[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the sentencing of repeat offenders.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. Attendance at today’s debate is affected by the debate in the main Chamber on access to GP services and NHS dentistry, but there is plenty to get our teeth into with the issues that we will be discussing over the next 90 minutes or so.
My initial point is that the Government are failing to deliver an efficient and effective criminal justice system. Instead of defending the indefensible and playing down law-breaking in Downing Street, the Justice Secretary should tackle the crime wave caused by repeat offenders, who are menacing our communities. The criminal justice system is failing communities at every level, and the Government are also failing our police, Crown Prosecution Service, Prison Service and probation service, thereby compromising public safety.
I must declare my interest: I was honoured to be invited to, and to speak at, the Prison Officers Association annual conference in Eastbourne last month, where I heard from numerous prison officers about ever worsening conditions in our jails. I am also a member of the justice unions parliamentary group, which is a coalition of the Prison Officers Association and its sister unions, including Napo, which is the probation officers union; the Public and Commercial Services Union; the University and College Union, which represents prison educators; and the Police Federation of England and Wales.
Before I continue, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to thank the exceptionally hard-working neighbourhood police teams who serve my constituency of Easington in County Durham. From the many conversations we have had, I know that they are frustrated, and I share their frustrations. Recruits join the police service to serve their community, to be on the streets and to protect the public. They do not expect to spend hours on the telephone effectively handcuffed to the desk, waiting for the overworked and understaffed Crown Prosecution Service to return charging decisions. While police officers are tied up with administrative tasks, the community clearly loses out, because the officers are not available to tackle the issues on the streets. Added to the mix is the loss of 20,000 police officers since 2010, which—make no mistake—was a political choice by the Conservative Government. I welcome moves to restore police numbers, but it will take many years, if not generations, to recover the years of lost experience.
Police officers work under challenging circumstances on the frontline, and they pick up the pieces when repeat offenders are released back into the community. In a letter to the Minister dated 9 June, I outlined the case of a prolific offender who has been charged more than 100 times with various offences. When he recently went to court, he was handed a community sentence—a non-custodial sentence—and a £10 compensation order, which is being paid at 25p a week. The victim is understandably disgusted and said he lacks confidence and faith in the criminal justice system.
I completely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says on the facts that I have heard about this matter. He can accuse the Government of many things, but the sentencing function is for the independent judiciary or magistracy; it is not the responsibility of the Minister. There is much to be discussed on a political level, but certainly not sentencing policy and what sentences are imposed in such circumstances.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and what he says is reasonable. I have just been reading a book about the former Director of Public Prosecutions and his early career; he is now the leader of the Labour party, I believe. [Laughter.] He was at pains to provide sentencing guidelines in discussions with Ministers—Conservative Ministers, I might add—to try to address some of these issues. I do not think that Ministers can completely wipe their hands of responsibility.
I will elaborate some of the related issues and explain why prison is not as effective as it might be, although it is an important alternative, particularly for serial offenders. As I said, the victim of the particular crime that I referred to has completely lost confidence in the system and has said that he would not give evidence in future, because he thought that the sentence that was given was inappropriate—in fact he said that it was laughable.
When a case goes to court and the outcome is an affront to justice, it is the police who experience the fall-off in public confidence. Members might be aware that YouGov regularly conducts a survey in which it asks the public whether they have confidence in the police’s ability to deal with crime in their area. The trends are very worrying; 47% of the public lack confidence in the ability of the police to tackle crime, compared with only 43% who are confident in the police. Overall, the number of people who believe the police are doing a good job—nationally, and not in County Durham; I think we have an outstanding police force—has fallen from 75% to 53% in the last two years. I hope that sets alarm bells ringing for Ministers.
The failure is systematic. When I presented my Prisons (Violence) Bill in the previous Session of Parliament, I warned that offenders often left prison more damaged and more dangerous than when they arrived. The out-of-control levels of prison violence make rehabilitation in the current circumstances practically impossible. That leads to more reoffending, at a cost of tens of billions of pounds a year to the criminal justice system, as well as causing misery for millions of victims and their loved ones, who have to live with the consequences of even more crime.
That situation is more than an appalling waste of both public money and people’s lives; it is nothing less than a crime against our communities, and I must say that the Government are complicit in it. The Conservative Government and all Ministers are responsible, first, for the devastating cuts to the budgets of the Prison Service during the coalition years of austerity. It was those cuts that triggered the escalating level of violence in prisons. For example, the number of prison officers was cut by a quarter. That meant that a massive amount of experience, held by experienced prison officers, and of that most precious resource, which prison officers refer to as jailcraft, was taken out of the system at a stroke. The vacuum that was created was quickly filled by prisoners who had become more experienced than many officers on the landings of our prisons. The vacuum has also been filled by violence.
Despite recent recruitment drives, the Prison Service has lost almost 90,000 years—I repeat, almost 90,000 years—of prison officer experience since 2010. That is a shameful statistic, but it just gets worse every year. As the experience of the prison officers who are in charge of our prisons goes down, violence goes up; there is a direct correlation. In turn, that leads to even more officers leaving the service. Not surprisingly, the retention rate for prison staff is at a record low, as of course is their morale.
It has not helped that this Government have raised the retirement age for prison officers to 68. Frankly, for prison officers—both men and women—who are grappling with young and fit criminals, 68 is far too old. It is a cruel policy, which we have discussed on many occasions in this place.
The Government consistently ignore the advice of their own experts. The Prison Service Pay Review Body has proffered advice that prison officers should be given a proper pay rise. Ministers have ignored experts for three years running, and we are currently waiting for them to respond to this year’s pay review body recommendations.
The Government broke our Prison Service when they robbed it of resource, in the name of austerity, and now they need to fix it if they want to have any chance of reducing reoffending. The Government have also broken our probation service with a failed privatisation experiment. They took an award-winning service, envied and held up as a model and example around the world, and smashed it—fragmented it into little pieces, each to be run for private profit.
I had the opportunity to visit Thorn Cross prison on Friday and meet the excellent governor, Richard Suttle, who showed me around the site. I was struck by the number of employers now based in the prison, helping young people who are about to leave to find work. The hon. Gentleman talked of reoffending. The Government have taken significant steps to ensure that, when young people in particular leave prison, there is a work-based route for them. Does he acknowledge that that makes a significant difference to the number of people returning to prison?
That is a good and sensible point, but I draw the hon. Member’s attention to the report of the Select Committee on Education, chaired by the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). That is quite scathing about the opportunities provided by the education service in prison.
