§ 8.17 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether their penal policy is different from that of the last government.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, is the penal policy of the present Government any different from that of their immediate predecessors? I do not doubt the noble ideals of the Home Secretary, a Christian socialist, or those of the Prime Minister, also a Christian socialist.
For many years I have visited prisons. For the past two and a half years, I have visited on average at least one prison per week, sometimes more, and I have not seen any difference.
It may be said that it is all going to happen very soon. But I am asking the question: is there any difference on the ground between the results of the present Government's policy and those of their immediate predecessors?
I want to give an example of the kind of thing I have in mind, which does not reflect on the good intentions of anybody. I have a youngish friend—by my standards anyone is youngish, even our Front Bench—called Bob Turney. He spent many years in prison and is now a probation officer. He was seconded to be a member of an important committee set up by the Home Secretary to deal with young offenders. The Home Secretary, who had shown a lot of interest in Bob's work, wrote a generous introduction to his latest book, although it is much less important than his earlier one. He wrote: "So far so good: good intentions". But the work Bob is to do on this committee will not show any results until next year. That is where we stand. That is why I ask the question: ought we to see any evidence on the ground of any change in policy? After all, the Government have been in power for two and a half years now.
When I say the Government's "predecessors", I mean their immediate predecessors. The Home Secretary was Michael Howard, but we must not blame one man entirely. He became rather famous for penal reform in the wrong sense. He said that "prison works" and within four years the prison population increased from 40,000 to 60,000—around 50 per cent—without any increase in crime. It cannot be said that it was a change in policy which produced a big increase in the prison population. We have to give that responsibility to Michael Howard—or the then government.
1361 Is the present policy any different? When I say that, I must make clear that I am not talking of Conservative policy over the years. Lord Butler was a famous penal reformer, as were others. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, who cannot be with us tonight because of his commitments to the Royal Commission on the future of the House, was certainly a penal reformer by any standards. So was the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, who is to follow me. In fact, I shall qualify that.
The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, is without doubt the most important penal historian in British history. He wrote three major books on penal affairs and is now engaged on the fourth. When I think of him, I think of Macaulay's essay on the trial of Warren Hastings. He said that that trial induced in the scholar power to suspend his labours in that vast and profound mind from which he had already brought forward a great treasure of wisdom, a treasure too often buried in the earth—this does not apply to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham—too often paraded with inelegant and injudicious ostentation. So we are very privileged to have the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, with us tonight, having extracted himself from those labours.
But when all is said and done, what is the situation? We have the report of the Prison Reform Trust. I have given the Government notice on all these matters—several days' notice—so they have no excuse for saying that it is new to them. What is the situation? The Prison Reform Trust, of which the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, is now the chairman, produced a document in which it says that there is overcrowding in more than half our prisons. That is either true or not true. Nobody has denied it, so I ask the Government whether they accept that.
I need not dwell on the consequences of overcrowding. No one in this select audience needs me to spend a long time explaining that an overcrowded prison is a building in which the reform of the prisoner is hopeless. It cannot be attempted. So one main object of punishment is nullified from the start.
We must ask the question: do the Government agree that there is overcrowding in more than half the prisons? What is their record in this matter? They can point to the fact that within around one year of their taking office, the increase in the prison population was checked. But it has started rising again. It is around 65,000 now, but it is reckoned that it will shortly be over 70,000. Do the Government take any responsibility for the size of the prison population? That is not an easy question because governments say, "That is the fault of the courts. It is not for us. Some legislation comes into it, but it is for the courts".
I put it in the crudest way possible—at this time of night one must speak pretty crudely—if Michael Howard could increase the prison population by 50 per cent, can a Labour Government with an enormous majority reduce it in the same way? Is that possible? Do they accept responsibility for the size of the prison population? They have done some things I admire very much—the tagging idea is very good— 1362 but, on the other hand, the prison population has begun to increase. So the Government must face the facts. They have not until now answered the question of whether or not they accept the remorseless increase in the prison population. That is the main issue. They have had plenty of notice. I do not expect a definite answer—I never do on these occasions—but I know that I shall have a polite one, which is something in these difficult times.
