? I will die a happy man if they do.
My Lords, I too thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for securing this debate. It is a mark of its significance that we have heard from so many distinguished speakers with virtually no dissent from the thrust of the noble and learned Lord’s argument.
The state of our prisons is one of the scandals of our times. They are neither humane nor civilised and they fail as places of rehabilitation and reform. The combination of overcrowding and understaffing is toxic. We have heard the miserable statistics, and the depressing fact is that on present predictions from the Prison Reform Trust, overcrowding looks set to get worse, not better.
The alarming and increasing levels of violence were graphically described by Peter Clarke in his first two annual reports as Chief Inspector of Prisons. In his first he reported that:
“Too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places”.
In his second he reported:
“The situation has not improved—in fact, it has become worse. There have been startling increases in all types of violence”.
He gave the details of 103 self-inflicted deaths in male prisons over the last year, and very large increases in the incidence of self-harm, assaults on staff and assaults by prisoners on other prisoners.
Our prisons have become unsafe, and the psychological effect on individual prisoners is profound. Pack three prisoners in cells designed for two and two prisoners in cells designed for one and the resulting frustration, isolation and unhappiness are obvious. Violence is inevitable, particularly in the context of a volatile prison population.
But we compound the inhumanity of overcrowding with squalid conditions: damp, dilapidated, infested with vermin, with shared cells with unscreened lavatories. We compound it further by providing too few staff to supervise prisoners, to prevent violence or to control the flow of drugs. Just as important—as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, and the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Southwark argued—we stifle attempts to achieve reform when we provide too few staff to escort prisoners away from their cells for work or education and training activities. In many prisons we lack even the staff to enable prisoners to eat together in common areas. The result is that many are locked in their cells for as much as 23 hours a day, dehumanising them as a result.
Many prisoners, men and women, arrive in prison with a whole range of mental health problems and problems of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as learning difficulties. The very fact of being imprisoned, removing prisoners from homes and families, makes those problems worse. The impoverishment of the prison regime makes them unbearable. These issues are inadequately addressed. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, gave us a graphic account of this failure and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, spoke to similar effect. We are breaking people in prison, not rehabilitating them.
Overcrowding also means prisoners being shunted around the prison estate for requirements of space, without regard to their needs. Proximity to homes and families and the availability of courses to help them on release take second place to the need to find places, wherever they may be. The Prison Reform Trust says that transfer requests are the single biggest issue its advice and information service deals with.
There is virtual unanimity, in this House at least, about what needs to be done. Everyone, the Government included, pays lip service to the need to reduce overcrowding, to increase staffing and to put education, training and reform at the heart of the mission of the prison service, to enable them to retrain for employment in the way that my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford described. But successive Governments have failed to do it.
We must send fewer offenders to prison. We are constantly told by Ministers that sentencing is a matter for judges. That is a false excuse. The sentencing framework and guidelines are within the power of Parliament to alter. Parliament can and should ensure that served sentences get shorter and do so in the face of media and public resistance, as my noble friend Lord McNally and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, pointed out. The noble and learned Lords, Lord Brown, Lord Hope and Lord Phillips, made a strong argument for Parliament’s avoiding sentence inflation. We must also see that far fewer short sentences are passed and that more offences are dealt with within the community, including the voluntary sector, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, stressed. We could make more use of tagging and flexible imprisonment, with part-time imprisonment or temporary release permitting prisoners to work, and early release subject to supervision and restrictions, enabling a staged rehabilitation. We must stop the excessive use of prisoner recall.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, said, we must secure the release of IPP prisoners who have served their tariffs—in this debate he has been widely supported across the House on that. Ministers regularly tell us that IPP prisoners are kept in prison until they are no longer a danger to the public. But that is again a false argument. We abolished IPP sentences in 2012 precisely because we believed it unjust that prisoners should be kept in prison after completing their punishment. The continued incarceration of IPP prisoners who have completed their tariffs defies that principle and is an injustice that should be stopped.
For those who must be in prison, we must renew the prison estate to house them in decent, humane and uncrowded conditions. We must ensure adequate staff to look after them properly, to supervise and protect them and to maintain order and discipline. We must provide education, training and work activities which will offer prisoners the chance of rehabilitation into their communities on release.
