HC Deb 06 January 2004 vol 416 cc170-87

1.1 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the next phase of our strategy to improve the effectiveness of the criminal justice system and, in particular, of correctional services.

Our objective has been to reduce crime and to transform radically the performance of the Prison Service and the probation service, and the services working in partnership with them. Since 1997, we have undertaken a unique programme of reform and investment in both services. We have provided 14,700 more prison places, including seven new prisons, and this year we are providing £900 million more in real terms. There has been a 50 per cent. increase in probation funding, and a 30 per cent. increase in frontline staff. Since 1996–97, there has been an increase of 4,300 additional staff in the probation service alone.

We do not accept the counsel of despair that suggests that offenders cannot be turned away from crime. The whole objective of correctional services must be to prevent reoffending, as well as to provide punishment and protection. Today, we are publishing our report, "Reducing Crime, Changing Lives", which sets out a progressive agenda for the future and the next steps to modernise and reform correctional services. I have placed a copy of the report in the Vote Office, together with the report from Patrick Carter. We are grateful to him and his colleagues for the work that they have done, on which we have drawn extensively in the proposals before the House today.

Prison and rehabilitation after custody can be made to work only if those subject to punishment are forced to address their behaviour. Sending more people to prison but seeing more return, only to reoffend again, is unacceptable. Addressing the causes is, therefore, essential for success.

Together with the Department of Health, we have adopted a radical new policy for health investment to tackle a range of problems, from mental health to drug misuse. This year, more than 50,000 prisoners have received clinical detoxification. 5,000 are undertaking drug rehabilitation programmes, and 40 per cent. of all prisoners have signed voluntary drug compacts. In addition, through education, training and work programmes, we have dramatically changed the opportunity for those in prison to redeem their behaviour and attitude. In 1997, figures on the educational achievement of prisoners were not collected. This year, almost 50,000 prisoners will gain basic skills qualifications and, with the Department for Work and Pensions, we have put in place the custody to work programme, which is already showing signs of significant success.

Last year, 30 per cent. of prisoners entered work or training—a transformation from the past—and 25 per cent. of prisoners had a job on release, compared to 10 per cent. a decade ago. The creation of the Youth Justice Board five years ago and of the new national probation service in 2001 has made a significant difference. The YJB has been responsible for developing the intensive supervision and surveillance programme as an alternative to secure accommodation. We are now looking to even more imaginative ways of using a combination of satellite tracking with peer mentoring to work with offenders in the community.

The probation service has developed drug testing and treatment orders—the first effective community sentence for drug abusers—which are now being supported by the criminal justice intervention programme. The service is developing the intensive change and control programme, which is a community-based sentence for adult offenders. There is also real momentum behind the restorative justice programme, to encourage responsibility, to address offending behaviour and to make amends to the victim where appropriate.

This month, we are piloting a radical new approach to custodial sentencing. Kirkham for men and Morton Hall for women will be the first establishments to experiment with periods of intermittent custody, such as prison at weekends.

The new sentencing framework introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, is central to reducing crime and, therefore, reoffending. We have introduced new mandatory life sentences for the most heinous crimes; custody minus and custody plus, covering a range of crimes; and much tougher punishment and enforcement for breaches. I want to see robust intensive community programmes replace ineffective short custodial sentences in a way that allows us to take decisive action where breaches occur.

Those reforms will help to deliver considerable improvement in performance of the correctional services, by ensuring both joined-up policy and joined-up delivery, but we believe that we must take further steps for improvement and for more radical progress. Together with the Department for Constitutional Affairs, we will look to link the enforcement of fines and fixed penalty notices as a first deterrent, prior to the need for community or custodial sentencing. We will examine the potential for linking fines with the ability to pay as an alternative to custody. In building on existing reforms, our strategy will place renewed focus on the appropriate intervention for the specific crime.

If we are to deliver further transformation, however, we need significant organisational change. That of course includes the management of the services themselves, including the rooting out of unacceptable practices, such as racism and bullying. That is why I am announcing today the establishment of a single service to manage offenders.

The new National Offender Management Service will have direct responsibility for the punishment and rehabilitation of adult offenders both in custody and in the community. I am pleased to announce that Martin Narey, former director general of the Prison Service, will be the chief executive of the new service. We are also announcing today the establishment of the National Offender Management Board, chaired by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), who has responsibility for correctional services.

In due course, we shall make separate announcements on the inspection regime, which will remain independent. We intend to learn lessons from the use of contestability within the Prison Service. Contestability will extend to not-for-profit and voluntary organisations, which we invite to come forward to work in partnership with the service.

We believe that the task of integrating the management of offenders is best achieved at regional and local level, where effective links can be forged and joined-up strategies developed. Those will include working with complementary services, including health, education, housing and employment.