The Committee visited the same prison I did, and highlighted the outstanding work at Thorn Cross. Businesses such as Timpson ensure that, when people leave prison, they have a solid job to go to. That work starts inside the prison. I acknowledge many of the comments in that report, but Thorn Cross was highlighted as one prison with an outstanding performance of reducing reoffending.
That must be one of the prisons on my list to visit, though I hope not as an inmate. I received numerous invitations from prison officers when I was in Eastbourne. I held a surgery for prison officers to raise concerns, anonymously if they wished, and there is a catalogue of issues to be addressed. Prison education is certainly one of those, but that is normally delivered by members of the UCU, the prison educators, who have an unenviable task, which I will come to in a moment.
I want to continue my point about the role of probation. In the complex jigsaw of the criminal justice system, there are vital elements: the police; magistrates; the Crown Prosecution Service; prison officers; the prisons themselves, which should be properly staffed and resourced; probation and prison educators. Those are all important elements of that mosaic. Probation officers play a vital role that is largely unrecognised in reducing reoffending. That is what their jobs are all about and how we gauge their success. They perform a vital public service, protecting our communities from crime, while helping ex-offenders to develop the skills they need to turn their lives around.
By introducing a profit motive into probation—a mistake since acknowledged—the previous Government betrayed the highly skilled and priceless work done by probation officers with many years of experience, leaving their pay, terms and conditions at the mercy of private firms, which tried to reduce their role to little more than a tick-box exercise. That led to a flood of resignations, with people leaving the system, and all the problems we saw as a result.
Even now, two years after the Government admitted defeat and announced a full reintegration and renationalisation of probation, the service is still in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis, very similar to the one in prisons. Napo has told me about the workload crisis facing its members. Many probation officers are working over their recommended offender management levels—the number of cases they have to look after—by between 20% and 50%, and in one case, by over 90%. The staffing and workload crises in probation have had terrible and tragic consequences in the past. It is no wonder that the mental health of many probation officers is at breaking point.
The Government have put the public at serious risk from reoffending by trying to run prisons and probation on the cheap, and undermining the pay and terms and conditions of those critically important workers in the process.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. I have the greatest of respect for him, but I am failing to follow what he is trying to say. I assume that on behalf of his constituents he is saying that we need to impose more custodial sentences on repeat offenders. If that is the case, he is arguing that we should send more repeat offenders into a custodial environment. He is then arguing that we need to do something different in the custodial environment. Rather than using generic figures, will he tell us precisely what he disagrees with in terms of Government policy being implemented in prisons to aid the rehabilitation that we all seek?
The hon. Gentleman has got the thread of my argument precisely. I am not arguing in a contrary fashion, because I believe that repeat offenders—people involved in serial offending—need to be incarcerated for the protection of the communities and themselves. However, I do feel that in prisons, over a number of years now, the resources have not been made available to effectively prevent reoffending by offering alternatives and rehabilitation to those people who are incarcerated. I hope I can go on to develop that argument, but it was a good point, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
The greatest tool to tackle record rates of reoffending must be effective rehabilitation. At the heart of rehabilitation is education, which is desperately needed by so many prisoners. Prison education is a complete mess; that has been confirmed by independent inspectors, by the Education Committee, which is highly respected, and by Ofsted. The Government have announced plans for yet another shake-up, promising a new prison education service—I hope the Minister will say something about that. Unfortunately, details are still very thin on the ground. Ministers have had little to say about teachers, who, it might be thought, would be central to any new strategy to turn around the current, failing system. The Education Committee’s report said:
“Poor pay, lack of career development, unsafe working environments and no time or respect to do a quality job has left the recruitment and retention of qualified and experienced prison educators at crisis point.”
I hope that the Minister will listen, if not to me, then to the Education Committee, which is chaired by a Conservative, the right hon. Member for Harlow.
The problem is the Government’s ideological obsession with running key services, including the criminal justice system, for profit. Four giant prison education providers compete for business while cutting all sorts of corners to maximise profits. According to the union sources I have spoken to, pay and terms and conditions can vary widely. Any serious plan for fixing our broken prison education system should start with standard contracts across the whole sector, plus a pay rise to bring wages up to comparable roles outside. I do not want to go into the details of the issues that have been highlighted to me, but there are things that I hope will be included in the new prison education strategy, which the Minister might refer to when he responds.
Prisons are simply not fit for purpose. In the main, that is as a result of this Government’s savage cuts and poor treatment of the workforce—and all of us are paying the price. However, I believe that prison can and must work. A custodial sentence for a repeat offender provides the community with respite from their offending. In the communities that I represent, which in the main are fairly poor, a relatively small number of prolific offenders cause havoc and cause the majority of crime and antisocial behaviour.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate today. He rightly talks about being tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, which is a Blairite mantra; I am sure that we are all Blairites in that respect today. Does he agree with me that in respect of stopping reoffending, there is a particular challenge with the number of people in prisons who are dependent on opioids and other drugs, and that it is important that we get the right planning in place for those people when they are released from prison to make sure that issue is tackled, because it is a root cause of reoffending?
A whole section of my speech was on the need to reform drugs policy. Quite frankly, many of the most prolific offenders are linked to organised crime gangs and their links with the illicit drugs trade. I have done quite a bit of work as vice chair of the drugs, alcohol and justice all-party parliamentary group and I was heartened by the report published by Dame Carol Black in her review of drugs policy. She highlighted the need to divert resources into that area and quoted some quite interesting figures, showing that
“a cohort of around 300,000 heroin and crack users drive nearly half of all acquisitive crime and homicides. Spending an average of £40 to £50 per day on drugs, these users cycle in and out of prison”
in a kind of revolving door. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) is right; that is a huge issue that we, and the Government in particular, need to address.
It is important that we address rehabilitation and proper prison education. There are some good models where they work very well. When the criminal justice system fails, it fails communities such as mine, which suffer from crime, antisocial behaviour and all the things that go with that. The Conservatives have portrayed themselves as the party of law and order and they like to claim that tag. However, the reality is that if we look at the prison system and the amount of reoffending, the Conservatives are the party of crime and chaos.
Cutting police funding by £1.6 billion since 2010 means it is not surprising that the number of people saying they have never seen a police officer on foot patrol has doubled in that time. I look forward to making the case and standing on a manifesto at the next election setting out Labour’s commitment to community policing. Multi-agency neighbourhood police hubs will deliver not only responsive policing but, more importantly, preventive policing. Highly visible policing may have an up-front cost and seem expensive, but effective policing can deliver significant savings further down the line in the criminal justice system. More importantly, effective and preventive policing creates happier, healthier and safer communities, reducing the number of crime victims.