It is a great shame that the Government have abandoned the prisons part of the Prisons and Courts Bill. Certainly some reform can be achieved without primary legislation. But had that Bill proceeded, we would have pressed for statutory minimum standards applicable throughout the prison estate. A civilised society has a duty to ensure, by law when necessary—and experience has shown that it is—that prison is genuinely only used as a last resort; that prisons must be decent, humane and uncrowded; that sufficient staff must be employed to keep prisoners safe and secure; and that prisoners must be afforded full opportunities for education and work with a view to their rehabilitation. We should legislate to insist on achieving those standards. Only when we achieve them may we say that we have an acceptable penal system.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, on securing the debate and on his masterly review of the crisis in our prisons system.
On 23 February, a Home Office press release announced:
“Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss unveils landmark Prisons and Courts Bill”,
and claimed that the Bill,
“paves the way for the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation”.
In her Second Reading speech on the Bill—which of course subsequently seems to have disappeared—the then Lord Chancellor proclaimed:
“We have held the prison population stable for the last six years”. —[Official Report, Commons, 20/3/17; col. 657.]
Stability can of course take several forms. Certainly prisoner numbers remained stable, but as today’s debate makes clear, stability cannot be claimed for the rising tide of violence, self-harm and drug abuse which grew exponentially in those six years.
For a quarter of a century, under successive Governments, the number of prisoners grew inexorably, until we now have, as we have heard, the highest incarceration rate in western Europe, higher than some of the less advanced countries in eastern Europe. Also, of course, the number of prison officers has fallen substantially, by more than 25%.
The consequences include the highest number of deaths among prisoners on record in the year to March 2017. The chief inspector’s report states that a third of the 344 deaths were self-inflicted, while serious assaults more than doubled in the last three years, and, tellingly, assaults on staff rose by 88% in the last two years. Force is also used by prison staff, and the report discloses that it was found at a high level in two-thirds of prisons, while it expresses,
“concerns about the quality of documentation used to justify the use of force”.
Further, self-harm figures rose from just under 26,000 in 2014-15 to over 40,000 in 2016, a rate of 471 per 1,000 prisoners. The Howard League recently reported a 75% increase in two years of additional days in prison for breaking prison rules, to a total of 290,000 cases.
Having reduced the number of prison staff by 7,500 and saved £900 million by 2015, the Government are now seeking to recruit 2,500 new officers. However, the number of front-line staff increased by only 75 in the last year after allowing for numbers leaving the service. Can the Minister update the figures for those leaving and those joining the service, and can she tell us the average term of service for those who departed? Does she accept that, so far from prison numbers being held at the present level, let alone reduced, the forecast for 2020 is now for the numbers to grow to 90,000? If so, what are the implications for staffing and new prison places?
The chief inspector’s report of 18 July is a veritable litany of failure across the penal system. He highlights the fact that only 14% of prisoners and 4% of young adults were unlocked for at least 10 hours a day, and was shocked to discover that 30% of the latter spent fewer than two hours a day out of their cells. He was confronted by vermin infestation and insanitary toilets and showers. Too many prisoners suffered from learning disability or mental health problems, and he affirmed that it is the,
“job of the Inspectorate to point out where the imbalance between staff and prisoner numbers adversely affects the treatment of and conditions for prisoners”.
It is fair to point out that the inspector found conditions in women’s prisons to be better, but self-harming and suicide reached the highest level in women’s prisons in 12 years. Similar patterns were-reflected in young offender institutions, where the inspector shockingly concluded that,
“there was not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people”.
It is particularly disturbing to learn that:
“In many cases the response to previous recommendations has been unforgivably poor”,
“42% of recommendations on safety”,
not being achieved.
Worryingly, the report records a decline in the condition of secure training centres, stating:
“We have seen regimes where boys take every meal alone in their cell, where they are locked up for excessive amounts of time, where they do not get enough exercise, education or training, and where there do not appear to be any credible plans to break the cycle of violence”.
It is difficult to imagine a more damaging critique of any public service, let alone one concerning young people. Paradoxically, the report notes that large sums of money have been provided for teachers and classrooms that are being paid for but not used, because institutions cannot get boys to education in time or at all.
We are entitled to ask of the Government what notice, if any, they take of the inspectorate’s reports regarding the funding of the service and the penalties imposed for failure, especially in prisons being run for profit by the likes of G4S and Sodexo. Damningly, in his introduction to the report, Mr Clarke points out that, notwithstanding his statement of the previous year,
“too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places. The situation has not improved – in fact, it has become worse”.
What are the Government going to do to rectify this dire and shameful situation? The much vaunted Prisons and Courts Bill was launched in February, claiming to be,
“paving the way for the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation and the delivery of a world-class court system”.