We will create 10 regional offender managers, responsible for the end-to-end management of offenders, covering the nine English regions and Wales. We will, as part of the overall review of the location of Government posts, be looking to de-centralise more of the service.

The regional offender managers will be responsible for ensuring effective case management. They will contract for prison places, community placements, supervision and other critical interventions, as part of the new partnership approach. But I believe—perhaps that phrase is a bit hackneyed now—that the judiciary can be much better informed about the effectiveness of different forms of sentencing and be more aware of what is likely to be most effective for particular individuals. We introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 the new Sentencing Guidelines Council to formulate a comprehensive set of guidelines.

I have agreed with the Lord Chief Justice and the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs that it is important that greater knowledge on the effectiveness of interventions, including the cost-effectiveness of different approaches, should inform the work of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. That will be crucial to the work of the judiciary and magistracy at regional and local level. In the first instance, we would seek their urgent intervention in eliminating the drift in sentence length and to seek a reduction in unjustified variation in sentencing across the country.

I expect those reforms to lead to a much more effective, consistent and transparent criminal justice system, but those who work in the service bear the brunt of both the challenges and the change for the future. I wish to pay tribute to the staff in the prison and probation services and the YJB, whose expertise has contributed so much to the achievements that I have already outlined in this statement. Those changes represent an assertion of our confidence in those who work with offenders and our belief that the new arrangements will help substantially to make their work in custody and in the community significantly more effective.

I repeat that reducing reoffending by better protecting our communities, by punishing offenders more transparently and by equipping them to avoid a return to criminality is our key objective. I know that that goal will be shared by both the House and the country, and I commend the statement to the House.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)

I thank the Home Secretary for giving us an advance copy of his statement.

There are aspects of the statement that the House should welcome. I join the Home Secretary in his praise for the staff of the Prison Service, the probation service and the Youth Justice Board. The Opposition have long supported the work of the YJB and are glad that it is working successfully. The proposals to use the private and voluntary sectors in assisting the probation service represent an intelligent way forward. Indeed, I welcome the Home Secretary's conversion to contestability, which. I understand, is the current new Labour word for privatisation.

We also welcome the principle of localisation in the correctional service—something else that we have long called for—but it is difficult to understand how it will work with the current pressures of overcrowding in the system. How will a localised service deal with a prisoner who lives in Devon but serves his time in Durham because of overcrowding?

Let us understand what the report really is. It is the inevitable result of six years of failure. It is the inevitable result of six years of inconsistency and incompetence under the Government, and it is the inevitable result of a Home Secretary who talks tough on sentencing, who creates more crimes and more imprisonable offences but does not build enough prisons to house the increasing number of criminals and is then surprised when his prisons overflow and he is forced to put criminals into police cells, sometimes costing more than putting them up at the Ritz.

Of course we welcome the 14,700 extra prison places, many of which were due to Conservative plans and investment, but at least 8,000 more places than the Prison Service can manage will still be needed by 2006. At worst estimates, that figure reaches 22,000. That is why the chairman of the Parole Board says that home detention orders and parole decisions are made not to get the right outcome, but to alleviate overcrowding. The probation service and the Prison Service are now so overstretched that they cannot do their jobs properly. More than half of prisoners reoffend within two years of their release. Nearly three quarters of young offenders reoffend, setting many of them off on a lifetime of criminality.

Will the Home Secretary, as part of the review, commit himself to delivering a reduction in reoffending rates? Specifically, in a week in which it was revealed that one in four teenagers commits a crime, where in today's statement is a concrete proposal that will reduce reoffending among young offenders.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield) (Lab)

A short, sharp shock.

David Davis

The hon. Gentleman wants a short, sharp shock. I am sure that he will get one shortly from his Whips.

Of course we welcome the 4,300 extra staff in the probation service, but their hands are tied by the Home Secretary. Only last week, a senior member of the probation service told me: We are drowning in audits and inspections and regulations and have very little time left to deal with offenders. The Home Secretary's taste for central control is the reason why the approaches that worked abroad failed in Britain. He mentioned with approval in his statement the intensive change and control programmes. After spending many tens of millions of pounds on those courses, which work abroad, why are they not working here? Recently published figures show that 70 per cent. of prisoners who have been on such courses were reconvicted after nine months. For the Government, those courses represent an early route out of prison, but for the prisoners themselves, they have all too often been an early route back.

The Home Secretary quite properly talks about the 50,000 prisoners who will receive basic skills training—we welcome that—but does he not realise that, with current prison overcrowding, prisoners are often moved on before their training is complete? He also points out that 50,000 prisoners have received clinical detoxification, but only 5,000 have undertaken drug rehabilitation programmes. I can think of no better evidence to support our calls for a 10-times increase in the number of residential rehabilitation programmes, especially for the young. Will the Home Secretary finally heed our calls?