In conclusion, I have some questions to put to the Minister. Twelve years after taking office, when will we have more police officers, police staff and community support officers than in 2010? The 20,000 promised at the last election was, in my opinion, an admission of failure—that the cuts had gone too deep. For our prisoner officers, my ask is this: what action is the Minister taking to tackle prison violence and allow prisons to reform, rehabilitate and educate offenders? Why are the Government refusing to measure the level of violence against prisoners and staff as part of their new key performance indicators, as I called for in my private Member’s Bill in the last Session? We want prisons to reduce reoffending and not hold offenders only for a defined period.
On the causes of crime, can the Minister deliver a practical and sensible solution to disrupt organised crime gangs and break the cycle of offending and reoffending with a reform of drugs policy? We need to overcome misinformation and political dogma to focus solely on cutting crime and the causes of crime.
You will wish you had not said that, Sir Gary, but thank you for chairing this debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
It is welcome that the Government have committed to 20,000 new police officers and that we are on target to meet that number. It is interesting that in areas like ours, Sir Gary, such as the South Hams, we have 170 new officers and are due 217 more by the end of 2024, which we are also on target to meet. We have local initiatives such as the councillor advocates scheme, set up by our police and crime commissioner, Alison Hernandez, that help local parishes engage with the police to ensure better representation and visibility and a better ability to disrupt crime networks. Such structures will make a difference and, hopefully, alleviate the problems of crime in rural areas.
We have similar experiences in Cheshire. The police and crime commissioner, John Dwyer, reported just this week that Cheshire is in line to have more officers than ever before in the history of the force by the end of March—a commitment that the Government made and are delivering on. Does my hon. Friend accept that although we often hear about having more police on the beat, many crimes are committed online and behind closed doors? The real value of having forensic investigators working behind the scenes is paying off with higher arrest rates, particularly in areas such as child exploitation.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The nature of policing has changed and we have to be clear about how we tackle crime. I do not expect to see as many officers on foot patrol, but I expect to see more of them driving about. Sir Gary, you did say that this debate is about sentencing, so I will get back to that topic. First, it is about crime prevention, and secondly—the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) touched on this—it is about people who repeatedly commit crimes and find themselves with unduly lenient sentences, such as his constituent.
It is not for Members of Parliament to stand in this place and decide what a sentence should be, but perhaps the Minister will clarify what the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act will do to enhance sentencing, because our understanding was that we would have the opportunity to be more stringent when it comes to those who repeatedly commit crimes. I do not want to take up a significant amount of time, but I do want to talk about one way in which we can deal with repeat offenders, which is rehabilitation.
There are three programmes that are relevant to where we are from, Sir Gary. The first is LandWorks, a local organisation in south Devon that works with those who are at risk of going to prison or are coming out of prison and likely to reoffend. It does it in three ways: engagement through a market garden, through pottery and through woodwork. It is a hand-holding exercise for those leaving prison to ensure that, from leaving prison to re-entering society, there is an opportunity to help them to re-enter and ensure that recidivism is not just something that we presume will happen.
I have visited LandWorks and I have asked the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), to visit. The Minister answering the debate today is of course welcome anytime in south Devon—it is amazing how many Ministers want to come down over the summer, so he could take a quick holiday and a jaunt to that extraordinary organisation that works to reduce reoffending. It helps the police and the Prison Service, who feel helpless, by ensuring that we do not have more and more prisoners going back in. As a Conservative, I believe passionately that we should have a tough stance on crime but I also believe that the purpose of prisons is rehabilitation and that people deserve a second chance, so we have to find a balance between those two positions.
The second group I will reference is Pathfinder, which has been launched with the police. It is an evidence-based intervention that reduces harm and reoffending and can hold offenders to account for their actions. The scheme integrates offenders and the police, so that they can work together to ensure that offenders do not go down the predicted path of reoffending and are held to account through targets and checklists that they must fulfil. Strict adherence to the programme is already showing some successes.
The third initiative is NHS Reconnect. I recently met someone who was working intimately with the NHS Reconnect service who made the point that after they had left prison they never thought they would be able to get a job in something as big and as brilliant as the NHS. NHS Reconnect is the perfect example to show, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) said, how businesses and public organisations and institutions can play a role. If we can help offenders to find a way into those schemes and structures, we can divert them from the predicted course, and that is where we have to focus.
Using those three initiatives—Landworks, Pathfinder and NHS Reconnect—we have the opportunity to disrupt the chain, the concept and the belief that reoffending is the natural course after leaving the prison system. The statistics accurately prove that crime in our part of the country is going down; I am sorry to keep referring to south Devon but, anecdotally, I am sure there are similar examples across the country, and in fact the statistics prove that. With the police and others coming up with innovative schemes, such as the councillor advocate scheme, we have a way to disrupt.
I am a great believer in statistics and often quote them, but my constituent told me that he, and others in the same boat, would not report crime in the future because of his terrible experience in the criminal justice system and because he is dissatisfied with the outcome.
I absolutely accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am not for a second saying that everything is rosy, but when we look at the crime statistics there are some positives to be taken away. That is not to say that there is not more work to be done; complacency can never have any foothold in our legal or police systems, or in the system of support against reoffending.
I have taken up more time than I expected, but I finish by asking the Minister, can the 2022 Act be improved in relation to the points raised? Will he also speak about the prison strategy White Paper that is coming forward? My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the drugs strategy. As I understand it, the drugs strategy was launched in 2021 and we have made £780 million available for it, of which £120 million will be made available to prisoners. Is there any interest in expanding that? Will the Minister report back on how that scheme is working and operating, and whether it has an impact on reducing reoffending?
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Sir Gary, and to follow the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). Either he follows me or I follow him, and I am happy to be following in his footsteps on this occasion in making my contribution, which will back up what he said.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on introducing the debate in such a knowledgeable, factual and detailed way. I am here simply because the subject of the debate interests me and my constituents. To be fair, things are slightly different in Northern Ireland, where some of the people who walk the streets in Northern Ireland after having offended happen to be in positions of Government. It distresses us greatly that those people did not get their just deserts and do due time in prison for their crimes, but I digress. I understand that those issues are not the purpose of today’s debate.