I observe that we already have a world-class system—unfortunately, it is a third-world-class system. We do not know what the Government’s intentions are in respect of legislation. Perhaps the Minister could advise us. What has become of the claim in the Government press release of 23 February that the,
“Historic Prisons and Courts Bill will transform the lives of offenders and put victims at the heart of the justice system, helping to create a safer and better society”,
“new legislation underpins measures outlined in the ground-breaking Prison Safety and Reform White Paper which will transform how our prisons operate”?
Ever helpful, as is my wont, I suggest that the Government begin again and include in any future Bill on the topic—assuming there is parliamentary time in the face of the tidal wave of Brexit legislation which is about to overwhelm us—some basic proposals designed to reduce the prison population to a more manageable, and therefore more effective, level. First, in addition to the suggestions of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, there is a need to deal much more promptly with the scandal of the IPP prisoners, still numbering some 3,000. Secondly, the Government need to reduce significantly the number of prisoners on remand pending trial, a significant proportion of whom will be found not guilty or, if guilty, receive light, often non-custodial sentences. Thirdly, in discussion with the judiciary, they need to review the degree of sentence inflation which has characterised the last couple of decades, which a number of noble Lords have referred to. Fourthly, they need to reconsider their policy of building very large prisons, which in too many cases are very distant from the families and communities to which prisoners will return on their release. Lastly, they need to investigate the disproportionate number of ethnic minority prisoners relative to other offenders committing comparable offences.
We have had a broad and very well informed debate which I hope the Government will take on board. I’m not sure whether the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, has had to reply to a debate on prisons thus far?
I hope her initiation has not proved too painful. I am sure she will address very seriously the issues that noble Lords around the House have raised and will, together with the new Lord Chancellor, make greater progress than seems likely at present. I think the House will be grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, in particular, who has, as ever, brought his masterful experience of the system to the fore and made a very strong case for the change that is needed to make it more effective and humane.
My Lords, I would like to begin by thanking the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for securing this debate. He and other noble—and in some cases noble and learned—Lords have raised some very important points, which I hope to address. I will certainly write to address detailed and specific points, as so many have been raised today, and I am extraordinarily grateful for the quality of this debate.
Our prisons have been overcrowded for well over a decade, with the rate stable at around 25%. Overcrowding has been a long-standing issue for successive Governments. In November last year, to tackle overcrowding and other problems facing the prison system, this Government launched the Prison Safety and Reform White Paper. This programme will transform the prison estate and the experience of prisoners in it. It includes a £1.3 billion investment to make prisons safe and secure—and, in turn, places of rehabilitation. To reduce overcrowding, we must act in two areas. We must reform the prison estate and manage prisoner numbers.
Turning first to the prison estate, we need to make sure that we have the right number of prison places of the right type in modern or modernised buildings. There remain large parts of the prison estate that are old and inefficient, as noted by my noble friend Lord Colgrain. Prisoners are housed in poor physical conditions. Our transformative prison building and redevelopment programme will put this right. We are replacing old, inefficient prison places with 10,000 modern and better-designed places that support prisoner rehabilitation. Reducing overcrowding is a central aim of this estate modernisation, and the new prisons will be designed with this firmly in mind—so I believe that what we are doing is in line with the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown. We are not building significantly more, but we are building better. We are also making sure that places are available now by bringing unused cells back into use.
I turn to the number of prisoners in our prisons. The Government are clear that there will always be enough prison places for offenders committed to custody by the courts, but many of the opportunities for achieving a better outcome for prisoners and the public may result in a reduction in prisoner numbers and will therefore help us tackle overcrowding. Firstly, we must reduce reoffending. Many noble Lords have mentioned reoffending or the factors that lead to it: a lack of education and training, a dearth of employment opportunities, drug or alcohol addiction, poor mental health, and so many more. Reoffending costs the country £13 billion a year and puts a huge strain on our prisons.
The Government are committed through the prison safety and reform programme to improving the education, training and employment opportunities for prisoners, including encouraging prisoners to get qualifications in English and maths, providing access to apprenticeship programmes and teaming up with employment partners such as National Rail, Timpson, Halfords and so many more, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lee. There will be more on these when we launch the education and employment strategy later this year.
The Government are also working to help prisoners beat addiction by ensuring access to trained providers of specialist addiction services. We have also announced measures to crack down on the availability of drugs in prisons. We believe that these actions will reduce reoffending and aid rehabilitation.