The Home Secretary said that he will examine linking fines with the ability to pay as an alternative to custody, but the House will need to be reassured that fines and community penalties will not be used to replace custodial sentences merely because the Home Secretary has already filled our jails. Does he still believe that the punishment should fit the crime, or does he believe that it should fit the number of empty cells? Is he is proposing to replace custodial sentences with fines? That is what the Carter report says, and it would mean reducing prison places by 13,000 by 2009. At the same time, he estimates a reduction by 60,000 in those under supervision in the community. Let us understand that: replace prison and replace supervision with fines. Today, one in three fines are uncollected—fines totalling £276 million are outstanding.

In the 2002 White Paper, the Government promised us root and branch reform because too few criminals are caught or convicted or prevented from reoffending". That was five years after they came to power—quite an indictment of their own record. Make no mistake, the statement is an admission of failure by the Home Secretary. Still too few criminals are caught. Still too few criminals are convicted, and too few criminals are prevented from reoffending. On the basis of today's report, it looks as though too few criminals will be properly punished in the future.

Mr. Blunkett

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the start of his response to the statement, which I found deeply encouraging. However, the remainder was deeply discouraging. The fact of the matter is that we are trying to ensure that all those with a part to play can engage in avoiding reoffending—I stressed that reoffending was at the absolute core of the proposals in the report. People who come out of prison should receive housing and heath care and should continue the training and education that they received in prison because such people often do not get that when they return to the community.

I stress that the decentralising measure is specifically designed to ensure not that we cause difficulty by overcrowding, but that when people move from one place of custody to another or from custody to the community, their programme goes with them so that they are managed as offenders rather than by two separate services. That is why it makes sense to join up the services and decentralise them so that that may be offered locally, to build on some of the experiments that have taken place with not-for-profit and voluntary organisations, to work with people who come out of prison, and to work alongside the probation service. The measure will help us to avoid reoffending and to reduce the number of people who must be sent to prison, thus reducing the pressure on prison places.

More prison places are needed and 3,700 additional places are in the pipeline, including those created by the new prisons at Ashford and Peterborough. Some 2,750 probation officers are in the pipeline over the next two years in addition to the 4,300 whom I mentioned. Substantial investment is going into the programmes that I outlined for education, training and health care. The projections made by Patrick Carter and his colleagues suggest that the totality of the prison population will be reduced by 13,000 by 2009. That reduction would be achieved by a combination of avoiding variation and inconsistency in sentencing, a change to the way in which we handle community rather than custodial sentences with rigorous action for breaches, and the new experiment that I mentioned on satellite tracking and peer mentoring. The scheme in Florida in which 30,000 people were on satellite tracking was a tremendous success. I am happy to learn about what works from Europe and the United States rather than about what does not work. It is clear that short sentences do not prevent reoffending, which is why I said that I thought that sensible and effective community sentences represented a much better option.

The projections are largely based on ensuring that variations and inconsistencies are eliminated. Sentence drift over the past 10 years has meant that three times as many people who come in front of magistrates now are sent into custody while twice as many people are sent into custody by the Crown court. There is enormous regional variation in the number of people sent into custody for such reasons as motoring offences. There was an interesting debate on that in the House yesterday and comment in the press, so I shall draw attention to the facts. There has been a fivefold increase in the number of males who are sent to prison for motoring offences compared with 10 years ago and a fourfold increase in the number of women. There can be no justification whatsoever for that, which is why it makes sense to ensure rigorously that fines work and to replace low-level short-term prison sentences with effective community sentences. When the Criminal Justice Act 2003 went through the Commons in the autumn, the Opposition welcomed measures such as custody minus to ensure that people are given a chance to redeem their behaviour, although they are automatically transferred to prison without going through the system again if they do not do that.

All of that adds up to a sensible approach, and I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that, unlike him, it does not pose completely contradictory questions. That approach does not query why I do not send more people to prison while at the same time asking why I do not ease prison overcrowding, nor why I do not do more with people in prison, including those on drugs, and whether I will send more people to prison in the first place, or whether I will spend more on residential places outside prison and, at the same time, more on people who are already in prisons, which already provide residential drug treatment and rehabilitation. The system will represent a complete transformation from that of seven years ago when virtually no one received education, training and work programmes, when there was no comprehensive health policy on mental health or drug addiction and when people left the service without supervision. All the measures that we are putting in place must be built on with an end-to-end change to the way in which offenders are handled. I hope that more people will be handled in the community and prevented from reoffending and, above all, that fewer people will have to be sent to prison in the first place and that there will be a reduction in crime rather than people rejoicing at having to be ever-increasingly tough on those who commit crime.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

I am also grateful to the Home Secretary for early sight of his statement, which I welcome. I also welcome Patrick Carter's report, which is damning in its analysis yet progressive in its recommendations. I also welcome the proposed National Offender Management Service, but given that the Prison Service and the probation service have widely differing cultures and ethos, will there be a merger of the best of both disciplines rather than one taking over the other? Will he clarify how the regional structure will not jeopardise local multi-agency functions? Given that the probation service is in meltdown—both financially and due to the scant support that it is able to offer tens of thousands of offenders—what immediate steps can he announce to rectify the situation, improve resourcing and, incidentally, improve the court system at the same time?