Many constituents come to me and express concern about someone who is a repeat offender and, unfortunately, continues to repeat offend. Some of the cases that we have seen are particularly harrowing. There are different levels of crime, and I understand that there are different levels of punishment as well. That is reflected when the courts—
The hon. Gentleman is clearly going to develop his points in respect of this issue, but the title of the debate is somewhat troubling, in that repeat offenders receive two types of sentence. One is a custodial sentence, and the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) has spoken about the rehabilitative measures that are required within the custodial environment but not touched on licence conditions. Secondly, the vast majority of reoffenders are sentenced to non-custodial disposals, so their contact with the prison system is less important than what is happening in the community. I would be very interested to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on those two separate strands of sentencing.
I will try to develop my points and, I hope, answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. I look forward in particular to his contribution to the debate.
With regard to my party colleagues, I am ever mindful that this is a devolved matter and therefore what we do in Northern Ireland is not the responsibility of the Minister here, but this Minister, when he replies to our contributions, always does so with knowledge and also with help to try to develop the requests that we put in for his attention.
It is no secret that I am a firm believer in strict, fair prison sentences. The sentence should fit the crime: that is where I am coming from. I fail to understand and see the reasoning behind overly lenient prison sentences for repeat offenders, which appear only to normalise the concept of repeat criminality. The issue here lies with the word “repeat”. As legislators in this House and, indeed, for the Assembly back home and for the other devolved Administrations, we must do all we can to ensure that there is no repeat offending. That is ultimately the goal that we are all trying to achieve, and that may be done, as the hon. Member for Totnes described, with the schemes that those coming out of prison can get involved in to take them away from a past that we hope they will not return to.
Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan, from back home in Northern Ireland, recently revealed that from March 2022 there would be harsher sentences for those repeat offenders guilty of abhorrent domestic abuse crimes. That is one of the types of crime that I am thinking of when I say, in relation to repeat offending, that the punishment should fit the crime. I fully support the Lady Chief Justice’s statement. There is no doubt that that is a step forward. But there should be no allowance for repeat offending in the first place. The Department of Justice revealed that adults released from prison had a proven reoffending rate of 38.6%, which is a huge amount of criminal reoffending. In addition, a large number of criminals getting off charges with no lessons learned and a mere smack on the wrist is not acceptable. The general public deserve protection and they want to see justice.
There is also the very strong argument from the side of the victim of crime—I will often speak up for the victim of crime—in relation to harsher sentencing. Whether we are talking about a burglary, assault or something considerably more serious, there is a victim who must be protected and assured of a fair, decent sentence. Repeat victimisation has become a major issue as a result of repeat offending. Sexual assault and robbery were among the crimes with the highest percentage of repeat offending—often against the same victims. Those figures alone emphasise the real need for harsher sentencing at the beginning to ensure the protection and safety of victims.
There will not be many of us who do not know or cannot give an example of a case from our own constituency in which the person who carried out the crime gets out of jail—I am thinking particularly of cases of sexual assault—and suddenly is walking around the neighbourhood where it took place. I tell you what, Sir Gary: if I were a victim, I would feel pretty disturbed, angry, annoyed and concerned that the person was able to walk round the countryside, the town, the lanes and the villages where the crimes took place. I want to see protection for the victims.
I will ask the Minister this question—if, of course, it is within the remit of this debate, Sir Gary—because I am very keen to find out what the intention is. When it comes to offenders getting out after carrying out crimes, there should be an onus on us to notify the victims that they are returning. Indeed, it would be better if a person did not return to the village where they carried out a despicable crime, but we must make sure that protection is there. We have often heard about assailants getting out and being able to wander close to the family home of the person they assaulted.
There is a debate to be had about how we treat petty crimes, such as public drunkenness, using a mobile phone while driving, or underage drinking or smoking. The hon. Member for Easington has raised before the call for community service and electronic tagging for petty crimes, and I support that. For petty crimes, the right thing to do is not to be harsh when trying to pull people away from a life of crime and point them in the right direction. Although I agree that the statistics on reoffending must be looked at to see if that is a beneficial form of punishment, we must consider stronger prison sentences if there is reoffending for petty crimes. As has been stated, lessons must be learned, as there is always the potential to be a victim.
The Northern Ireland Audit Office has undertaken work to develop a strategy to stop adult reoffending—the Minister, having looked into all these issues thoroughly, will be aware of it. This will ultimately rehabilitate offenders so that they do not reoffend after completing their sentence. It has shown considerable success.
Difficulties at home, financial issues, deprivation, or problems with alcohol, drugs or mental health can result in a continuous negative pattern of behaviour, which repeatedly brings people back into the system. People with mental health issues need to be rehabilitated and helped beyond prison. Repeat offenders are responsible for 75% of all offences recorded per year—a truly astonishing figure.
Although justice is a devolved matter, there must be more collaboration between the Departments to tackle repeat offending. I ask the Minister, has there been any contact with the devolved Administrations, in particular the Northern Ireland Assembly, to exchange ideas? I am a great believer in the idea that we can all learn from each other—I will do that to the day I die. We can do things better when we talk to those who have a system that works.
To conclude, there are ways to tackle repeat offending that reflect the callousness and intensity of the crime. For example, I believe that sexual assault cases should be harshly sentenced to start with, as community service does not reprimand the evil of assault. However, for petty crimes there are other ways to teach people the difference between right and wrong and keep them on the straight and narrow—to use a biblical term—and to ensure that they stay away from the wrong path. The issue remains what steps we should take when lessons are not learned from a certain kind of punishment. I always try to make a contribution from a Northern Ireland perspective, but I would also echo the comments of other hon. Members and I look forward to their comments.
I congratulate my friend the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on bringing forward this important debate, which, as I said to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), can be viewed from a number of different viewpoints.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and declare an interest as a practising solicitor. I was a criminal defence solicitor for 16 years. During the halcyon days of the Labour Government under Tony Blair, I was in court every day and in police stations every evening, representing the reoffenders we have been talking about. I am sure the hon. Member for Easington has not come here just to engage in political point scoring, and he will not want us to get into a debate about this, but I could go through a whole raft of statistics from when I was practising before the courts under the Labour Government. Reoffending was rampant.
This will be my last point, because I do not want to get into this, but I do not know how Labour or any Labour politician can actually challenge a Government Minister when their leader has such an appalling record as Director of Public Prosecutions. There was a fall in conviction rates for serious sexual offending and other sexual offending. We should come to these issues without the political preening and look at what we can do to make things better.