IPP prisoners have an impact on prisoner numbers, of course, and were mentioned by many noble Lords. We are committed to helping the remaining IPP prisoners to progress through their sentences towards safe release. IPP sentences, introduced by the previous Labour Government, were imposed a long time ago and were abolished by the coalition Government in 2012. Since then, the Prison Service, the National Probation Service and the Parole Board have taken up a range of work to speed up IPP sentence progression. This has included diverting recall cases away from the Parole Board so that it can focus on reviewing IPP prisoners; enhanced case management, with a view avoiding IPP cases becoming stuck in the parole system; increasing the provision of places on new progression regimes; and improved access to interventions and programmes. Last year alone, 576 IPP prisoners were released—the highest number of annual releases. The Parole Board gave a release decision to almost half of all IPP prisoners considered, and recommended a move to open conditions for a further quarter.
There are a number of other areas it is worth mentioning with regard to prisoner numbers. The first is our focus on deporting foreign national offenders. Last year we deported 6,171—a record number. Electronic tagging, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, is an effective offender management tool, which can give suspects and offenders a chance to maintain their ties with a community while imposing additional safeguards to protect the public. The work to deliver the new service is complicated and has taken longer than originally anticipated, although lessons have been learned along the way. Our changes will introduce location monitoring and the flexibility to bring in an even greater range of monitoring in the future.
There is also the use of release on temporary licence as part of rehabilitation, where we will maintain improvements recently made to ROTL and allow governors greater discretion to help prisoners get the skills and training that they need. We will, however, continue to use recall where appropriate for breaches of conditions, particularly where there is a risk to the public—but we are taking action to ensure that more is done to help offenders complete their licence period successfully without reaching the point where recall becomes necessary.
Noble Lords referred to other issues that may ultimately make it less likely that a prisoner will be rehabilitated and go on to become a successful returning citizen. I have mentioned that we are taking steps to tackle drug addiction and reduce the availability of drugs. These are important to improve prisoner rehabilitation and reduce violence and instability in our prisons. We want prisons to be places of hard work, rigorous education and high ambition, with incentives for prisoners to learn and for prison staff to prioritise education and work. We need to put the tools to drive change into the hands of those in the front line, who know best what works. Progress is being made on a number of recommendations, including giving governors the budget and flexibility to spend their resources appropriately in order, for example, to help prisoners keep up important family ties—which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins.
To support prisoners and enable each to reach his or her new potential, the new offender management model included as part of the prison safety and reform programme ensures that each prisoner has a key worker with time to engage one to one, act as a mentor and support changes in attitudes and behaviour. Each prison officer will have no more than around six cases. That will ensure that prisoners have the means to develop a programme of support that meets their needs: from access to education to getting ready to leave prison, from getting treatment for poor mental health to enrolling on a training programme.
Many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Rochester and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, mentioned the problems of suicide, self-harm and poor mental health. On suicide and self-harm, we have put in place a range of measures to support prisoners who are at risk of self-harm or suicide, especially in the first 24 hours, when they are at their most vulnerable. We are rolling out new training that will help staff identify the risks and triggers of suicide and self-harm and understand what they can do to support prisoners at risk. We have put in place specialist roles, including regional safer-custody leads in every region to provide advice to prisoners and spread good practice. We are using experts, including providing extra funding to the Samaritans, to provide support for prison staff and prisoners directly.
On mental health more broadly, we need a more systematic, nationally consistent approach that provides quicker and more certain access to mental health treatment. We are working with the Department of Health and NHS England to develop a new health and justice protocol so that courts are able to increase their use of mental health treatment requirements, alcohol treatment requirements and drug rehabilitation requirements as part of a community sentence. This will mean that we can intervene earlier to deal with mental health and substance misuse issues. We are also working with the judiciary and the Health Secretary to make sure that courts have better access to psychologists and registered mental health practitioners. These liaison and diversion services—for which we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, for his work—are being trialled at police stations and courts across nearly 70% of the country. NHS England is leading a cross-government programme to expand these services to the whole of England by 2020-21.
Finally, prison must be safe. The level of violence in our prisons is unacceptable. We are fully committed to making prisons safer and addressing the significant increase in violence and assaults by increasing staffing levels and improving ways of working. In all of this, the work of prison staff is supported by close working relationships with a range of partners. Prison chaplains of many faiths, for example—mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark—are critical in providing pastoral and spiritual care to those in our care. They offer valuable support to governors in delivering decent and humane regimes. We recognise and welcome the valuable pastoral care that our chaplaincies provide to staff and inmates across the prison estate.