I, like the Home Secretary, believe that sentencing must be that which works. Given that a great many first time offenders are unlikely to reoffend, will he confirm that there will be greater emphasis, backed with resources, on pre-trial diversion? Will he confirm that his objective will be community sentences, which are credible to the public because they are relevant and visible to local communities in terms of including restoration and reparation? Will he examine again, as many people have asked him to, the provision for drug treatment in the community, which is inadequate at the moment?

Does the Home Secretary accept that no matter how much the education and training provision for those who must be in prison for the protection of the public has improved, it is still patchy and requires further improvement? Does he accept that adequate capacity in the Prison Service must exist in each region to match local needs so that prisoners are not moved from place to place but held securely in a meaningful corrective regime?

When will the Home Secretary be able to give us more details of the independent inspection regime? Does he agree that successive inspectors of prisons have performed an invaluable service to this country by pointing out the deficiencies in the present system? Will he confirm that prison deaths will be investigated with immediate effect by a body that is independent of the Prison Service and, indeed, the new National Offender Management Service?

Mr. Blunkett

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's positive approach to the report. Although it sometimes pains me to agree with Liberal Democrats, it is a helpful sign that we may work across parties to get the system right. I confirm that we will draw down on the best practices and the best operational management of both services when we integrate them. I confirm that we will co-ordinate from a regional level rather than running the service. There will be a commissioning organisation to encourage and support best practice locally while people integrate and draw their practices together.

I confirm that we will develop an independent role for the ombudsman to investigate all deaths in custody. It is a tragedy when any death occurs and although there was one fewer death in the past 12 months than during the previous year, there are still far too many, so we need to ensure that we learn lessons. We will continue the work of the independent inspectorate. Rod Morgan, on the probation side, and Ann Owers, on the prison side, have done a first-class job in delivering that independent view and in encouraging us to do better. Whatever framework is put in place to mirror the new service, I have every intention of that work continuing.

The emphasis of the service will be to ensure that we avoid reoffending, and we will draw down on practices employed elsewhere to achieve that. I intend not simply to replace short-term custodial sentences, but to monitor the community sentences that we spelt out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the intermittent custody to be piloted in the two prisons that I mentioned so that we avoid the problem encountered with fines. Breaches have not been followed through and the fine system used by magistrates has deteriorated over many years. That has resulted in a drift into custody rather than into alternative sentences. I hope that we will work together in making the system more effective.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, which will help to build on the substantial fall in crime that has taken place over the past five or six years. His commitment to replace short-term ineffective sentences with community punishments is bold and welcome. It will take time to get all that sentencing into place and to build up public confidence, so for a long time there will be a significant number of short-term prisoners. They are currently the worst served in our prison system and in rehabilitation afterwards. Will he assure us that there will be a particular focus on the position of those who will remain short-term prisoners within the prison system and that the new system will effectively integrate not just Prison Service management and probation, but drug treatment, employment services, housing, health and other services that need to work together to ensure that those prisoners are rehabilitated?

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, I can give my right hon. Friend those assurances. Intermittent sentences and the new custody minus programme relate to short-term sentences. They will automatically ensure that people know that there is a penalty for breach and will make a difference for magistrates and district judges who use those alternatives. With the exception of breaches, for which we should step up the threat of custody, satellite tracking and home domestic curfew could be an alternative to custody where bail would otherwise be an issue in terms of remand. We expect imaginative and effective experiments in that. I strongly welcome, as members of the Home Affairs Committee will, the commendation of that Committee's Chairman.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con)

Could a particularly careful look be taken at the benefits of intermittent custody and more flexible regimes for women prisoners, bearing in mind the desirability of keeping women in touch with their families, especially if very young children are involved, and that women prisoners tend not to serve sentences for the violent offences that cause most concern to the public?

Mr. Blunkett

I am up for that, if I can be colloquial for a moment. The experiment at Morton Hall will be crucial. We have just over 5,000 women prisoners, which is an increase of well over 40 per cent. in the past five or six years. It is extremely worrying. Many of those women are in prison for drug-related offences. We need to route back those who are, for instance, picked up as mules from other parts of the world and to get behind the problem in terms of the organised criminals who misuse and abuse them by engaging them in such criminality. Intermittent sentences and custody minus will help us to do that and will help people to avoid reoffending.

Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)

I welcome the statement, but seek clarification on the youth justice system. I welcome the integration of probation and prison services. Is there a similar plan to reorganise youth offending teams to be better co-ordinated with the regional structure that the Home Secretary proposes? Similarly, will the inspection service, which he will announce later, also include the inspection of youth offending teams?

Mr. Blunkett

My right hon. Friend has considerable experience of that subject. On the latter point, the inspection regime has been extended to the Youth Justice Board and the youth offending teams. We expect that to be part of the announcement on the inspection regime.

On my right hon. Friend's first point, it is critical that we get the integration with the experimental child trusts at local level and with the Connexions programme right, without losing the focus of youth offending teams and affecting the work that has to be done with those who are engaged in, or about to be engaged in, criminality. I do not want to lose the connection, which he rightly highlighted, between managing the regime as a whole and co-ordinating from the regions. However, I do not want to lose the new engagement with other children's services, which will also be crucial if we are to avoid reoffending.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

What will be the net increase in public sector posts, broadly defined? The Secretary of State announced the creation of the National Offender Management Service and 10 regional bodies on top of the existing probation and prison services and the Youth Justice Board. How many more public sector posts have been created, and what is the best estimate of the net increase in cost to the public sector?

Mr. Blunkett

There will be 2,750 more probation officers on top of the £100 million investment this year, which will bring into the probation service a further £110 million investment over the next two years. With those 2,750 jobs, there will be an unspecified number of additional jobs within the Prison Service to match the 3,700 places—[Interruption.] There are grumbles from the Opposition. Those are public sector posts.

David Davis

Answer the question.

Mr. Blunkett

I am giving the right hon. Gentleman the answer.

There will be fewer administrative and managerial posts. We are creating 10 management posts across England and Wales and are intent on amalgamating the central office functions of prison and probation, thereby bringing about a dramatic reduction in those who do an excellent and important job, but who are not at the front line. There will be a reduction and I am happy to return to the House to discuss the estimate of public saving that can be reinvested in ensuring that we clamp down on criminality.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab)

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, especially the creation of the National Offender Management Service. Everyone who has a prison in their constituency, as I do in Rochdale, knows that a seamless service makes common sense for the provision of care before, during and after imprisonment. From our direct experience at Buckley Hall, which has been in the public and private sector as both a male and female prison, we welcome the identification of the problem of short-term sentences, especially with regard to rehabilitation. The problem, which has been mentioned on the Floor of the House before, is acute for women prisoners and the women's estate, especially with their high use of class A drugs and as poly-users.

Will my right hon. Friend give some thought to simple things? For example, we discovered that when male prisoners were admitted, the male regime did not consider whether they had notified their landlords of their imprisonment, so they accrued debt. When they were put back into the public domain, they could not get housing because of their huge arrears, and those huge debts made them more liable to commit crime.

Mr. Blunkett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her observations, which are apposite as usual. Housing is a crucial issue. A new advisory service within the Prison Service will work with the new management service to ensure that we get that right. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Minister for Work for their willingness to consider the whole nature of what prisoners can accumulate from their work in prison and in training to enable them to have something better than the discharge grant. They need to take up rented accommodation quickly and easily without landlords fearing that they will default. If we do not do that, it is not surprising that people reoffend. The basic thing that people need when they come out of prison, apart from support as vulnerable individuals, is housing and the possibility of a job. If we can manage that, we might have a more sane system.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)

This is a disappointing statement, and it is not what people thought the Labour party meant by being "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". The Home Secretary will be aware of concerns in the communities around Ford open prison about the increasing number of prisoners who abscond from that prison. Although Ford is an open prison, to which only short-sentence prisoners or prisoners coming to the end of their sentences should be sent, it appears that longer-sentence prisoners are being sent there as the prison system as a whole becomes more overcrowded. Will the right hon. Gentleman give me an assurance that inappropriate prisoners are not being sent to Ford—and also that if subsequent to today's statement he discovers that they are, he will see to it that that policy is changed?

Mr. Blunkett

I have already asked the new chief executive of the service to report on the operation of open prisons to me and to the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East, who has responsibility for correctional services. We are not entirely satisfied that we have got the system right, although we reject the idea that the issue is new. There has been a programme of gradual scheduled movement to open prison and rehabilitation for the past 20 years, and we have no intention of reversing that, but we believe that far more scrutiny needs to be given to those who are placed in an open prison at a particular point in their sentence. Similarly, we should consider tracking and electronic monitoring of prisoners within the open estate; transfer to an open prison is part of the transition back to the community, and given that—with all-party agreement—we are making more extensive use of home domestic curfew, it seems reasonable to do the same in open prisons. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman draws any clearly unsatisfactory incident to my attention, I shall expect action to be taken on it.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston) (Lab)

As co-chairman, with Lord Rix, of the all-party learning disabilities group, I welcome in particular the part of my right hon. Friend's statement in which he said that dialogue was taking place between the Department of Health and his own Department about prisoners with mental illness. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that organisations such as Mind and Mencap take the view that there are still far too many people with learning disabilities and mental illness in prison, which presents problems not only for them but for health units within prisons, and that he will keep those matters under strict review.