I can tell the Members present that we could have been having this conversation back in 2001, when I first stood up in the magistrates court. The first mitigation I did was completely by luck—I was making it up as I went along. I got there at 9 o’clock in the morning and my new employer said, “Court starts in 45 minutes—off you go.” The first person I represented was a shoplifter. I did not know what to say, having had no experience of these things. It occurred to me that it would be a novel idea if the court was able to impose a sentence of a job and a home. I had no background training whatsoever, having done no criminal law during my training contract. I just had a feeling, at some point, that I would go into criminal law. I thought it sounded interesting. The feeling I had during that first mitigation has never left me: the way to tackle offending, certainly with repeat offenders, is by the state bringing as much stability to their lives as possible. That is an incredibly difficult action for the state.
Sentencing is a bespoke exercise. The idea that the Government impose sentences that are routinely put and that everybody—whether they are in Totnes, Easington or Bury—gets the same sentence in the same circumstances is utterly ridiculous.
My hon. Friend knows that I sit as a magistrate. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) said that Members of this House do not necessarily sentence, but I actually do sentence. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) is absolutely right. One of the greatest debates that benches of magistrates have is on the appropriate sentencing for the offender they see in front of them. Rehabilitation activity requirements and courses to help people understand the issues they face—on drugs, alcohol and dealing with conflict—are incredibly valuable and can form part of a sentencing package. As my hon. Friend says, it is right that magistrates have a full range of sentences available to them to ensure that the punishment fits the crime that an offender has been convicted of.
Thank you, Sir Gary. I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. When we look at reoffending rates, we must look at what we are talking about, because we cannot talk in the generality. When I first appeared before the courts, I was representing up to 10 shoplifters a day. My hon. Friend has been on the bench for a long time, so he will know that that was the nature of repeat offending—drug-related acquisitive offending at a relatively low level.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman saying that he represented 10 shoplifters a day. When I visit shops nowadays, they tell me they are deeply frustrated that shoplifters are allowed simply to walk out of the store because nobody is interested in ensuring that they are caught and taken through the court system. Does he share that lament?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I am sure the Minister will confirm that I have that conversation with him on a regular basis. It is an important issue. The level of offending that I saw when I initially practised has vanished from the courts. I do not know where it has gone; I do not think it has disappeared into the ether. All constituency MPs know that shoplifting is still a prolific issue, but it is not appearing before the courts.
When we get down to the issue of repeat offending, perhaps the nature of the offending that appears in a sentencing exercise has changed. Where do we look for that offending? What specifically categorises it? I have to say that I do not agree with what the hon. Member for Easington says, although I understand why he said it in terms of categorising the offending as organised crime. That is a very general description of what we are talking about. Organised crime tends to be very high-level offending. When I look at reoffending rates, I look at the offences where it is a prolific problem, such as domestic violence and serious sexual offending; all of those offences, which have very specific different motivations and reasons why they are committed, are the ones that I look at. I only make the point that we cannot debate this issue in the generality. We cannot say that one sentencing option or one rehabilitative model is going to suit every single option.
We then get to the question—I raised this with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—of how to deal with repeat offenders: with a non-custodial sentence or a custodial one? I think every hon. Member would agree with the hon. Member for Easington that, in the circumstances he spoke about, the gentleman should be sent to prison. I represented people who had committed 400 offences. What do we do with them after 400 offences? Everything has been tried. Every sentence that had ever been invented had been tried by many of my clients, and had failed spectacularly. What do you do with them? They have to be sent to prison, because if it is highly unlikely for a sentence to be carried out or for an offender to take part in the requirements, that sentence cannot be imposed.
The drug rehabilitation part of non-custodial sentences is not as straightforward as people suggest. All the offenders I have represented, save those who had serious mental health issues, have understood that they should not be doing what they were doing. They know the difference between right and wrong—it is not a moral question. In many circumstances, it is a question of addressing their substance problem or opioid problem. When courts impose drug rehabilitation orders, we cannot simply take a wand out and hit somebody over the head and suddenly everything is okay. For the orders to be successful, there has to be planning, work and stability in their lives. For an offender who is living on the street, with very little money, a drug rehabilitation order may seem a sensible sentence because that is what the problem is, and that is why the offence has been committed, but we should not impose a sentence if we know it is going to fail, even if it addresses the root cause of the problem.
On non-custodial sentences, I agree with the points that were made about the probation service—I think we have got back to a better place, but we cannot simply talk about terms and conditions and how extremely important they are, and all the other things that the hon. Member for Easington referred to. This is about the interaction of the individuals, in the circumstances that they face on bail. It is those that are going to decide whether a sentence is successful or not.
In the custodial environment, there is a real debate about what we view as success in what people are offered, and that is not just about violence. Most of the reoffenders I represented were not violent individuals—they were not going into prison and that was sending them on to a different scale. It was about how the fundamental stability issues were addressed, particularly employment. I hope the Minister will comment on this point, because the Government are doing some really good work in looking at the root causes of offending. They are putting a lot of money into job creation and education, which we should not just brush aside. Some really positive steps are being taken.
Some other measures are really showing the Government’s innovative approach to sentencing policy. They were not around when I was practising. Alcohol abstinence tags have a phenomenally high rate of success. Many domestic violence offences are committed by people who are drunk or who have serious alcohol problems. Alcohol abstinence tags, whether part of the sentence or the licence conditions afterwards, are showing real success and we should—“celebrate” seems the wrong word for a sentencing exercise—at least acknowledge that good policies are being put in place.
There is also GPS tagging, which is about making sure that the justice system knows where a person is after they are released. If a burglar is coming to the end of their sentence and there is a concern about what they might do next, if they are GPs-tagged and silly enough to commit an offence, they will be arrested and put back into the court system as soon as possible. There is some really good work in this area. There is integrated offender management, which brings all the services together to produce a bespoke package to help offenders who are struggling with their lives.
The picture is complex. This problem has been around for a long time. Over many years, including under the Labour party, community rehabilitation orders have sadly been spectacularly unsuccessful, but that is not a reason for us not to keep on trying to use modern technology to learn from some of the things that have happened in the past and to have a real debate about how we can affect individual lives. Not everyone is the same. Each person we rehabilitate and bring back into a life where they are not committing offences is a success. That should not be viewed in the thousands, but in each individual success. We are all committed to doing that, while also, getting back to the original point, sending people to prison for sentences that are lengthy enough to deter reoffending behaviour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for a second time, Sir Gary, despite the 10 years you tell me you have been in the role. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris)—a fellow north-east England MP—on securing the debate. I believe he captured powerfully the frustrations that victims have with a criminal justice system that is crumbling on the Government’s watch. Before I go on, I want to pay tribute to the police, prison officers, probation officers and all the others who work so hard under very difficult circumstances.