There is much more to be done—much new thinking to be had and innovation to be found. That was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Bottomley and the noble Lords, Lord Wigley, Lord Alton and Lord Bird. I hope that we can continue these discussions going forward.
In order to achieve our goals and provide prisoners with the support that they need, we need to back the hard-working prison workforce already in place and bolster its numbers over the next 18 months. That is why we are investing £100 million a year to recruit an extra 2,500 prison officers by the end of next year. The most recent figures show that the number of prison officers has increased by 868 compared with the previous quarter. Prison officer recruitment numbers are at their highest level since records began. We believe that these new prison officers will meet the forecast needs of the prison system.
Targeted recruitment activities, such as higher starting pay and additional allowances of up to £5,000 a year, support the process in those establishments that have the most difficulty with recruitment. These new recruits will join thousands of dedicated prison officers who undertake such important work day in and day out to keep our prisons and the public safe. We will need their experience, which is why we are rolling out retention programmes across the estate and providing financial incentives to reduce attrition.
It should be noted that the role of the prison officer is developing. It is changing and on training, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, We are making improvements. We have increased our prison officer training capacity to be able to deal with the significant boost in numbers. Existing staff are undertaking key worker training. We are providing tailored support to governors and their teams to introduce this model and train staff, beginning with 10 pathfinder prisons. This investment in additional prison staff, plus more effective training and the greater autonomy we have given to governors—
I apologise that I was not able to be here for most of the debate because of other business, but can the Minister tell us what would be the ratio, once these additional prison staff are recruited, of prison staff to prisoners compared with, say, eight years ago?
Unfortunately, I do not have those data to hand, but I go back to the comments I made earlier about each prison officer having a maximum of six cases in their workload, which is certainly manageable going forward. If I receive any further information I will of course write to the noble Lord.
My Lords, perhaps I can help the Minister. The ratio of staff to prisoners is now 1: 6, which it was last in 1950. At the time of the riots in 1990, it was 1:3. It has increased, therefore, to 1:6, which I suggest is unsustainable.
I thank the noble Lord for his comments.
This investment in additional prison staff, plus more effective training, the greater autonomy we have given to governors and the implementation of our commitment to have one key worker for every six prisoners will enable more time directly to supervise offenders, provide essential one-to-one mentoring and support and help reduce the unacceptable levels of assault, self-harm and suicide.
My noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, mentioned private prisons. There are 13 privately managed prisons in England and the Government remain fully committed to a mixed market for public services, drawing on the best of public, private and voluntary providers to improve quality and secure value for money for the taxpayer. We have robust processes in place to closely monitor and manage private contractors and will not hesitate to take action when standards fall short. Using private prisons allows for different financing models, stimulates continuous improvement and encourages the sort of innovation to which the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, referred. It brings commercial rigour into the system, which we feel is essential.
I believe that the reforms and actions I have set out show how we are effectively managing the prison population, now and for the future. In an estate parts of which date back to Victorian times, there are of course significant challenges, but we know where those challenges lie and what is needed to rise to them. With our recruitment of record numbers of prison officers, with our unprecedented prison modernising programme and our focus on rehabilitation and reducing offending rates, we are getting on with that important work to build a prison systems that is safe and secure and transforms offenders’ lives.
Will my noble friend undertake to take copies of the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and myself to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and discuss them over a cup of coffee, or perhaps a glass of whisky?
I thank my noble friend for his intervention and I would say, over a glass of wine.
I am sure the House will welcome the constructive tone that the Minister has adopted. I note with pleasure her educational pedigree—she has an MBA from a leading business school—so she will be familiar with the notion of a long-term integrated business plan. Will she undertake to bring together all the many measures she has discussed with some hard numbers and forecasts to reassure us that the outcomes she desires will actually be funded and achieved?
Once again I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I will certainly look into it but as we know, forecasts are sometimes somewhat unreliable.
My Lords, I am truly grateful to all those who have taken part in this debate, not least the Minister. She will, I hope, allow me to congratulate her on this, her maiden response to a debate, and suggest that she played some of the points with a straight bat that will be the envy of some of those likely to be dismissed at the other Lord’s venue today. Given, however, the weight and expertise of the others who have contributed to this debate and the strength and urgency of their various calls to action, I would urge her to copy this debate widely and send a record of it to the Lord Chancellor, to the Prisons Minister, indeed to all those in government who have interests beyond merely Brexit in advancing civilised values and the quality of life in this country. There is time to say no more than that now. I repeat my thanks and beg to move.