Mr. Blunkett

I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments. The transfer of function and therefore of resourcing to the Department of Health is, in my view, a long overdue and welcome move—not least because the Department of Health has the money and will continue to have it through to 2008—that will enable us to invest in a medium-term programme that I hope will transform what happens in our prisons. Indeed, I have already seen it start to do so. There is no question but that a large number of people in our prisons suffer from mental health problems and disabilities to differing degrees. We have also tried to tackle the fact that the average reading age of prisoners in the estate is nine. Those facts speak out volumes in terms of cause and effect, and we have to deal with them as well as get tough and punish people who commit heinous crimes. The idea that we have gone soft, in the week when we have introduced life meaning life, and a dramatic change in all other sentencing in severe cases, is risible.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD)

Leyhill open prison in my constituency does good work in preparing low-risk offenders for release, but like those of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), my constituents are concerned that the wrong sort of people are being put into open conditions. Is the Home Secretary aware that within the past few weeks, a violent drugs offender seven years into a 21-year prison sentence was placed at Leyhill and promptly absconded? Will he please investigate the case as a matter of urgency, and assure us, as he has been asked to do, that dangerous people are not being put into open conditions?

Mr. Blunkett

I heard all about that prisoner during an extensive item on Radio 4—more extensive than it is prepared to offer for the whole reorganisation of the offender management system—and I am concerned. I am concerned because it is not true that that individual was transferred from category B in Scotland to category D in England; he had already been transferred to category C in Scotland. When he was transferred to England he followed the normal programme, but it is patently obvious from the fact that he has absconded that a mistake was made. An investigation of that individual case must inform the way in which we approach the broader issue that I mentioned a moment ago, of revising our approach to open prison.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield) (Lab)

One of the big positives of the current Government's penal policy is the much closer working relationship between the Prison Service and the health service at local level. Of the two prisons in my constituency, one is a women's prison, and I am concerned that many of the women in that prison should not be there, but would perhaps be more appropriately placed in a health facility. Will my right hon. Friend state what practical steps the new board will take at local level to encourage the diversion of such women from the penal system to more appropriate local health facilities?

Mr. Blunkett

It has taken me longer than I intended to fulfil what I spelled out to prison governors almost two years ago, and wrote and spoke about at that time, which was developing different approaches for different categories of prisoner, and reviewing our view of the estate. That will sometimes involve what have become known within the Home Office as Carter prisons—very large prisons offering the type of facilities, including education, health care, training and work preparation and remedial action, that are needed for long-term prison residents—and sometimes secure hostel accommodation for prisoners who do not present a risk to themselves or others, in which rapid rehabilitation is the order of the day. We can link that to tougher community sentences through satellite tracking and electronic monitoring, and to intermittent custody, which allows a different form of custody for weekends but allows women to continue to hold their family together during the week. Without treating women materially differently from men in respect of the same crime—to do so would be wrong, and would breach the principle of equality—we can tailor our action to the offending behaviour of the individual concerned and ensure that we prevent their reoffending in future.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

The Secretary of State complained about what he described as the unjustifiable increase in the number of custodial sentences imposed for driving offences. Is he not aware. as many hon. Members are from their postbags, that there is a significantly greater public appetite for more custodial sentences to be imposed for certain categories of driving crime, such as driving recklessly or dangerously? Does he not think, on reflection, that the matter is better left to the courts than to him?

Mr. Blunkett

On the latter point, where people cause death and injury to others, we have toughened the law—for example, in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I do not need any lectures from Opposition Members about that. I picked up the substantial campaign run by my hon. Friends, especially those representing constituencies in the north-east of England, following some horrendous incidents of inappropriate sentencing and examples of judges' inability to pass adequate sentences. We have given judges the power, which the transport Bill will extend, to give such sentences. My point was that the past 10 years had seen a fivefold increase in the number of minor custodial sentences, rather than fines or community sentences, imposed for similar offences. The sentences had to be minor because the alternative to custody was a fine, and the case was heard in the magistrates court; we must understand the different layers of the system. That diversion to custodial sentences was not justifiable. The Lord Chief Justice, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and I agree on that. We believe that consistency and transparency, far from failing to provide a deterrent, will help people to understand what will happen in what circumstances.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab)

If my right hon. Friend has 14,000 more prison places and 3,000 more in the pipeline, and £900 million more to spend on prisons and probation, which I very much welcome, and if he is able to free up space by shifting the emphasis to weekend prisons and intensive community programmes, which I also welcome, is there not now scope to close some of the Victorian prisons, especially those in London, that are no longer fit for service?