My hon. Friend the Member for Easington recognises that the Government are soft on crime and, as he reports from his constituency, are letting criminals off and victims down. He mentioned the ludicrously small fines that offenders are receiving in his constituency and how one offender with a hundred offences ended up with a community service order. I am sure the Minister will want to comment on whether that is appropriate.
The hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) mentioned that many people receive sentences that simply do not work, and that many simply ignore the courts and get away with it. According to Labour’s research, the number of uncollected court fines has now reached £1.2 billion in the last five years, and that includes more than £50 million of unpaid compensation due to victims directly. Can the Minister tell us what he is doing to collect some of that money? A billion pounds would be enough to pay the salaries of more than 19,000 additional police officers—not far shy of the number of officers that the Government have cut. I know that the Government plan to replace them and that some progress is being made. I welcome that, but we are in a situation where we are replacing experienced officers with inexperienced officers. Nevertheless, the Minister will be pleased to know that my nephew, Lewis Cunningham, is going to be one of those new police officers when he starts working for the Yorkshire force in the autumn.
The public rightly feel that the police are no longer visible on their streets. That is why we would try to put this right with our community police hubs. Some of those officers would also play a crucial role in our new neighbourhood prevention teams, bringing together community support officers, youth workers and council staff to tackle the causes of repeat antisocial behaviour currently blighting our communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington is right that being tough on crime and on the causes of crime is as valid now as it was during the days of the last Labour Government. It was nice to hear the hon. Member for Bury North celebrate his full employment under the last Labour Government, when we had a fully resourced and proper justice system. The policies we have announced in this Parliament show that our party is still committed to those guiding principles.
However, it is not just in the detection of repeat crime that the Government are letting victims and communities down; it is also in effective sentencing that properly acts as a deterrent, a prison system that properly rehabilitates defenders and a probation system that properly protects the public by reducing reoffending in communities themselves.
We have heard some positive things about prisons. The hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) mentioned the importance of education in the prison system and where it can work well. My own home prison in Stockton, Holme House Prison, does it best and has some fantastic facilities, yet even there prisoners are still spending far too long in their cells and are not really making full use of the facilities available to them.
What do we have? Under this Government, our prisons have become colleges of criminality. Repeat offenders, many of them on short sentences, leave prisons more addicted to drugs than they were when they entered, because prison drug abuse is up an astonishing 500% since 2010. Despite that, there has been only a fractional increase in the number of mandatory drug tests, so addiction grows. Drugs are rife in prison because the detection of contraband is so poor.
The Ministry of Justice is especially wasteful at times; it has thrown £140 million of taxpayers’ money down the drain in the past year. That includes £6 million on prison drug scanners that are picking up on average only 12 items of contraband each month because they are used so sparingly. They are not really a waste of money; if they were being used effectively and on a daily basis, we would be in a stronger position. It is no surprise that addiction causes problems in communities after prisoners are released if they are not accessing the types of rehabilitative programmes that they need while in custody. The number of NHS alcohol and drug treatment programmes started by inmates fell dramatically between 2015 and 2020, with 7,000 fewer places taken up.
The hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) talked about rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is the answer, but it needs to be properly resourced. Reoffending in our communities can only be stopped by making prisons work. A Labour Government would do that by putting a greater focus on rehabilitation and ending the explosion in drug use, which fuels further crime when inmates re-enter society.
Going back to the point about the resources put into rehabilitation, the hon. Gentleman is right up to a point, but the private sector also plays a significant role in preventing reoffending. Does the hon. Gentleman see that there has to be a bit of quid pro quo from both the private and public sectors on this issue?
I agree. I think employers should play a greater role in prisons and we should encourage more of them in. However, we need to provide the right environment for employers. Many years ago I was employed by National Grid, which had a scheme working in partnership with prisons—I think forklift truck drivers were the main output from one prison in the south. Those people did not reoffend—or very few of them did—because they worked with the employer while they were still in prison, they had day release into the workplace and then they got a job afterwards. That is the real answer: education followed by a job.
We know that community service sentences have enormous potential for reducing reoffending as an alternative to short prison sentences, which, under this Government, only entrench offending behaviours. A large body of evidence suggests that community orders are more effective in reducing reoffending than short sentences. Under this Government, community sentences are being set up to fail because the Government do not seem to care about stopping repeat offending at source.
The number of hours of community service was falling significantly even before the pandemic, but has now fallen to less than 1.5 million, from over 5 million five years ago. Public trust in community sentences is flagging because those schemes have stopped being seen to be viable. The number of offenders completing a community sentence has fallen by a quarter in the past five years because offenders are breaching the terms of their sentences, often by not turning up.
Labour has proposed a better way forward. The public need to see that justice is being done in their communities. That is precisely what Labour’s community and victim payback boards would do, by providing publicly available data on the work that offenders are doing, determined by the communities and victims affected. We have put the victims of crime and the communities blighted by it at the centre of unpaid work schemes through existing safer neighbourhood boards. Another reason for the failure of community sentences, particularly where repeat offenders are concerned, is down to the fact that judges no longer trust that they will be delivered. The fault with that lies in the problems experienced by the probation service, which this Government have created with the service’s disastrous privatisation in 2014.
I would be astounded if the hon. Gentleman had any evidence to back up the claim that judges do not trust community sentences. I do not know whether he has seen the Government’s work on community payback, which is extremely visible and effective. It is essentially already doing what he has just said.
I accept that some progress has been made in this area, but we have a long way to go if we are to make it effective for many more people in the system. That is an illustration that the Government have belatedly realised their error and are starting to put things right. There are still worrying hangovers, such as recruitment and retention, from the previous system of community rehabilitation companies.
The rate at which probation officers are leaving the service has increased by a quarter since 2015. Resignations have consistently outstripped retirement and other reasons for leaving the service over the past five years: 60% of all leavers are choosing to walk away. The causes cited by some include high workloads, stress and poor pay, given the nature of the work and the rising cost of living. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington talked of some of those issues.
The workloads of existing staff have now reached unsafe levels. That is reflected in the alarming growth in certain serious further offences in recent years; that is, offences committed by repeat offenders who are the subject of probation supervision. I am sure the Minister will tell us how we are going to reconfigure the probation service, to ensure that we can put that right. SFOs for murder were higher in the three years to 2020 than they ever have been—surely, the most severe form of repeat offending that there is.
