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Volume 789: debated on Thursday 22 February 2018


Asked by

My Lords, we shall seek to maintain a prison system that is sufficient for public protection and will provide opportunity for the rehabilitation of offenders. Where it is necessary for offenders to be deprived of their liberty, their detention should be decent and safe.

My Lords, in 2015, the Justice Committee of the other place concluded that funding for women’s centres,

“appears to be a recurring problem”.

Ten years after the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, can the Minister assure me that secure, long-term funding for women’s centres is now a high priority?

Clearly, the matter of female offenders is one of the priorities that we are addressing. Indeed, we can note that the number of female offenders has dropped to the point where it is now in the region of 3,936 out of a total population of about 86,000. We are of course concerned with ensuring that there is funding in respect of female prisoners and offenders as they leave the prison system.

My Lords, the numbers to which the noble and learned Lord refers have recently gone up. It is 12 years since I was requested by the previous Government to conduct a review of deaths of women in the criminal justice system, because of some very high numbers in the previous two years, and the numbers subsequently plummeted considerably. But, last year, we had exactly the same high shocking numbers of women who took their own lives in prison. Why?

My Lords, any death in custody is a tragedy. What I can say is that, in the period of 12 months to September 2017, the number of self-inflicted deaths in the prison system dropped by about 30%.

My Lords, speaking as a former Mental Health Act commissioner, I am deeply disturbed by the high incidence of mental illness in our prison population. I would be very grateful if my noble and learned friend could inform us of how much attention has been given to this by the Government, working not only through his department but with other agencies to address what I believe to be quite a serious issue.

My noble friend is quite right to highlight such a serious issue. There is a very large proportion of prisoners with mental health issues within the system. We are working with the Department of Health and NHS England to develop a new health and justice protocol that should ensure timely access to mental health and substance misuse services. In addition, we have been providing grant funding of £500,000 a year to the Samaritans for the last two years in order that they can support their Listener Scheme for those who require it.

My Lords, I believe that this House collectively shares a vision for our prisons to be not only secure, but clean, well maintained, humane, uncrowded, well staffed, safe places of education, training and purposeful activity, effective in addressing mental health and addiction issues and committed to rehabilitation and turning lives around—in short: civilising and civilised. Do the Government share this vision? If so, will they greatly increase investment now to realise it, incidentally reducing the estimated £13 billion annual cost of reoffending?

My Lords, we, of course, have a vision of a prison system that is decent and safe for all those who have to be secured within it. We are proceeding with a programme of capital expenditure to replace Victorian and older prisons with prison accommodation more suited to present requirements. We have increased the number of prison officers within the prison estate in the last few years to the point where, up to December 2017, there were 19,925 prison officers, an increase of about 1,500 from the previous year. Of course we have aspirations for the prison system but we have to be realistic about those.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that three things should be done immediately? First, we need to bear down on the avoidable use of prison by putting in place a robust system of non-custodial sentences. Secondly, we need to ensure that, particularly for short-term offenders, the regime is purposeful rather than just locking them up for hours? Thirdly, we need to ensure that the resettlement arrangements have substance.

My Lords, I agree with all three of those points. Clearly, we want to develop reliable non-custodial sentences to maintain alternatives to custody where we can do that. We are seeking to develop our education programme and are developing further resettlement programmes. We recognise that offenders who secure employment on release from prison have a lower rate of reoffending.

My Lords, one of the most disturbing experiences I had as Home Secretary—at that time, the post incorporated the responsibilities of the Justice Department—was visiting Holloway prison and hearing the women speak about their fear of being released because of what might happen to them if they returned to the circumstances that had led to their incarceration in the first place. In his first Answer, the Minister mentioned the importance of what happens when women prisoners are released. What further steps does he think the Government might be able to take to ensure that people avoid becoming mules or being abused in circumstances that they experienced before they were sent to prison?

My Lords, we are concerned to ensure that suitable accommodation is available for all prisoners, particularly female prisoners, upon release. Indeed, under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, prisons and probation providers are subject to a new duty to refer to local housing authorities someone who might be at risk in those circumstances.