Mr. Blunkett

With the considerable assistance of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the spending review, I hope to be able to negotiate the means, including bridge funding, to close and dispose of those outdated 19th century prisons that are a disgrace to the 21st century—one of which, I discovered, although it had been built in 1849, had supposedly been modernised in the 1980s. I hope that we can introduce proposals that will not only bring about a change in the regime and the working conditions of those overseeing the prisoners, but provide an estate that will enable us to achieve the goal that I have set out this afternoon.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)

A large number of prisoners, both nationally and in the Isle of Wight group of prisons, are from Jamaica. Could more offenders be repatriated to serve their sentences? Will the new service examine the cost-effectiveness of helping the Jamaican Government, practically and perhaps financially, to rehabilitate those offenders?

Mr. Blunkett

We made an announcement in the autumn about the return to country of origin of several hundred prisoners in the prison estate. That is now being undertaken. We are happy to look at how we can assist the receiving authorities in other countries with the continuing rehabilitation of those offenders. Obviously, we also need in place, as we have in the case of Jamaica, new visa regimes to ensure that offenders do not return to this country to commit crime.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the case of Yvonne Scholes, a constituent of mine, who committed suicide at the age of 16 in Stoke Heath. I welcome the proposals to involve the ombudsman in inquiries into suicides and deaths in custody. What guarantees can my right hon. Friend give us to ensure that the ombudsman's recommendations will be listened to and acted upon at the highest level?

Mr. Blunkett

I well understand my hon. Friend's concern, and the tragedy for the family and others when young people in that age group take their own lives. It is a terrible personal tragedy, and we need to take whatever steps are necessary, including, as far as possible, the mentoring of those entering the custodial estate. The ombudsman's reports, which will now be mandatory in respect of any death in custody, will be published, and my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for correctional services will give a guarantee that we will report back on those deaths and respond to the ombudsman's reports openly and transparently.

Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD)

Returning to the problem of offenders with a history of mental illness, which may have led to their offence in the first place, I welcome the Secretary of State's intention that much more of their care will be devolved to the Department of Health. In the meantime, what plans does he have to reduce the number of people who go through the revolving door of offending, going to prison and getting inappropriate care in prison because the health service has not had the resources to provide the care that they need?

Mr. Blunkett

We have an agreement with the Department of Health for 300 additional posts working specifically on mental health throughout the Prison Service. The crucial issue that the hon. Lady raises is how things are handled when people are released from prison and go back into the community. For long-term offenders, support has been provided by the probation service. For those serving shorter sentences, that has not been available. The proposals seek to redress that balance and ensure that, using a variety of support systems, we can work with the health service and social services in an integrated and joined-up approach to dealing with those long-term problems.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab)

The Home Secretary is well aware of my concerns about the need to tighten up the far too sloppy administration and supervision of drug testing and treatment orders. Given the strong link between class A drug addiction and crime, what comfort can he offer my constituents in Reading whose lives have been disrupted by drug addicts burgling their homes while awaiting a place under a drug testing and treatment order?

Mr. Blunkett

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I share those concerns. Over the past three or four months we have been examining how we can ensure that the 24-hour referral for probation and the 48-hour referral for treatment can be made a reality. The criminal justice interventions programme, and the new areas that we announced in addition to the original 30, will enable us to monitor how the best practice can be translated to areas across the country that are not part of the criminal justice interventions programme, and to ensure that DTTOs work effectively. Above all—I share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend—we shall ensure that when we say that someone is referred for treatment, they do start treatment rather than just have a consultation, and that nobody uses other Acts of Parliament to suggest that an individual who drops out of treatment cannot be reported. The excuses offered to us publicly and privately about why people do not do their damn job properly make us all sick to the hilt.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

That is all very well, but surely there is a real problem of drugs getting into prisons. According to the Department's estimate, almost 50 per cent. of all prisoners will take drugs at some stage during their stay in prison. How are the drugs getting into prisons? That figure is a disgrace. Will the Home Secretary do something about it?