The public have a right to be concerned about these serious violent crimes in their communities, because this Tory Government have shown time and again they are not capable of dealing with the issue. There is no better example than repeat knife crime. The Government promised in 2015 to lock up repeat knife offenders, but almost half of repeat offenders avoided jail in 2021, and knife possession offences across England and Wales have increased by a fifth since the Conservatives came to power. The Minister and I spent a considerable length of time in Committee for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill Act 2022. I hope the measures it introduced will have the effect that the Government hope. Of course, many of the provisions have yet to be enacted.
The root of the problem with repeat offending is the neglect of youth services and youth offending teams, which could be preventing offending by engaging young people, instead of leaving them to their own devices and the influence of others who drag them into crime. That neglect has resulted in enormous rises in the scale and cost of violent youth crime, which now stands at more than £11 billion under this Government. Being soft on repeat offending and soft on its causes blights communities and costs taxpayers. Labour has shown it will tackle reoffending and repeat offending head on, and bring security to our communities. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for Easington wants.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Gary. I note your background as a solicitor, albeit not a criminal one, and that you served as a Minister under our Department’s predecessor in the Lord Chancellor’s office.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) and congratulate him on bringing forward this important debate on a topic that, despite the turnout, creates great interest on all sides. I think there is a lot of consensus on the key points. I am aware of his letter and was waiting for the debate to respond. If I do not cover any points today, I can return to them in writing. He knows, as has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), that when it comes to specific cases, it is a constitutional fact and convention that we have an independent judiciary, and Ministers do not comment on individual sentencing decisions. That is an incredibly important point.
The hon. Member for Easington finished his speech with a few specific questions. I will start by answering those before going into the body of the speech on reoffending. He asked about prison officer and police officer numbers. Between October 2016 and December 2021, the number of prison officers rose from 17,955 to 22,156—an extra 4,201 full-time officers. That in itself is a way of improving their safety. There are also specific measures, such as rolling out pepper spray in the adult male estate, which we will be doing to protect officers, and the introduction of 6,000 body cameras across the estate.
On police officers, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s question I am pleased to confirm that we are at 13,500. I was pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) about the number of extra officers in Cheshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) mentioned the number in South Hams. Perhaps most importantly, we heard from the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), that Lewis Cunningham has joined that number and will be serving on the frontline. We all pay tribute to him and are grateful to all those officers. I join the hon. Member for Easington in paying tribute to those who serve in our communities to bring law and order to our streets.
I want to comment on what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North said It probably will not be known to most hon. Members that he was my Parliamentary Private Secretary until a few days ago. The baton has now passed to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), and that brings the great advantage that he is now able to speak on Ministry of Justice matters. He has great experience as a criminal solicitor, as we have heard.
The hon. Member for Easington spoke with great passion, particularly on the case that has blighted his constituency. But a fundamental fact is that the proportion of offenders released from custody who reoffended within 12 months fell significantly from 51.5% in 2010-11 to 42.2% between April 2019 and March 2020. That significant fall was seen in both adults and juveniles.
We have a strong record in tackling reoffending, but we recognise that reoffending rates are still too high across England and Wales. In 2020, 80% of offenders cautioned or convicted had at least one previous caution or conviction. That is far too high. In many cases, repeat or prolific offenders commit low-level crime, continuously revolving in and out of the criminal justice system. We also know that they often have high levels of complex and interweaving needs that drive their offending: roughly 61% of prolific offenders have coexisting needs of accommodation, employment and substance misuse. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North saw that on his very first day as a criminal solicitor, and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South will have seen it many times in front of him on the bench.
This Government understand the concern and harm caused by repeat offending, as described by the hon. Member for Easington. As I am sure Members will appreciate, this is a complex issue. There is no easy answer. There is certainly no magic wand, as my hon. Friend for Bury North said. We are committed to action and I can reassure the House that we are pursuing an extensive package of measures to tackle it, which I will set out.
Turning first to the sentencing framework, sentencing in individual cases is wholly a matter for the independent judiciary. However, it is the responsibility of Parliament to ensure that the courts have the sentencing framework they need to sentence offenders appropriately.
Turning to the PCSC Act, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked how it would affect the subject of the debate. Under the Act we made several changes to legislation to deliver our manifesto commitments and ensure that the worst offenders spend longer in custody. The Act also introduces specific measures designed to tackle repeat offending. For example, the law provides for minimum sentences for certain offences known to have a large community impact, including threat with or repeat possession of a knife, a third conviction of domestic burglary and certain class A drug trafficking offences.
We heard the concern that too many offenders were receiving sentences below the minimum term. Indeed, in 2020, at least 50% of adults convicted of a third domestic burglary received a sentence below the minimum prescribed by Parliament. I can confirm that the PCSC Act, which just received Royal Assent, changes the law to ensure that courts may depart from the minimum sentence only in exceptional circumstances. I believe the word imputed is “particular” circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South, who sits as a magistrate, knows that that sort of wording is very important and we feel it will have an impact.
We are clear that delivering public protection is not just about better use of custody. Evidently, not all offences warrant a custodial sentence. Lower-level offending is often better handled via a non-custodial sentence. To that end, our sentencing White Paper set out our plans for tougher, better monitored and more effective community sentencing options that can tackle prolific offending by providing appropriate punishment, while also addressing the underlying drivers of offending and offering support for those who want to turn their lives around.
Going further, the PCSC Act enables closer supervision of certain offenders and introduces the option for tougher and more flexible use of electronically monitored curfews to better reflect the punishment intended, better support rehabilitation and better protect victims. It also reforms criminal records disclosure to increase the number of ex-offenders able to find work, which we know plays a crucial role in reducing reoffending.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North referred to the extremely positive data that we have seen on increasing the rate of employment among those leaving prison. I think that a two-thirds increase in the number of people who left prison between April 2021 and March 2022 who were still in employment six months after release is a very positive development indeed.
The PCSC Act also introduced powers to pilot problem-solving courts, which will combine supervision and multi-agency interventions with regular court-based reviews of progress overseen by a single judge or dedicated magistrates, with clear, consistent and graduated consequences for non-compliance.