Mr. Blunkett

Of course, that "all very well" related to an entirely different question about treatment in the community, not about prisons, but I take the hon. Gentleman's point. It is clear that prisoners are receiving drugs. We have been monitoring the situation. Fewer prisoners are apprehended and there are fewer drugs in prisons now than there were five years ago, but there are still too many. The figure is not 50 per cent., by the way; the proportion whom we believe have access to drugs at any one time is about 11 per cent—but that is not good enough. It is unacceptable, and the regimes must be tightened to identify those who are bringing drugs in. Obviously, it is those who visit prisoners and those who can provide a way of getting them into the prison estate. I have made it clear to the new management service that we need to use electronic means to detect drugs being thrown over walls and fences, and we need to make better and continuing use of dogs, which had started to be phased out, and, above all, of the testing regime for all prisoners, so that we can get to grips with the problem.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)

In 2001 the Government decentralised the probation service to 42 local probation boards, to ensure their coterminosity with police authorities and magistrates courts areas. How does the new regional structure relate to those 42 boards and the future decentralisation of the Court Service?

Mr. Blunkett

Two and a half years ago we created a national body with a devolved administration. The new management role at regional level will continue to co-ordinate those structures, but will do so with the Prison Service and the other agencies and partners involved in rehabilitation and support. That will not disrupt the existing interface with the Court Service; I hope it will improve it by ensuring that, across the 42 regions, people can manage and commission those services more effectively.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

We see today more bureaucratic madness from the Home Secretary, who seems to have forgotten that prisons should have as one of their functions real deterrence. Can we move from the presumption of early release to a system in which early release must be earned by prisoners; can we have prison regimes that are tough, educating and rehabilitating; and, above all, can we have more testing and more treatment for drugs?

Mr. Blunkett

I thought for a moment that I was about to be attacked for being too liberal, but the hon. Gentleman finished his oration by asking me to do what I have just said we are doing, and intend to do more intensively and vigorously and with more joined-up policy. We will also do it with a lot less bureaucracy, because of joining the headquarters and services together, which will cut out duplication.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab)

May I raise the issue of the role of the voluntary sector in prisoner rehabilitation? In 2002 I visited about a dozen projects run by the YMCA inside and outside prison. They were excellent and added to the work done by the public sector. I should like to raise with the Home Secretary two issues that were raised on that occasion. First, there was a need for ongoing funding. Most of the projects were short-term pilots that came to an end. If the voluntary sector is to have a key role in the process, the funding needs to be long term and built into the mainstream. Secondly, does he recognise that the voluntary sector can often add to the process things that excellent organisations such as the probation service cannot add, because it can win the confidence of offenders in a way that organisations that are seen as part of the state find difficult?

Mr. Blunkett

I agree entirely that mentoring and voluntary support are crucial. Such support can be provided on a long-term basis and relate to individuals. For obvious reasons, the professional services cannot provide such support in the same way on a daily basis. There is a serious issue about short-term funding; in other words, I am implying that we have too many pilots and not enough marshals.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)

When does the Home Secretary anticipate that custody plus will be implemented, and what level of resources will be allocated for that implementation?

Mr. Blunkett

We intend to implement custody minus first, not least for the reasons that I have been spelling out this afternoon in terms of providing an easy, effective and visible way of dealing with breaches. We intend to pilot custody plus in 2005 and, subject to the spending review, to implement it more widely from 2006. The matter is subject to discussions with the Treasury over the next six months, however, so I am not prepared at this juncture to give the hon. Lady the detail, which I have not yet discussed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab)

We have moved from zero to 100 people in effective drug treatment by GPs in my constituency in the past six months. That represents a very substantial saving to the taxpayer. The Home Secretary may care to get some independent auditing done of the precise savings as a contribution to the cost of this welcome announcement.

A second such saving would come from sorting out the current mess with regard to the collection of fines—one of the biggest bugbears for my constituents and me. Would it not be sensible to introduce a fines system in which we do not spend a fortune trying to chase people who do not pay fines, but use the minimum wage, which we introduced, as a way of making people contribute through community work an amount equivalent to the fine? If they refused to do so, we could put them in prison. Will the Home Secretary undertake to advance that principle in discussions with the Department for Constitutional Affairs, in order to sort out that bugbear of mine, which my constituents share?

Mr. Blunkett

I have the same bugbear, although I have to say that I am deeply relieved that my hon. Friend's constituency legitimately fell into the second round of the criminal justice interventions programme, which has made my life a lot easier. The substantive point that he makes is entirely right. As part of our report, we are accepting that we should place people in compulsory work if they are unwilling to pay the fine. Above all, the fine should be paid, so the prison sanction should be used. The Carter report makes it clear that there will not be a short-term gain in terms of relief of pressure on the prisons. Initially, we will have to send people to prison more readily in order to get across the message the fines are not an optional extra, but a punishment. The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and I will discuss the matter, and if we could link that issue with ability to pay and what are called "day fines", which work effectively across Europe and reflect the likely number of days for which somebody would be put into prison, which are translated into the amount of money earned in those days and into the fine itself, we might start to make some sense of a new fines system that really works.