However, this process is not just about sentencing options. The PCSC Act also reforms adult out-of-court disposals, to allow the police to deal swiftly, proportionately and appropriately with low-level offending and to reduce the burden on courts. Under our new framework, cautions must have conditions attached, to enable the police to target the cause of the offending behaviour and to refer people into appropriate support services. Basically, to date there have been quite a number of out-of-court disposal options, including those that are effectively a warning. What we are moving to with the PCSC Act is two sets of out-of-court disposals, which is a much simpler system that is more unified across the jurisdiction, and—importantly—there will always have to be an action associated with a particular disposal.
I turn to our sentencing framework. This is an essential element of tackling repeat offending, but we are clear that criminal justice agencies must also be armed with the tools they need to manage challenging offenders effectively.
The hon. Member for Stockton North asked about probation. As he is aware, in June 2021 we launched a new unified probation service across England and Wales. Unification of the probation service, underpinned by increased funding of £155 million per annum to recruit additional staff, will help to reduce overall case loads, enable robust management of offenders in the community and support better public protection. That means that we can supervise offenders with rigour and discipline, as well as enforcing the consequences of non-compliance.
Our “Beating crime plan”, launched in July 2021, announced our refreshed integrated offender management scheme, which is another crucial element in our efforts to tackle repeat offending. Under the scheme, over 9,000 persistent and problematic neighbourhood crime offenders across England and Wales are subject to intensive supervision by the probation service and the police, who work together with partner agencies to keep those offenders accountable and support them to reform.
|Another form of community order that we have heard about is unpaid work. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North spoke about this activity, which we call community payback, and the hon. Member for Stockton North, who speaks for the Opposition, spoke about his party’s plans in this regard. Just to be clear, we are investing an additional £93 million over the next three years to allow us to increase community payback delivery, up to 8 million hours a year—I repeat, up to 8 million hours—with a particular focus on delivering more outdoor projects that improve public spaces and, crucially, allow the public to see justice being done. Seeing justice done is a core, common-law principle that underpins our system, which is why the visibility of offenders who are out there clearing a canal or scrubbing graffiti off a wall is so important, and I hope that I have set out how we intend to go much further.
The hon. Member for Easington made a very good point when he cited a particular statistic. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction is linked to almost half of all acquisitive crime—he used that exact figure—including burglary, robbery and theft, and drugs are associated with almost half of all homicides. As set out in our 10-year drugs strategy, which was published in December 2021, this Government will invest £780 million over the next three years in drug treatment services, including £120 million to support offenders to engage with treatment. We are very much looking at the big picture when it comes to drugs.
Of course, we also know that alcohol is another key driver of offending. To that end, last year we introduced another innovative use of electronic monitoring, which is using alcohol tags to monitor offender compliance with alcohol bans in community sentences. In the first year of their use, we have seen over 3,500 alcohol banning orders being imposed, with over 97% of days monitored being alcohol-free. I repeat: 97%.
Building on that success, last week we completed our roll-out of alcohol monitoring on licence across England and Wales, allowing us to deploy this intervention across the criminal justice system. Over the next three years, around 12,000 offenders will wear an alcohol tag.
Will the Minister talk about the changes to Friday release that have been announced? Having visited several prisons, it has always struck me that there are virtually no support services for prisoners when they are released into the community on Fridays. What was the thinking behind the changes?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and he is absolutely right about the impact of the changes. He will be aware that our hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mark Jenkinson) will introduce a private Member’s Bill to tackle this very issue. As we bring that Bill forward—hopefully with support from all parties—it will address my hon. Friend’s point.
On the matter of release, the hon. Member for Strangford asked a specific question: how do we notify the victim when the perpetrator is being released? I cannot comment on the arrangements in Northern Ireland, but we have a victim contact scheme in our jurisdiction. Where an offender receives one year or more in custody, bereaved close relatives and victims of serious sexual and violent offences are automatically referred to the scheme, so that they can choose to receive information on the following: first, when the offender is released or considered for release or conditional discharge; secondly, if the prisoner moves to open conditions; and thirdly, what the court sentence means for the offender’s detention in prison or hospital. We recognise that the point of release is a key moment to help offenders turn their lives around, which is why the issue of Friday release is important. As such, our prison strategy White Paper outlined our ambitious plans to ensure that prison leavers have the accommodation and employment support they need on release to help them to stay away from drugs and crime.
The hon. Member for Easington asked about prison education, and I can confirm that we set out our plans in the prison strategy White Paper to deliver a prison education service within this Parliament and to raise numeracy, literacy and skills in order to secure jobs on release. I have already highlighted the real progress that we are making in securing employment for prisoners, and we will change the law to enable them to undertake apprenticeships for the first time. In combination with our commitment to support prisoners to engage with community treatment ahead of release, we are confident that the measures will help reduce reoffending.
Specifically in relation to female offenders, who are more likely to commit low-level offences, we are delivering on our commitment to pilot a residential women’s centre. This will offer an intensive residential support package in the community for women at risk of receiving short custodial sentences, supporting them to address the underlying causes of their offending behaviour, including drug, alcohol and mental health needs, and to move on to settled accommodation. Last month, we announced that the first residential women’s centre will be in Swansea. The centre will now be subject to planning permission, but it will run as a pilot for five years and has received £10.6 million of spending review funding.
Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Easington for securing the debate. As I said, this is a matter that greatly concerns all our constituents. There is a lot of consensus about the measures that need to be taken, and I assure him that the Government understand the issue and are committed to tackling the harm caused by repeat offending.
I thank the Minister not only for what he has said, but for his tone and for being so constructive in responding to the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), my good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the hon. Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), for Warrington South (Andy Carter) and for Bury North (James Daly), and the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who is not in his place. We have had some excellent and constructive speeches and interventions, and I am pleased that the Minister has taken them on board. I have learned a new word: recidivism. I cannot say it, but I know what it means.
The Minister is absolutely right to suggest that there is no single medicine or antidote to the problems that we are facing. We need a combined approach—a broad-spectrum antibiotic—to deal with the multifaceted issues that we face in tackling reoffending. I was heartened by what he said in relation to the additional moneys that are being channelled through the Prison Service to tackle the issue of drugs and alcohol.
I would also like to highlight that, apart from in Durham—we all know it is the centre of the universe for initiatives and policing schemes—there are some excellent police-led, out-of-court disposal and drug diversion schemes. There is Checkpoint in my area, Turning Point in the west midlands, and the drug education programme in Avon and Somerset. They have all delivered early interventions that have diverted individuals away from the criminal justice system and reoffending, and into drug education, support and treatment. I make a plea to the Minister that these schemes should be expanded.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the sentencing of repeat offenders.