I want to conclude by referring to the Prison Officers' Association. It has few friends. No one, except occasionally me, ever says a good word about it. The prisoners criticise it; the governors criticise it; and the Prison Service department criticises it. Whenever there is any difficulty, they put the blame on the Prison Officers' Association. But its members are human beings. When I go to prisons, which I do every week as I said earlier, I think to myself, "These people are doing a tremendous job which I could not begin to do myself". I do not mean at the age of 94; I could not do any known job; but even if I were 70 years younger I could not do it.
So we must ask whether we are making the fullest use of the organisation. Are the community, the authorities and the people who represent us treating prison officers in the right way?
My answer is quite definitely no. They have neglected to take the prison officers into their confidence.
I raised a question on an earlier occasion and I repeat it tonight. Will a Prison Officers' Association representative be put on the new strategy committee? I have asked that question before and given plenty of notice. It is only one point.
I am bound to say that when we read the damaging report on Wormwood Scrubs by the much admired chief inspector, which was referred to in the last debate, we wonder what was wrong there. It was said that it was a wrong attitude on the part of prison officers and a number of them were being prosecuted. The whole atmosphere was wrong. But what is happening now in Wormwood Scrubs? Is the atmosphere better? The atmosphere in a prison depends above all on the relationship between the prison officers and the authorities. A much better attitude must be produced if we are to have any real improvement in the prison situation.
I do not want to end on a controversial note. I want to wish everybody concerned well—the Minister and other Ministers in the Home Office, the Prison Service department, the governors of the prisons, the prison officers and the prisoners. At this time, just before Christmas, I want to wish them well with all my heart.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Lord Windlesham
My Lords, this week the noble Earl, Lord Longford, celebrated his 94th birthday. For more than half a century he has held many high offices of state and earned many honours—indeed, most recently a life peerage was conferred upon him—and has espoused many causes. However, no cause has been pursued more persistently or argued more 1363 tenaciously than the need for reform in the penal system. Once again, the noble Earl showed his continued vitality and eloquence, ending on a generous note when he said that he did not wish to provoke any controversy. I believe I shall be able to rectify that last comment in what I have to say.
Ingeniously worded as the Question is, I anticipate it will provoke an indignant reply from the Government Front Bench indicating that their penal policy is indeed different from that of the previous Conservative government. I have no doubt that the Minister will have been provided with a lengthy list of policy initiatives taken by the present Government which differ from what went before.
Yet, when we come to look at it, many of the current criminal justice policies, including some of the most contentious, have their origins in proposals put forward by—if not always implemented by—recent Conservative administrations. I shall cite two examples only, both of topical importance.
The first is mandatory minimum sentences for certain categories of repeat offending. As those of us who have taken part in the previous debates will recall, legislation was introduced in the dying days of the previous government in February 1997 for mandatory life sentences for a second serious offence of violence; mandatory minimum sentences of seven years imprisonment on conviction for third-time trafficking in Class A drugs, and mandatory minimum sentences of three years' imprisonment for a third domestic burglary. These were entirely novel proposals—the first ever in our law save for the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for murder, which had entirely distinctive historical origins.
So what lay behind those policies? It is well known that they were an adaptation of the American "Three strikes and you are out" sentencing policy; a fact, that was recognised not least by Mr Howard, in the debates in the House of Commons. They had the unique feature of being both objectionable in principle and counter-productive in practice. It is a characteristic of populist-inspired policies that the next step is to go even further down the road, as happened in the United States. Hone politician says, "I'm going to be tough on crime with 'three strikes and you are out''', what is there to stop his rival saying, "I will be even tougher and hold out for 'two strikes and you are out'"? That, indeed, is what has happened. Whereas the mandatory sentence for repeat drug dealers and burglars was to be imposed on third conviction, the more serious offences which merited mandatory life imprisonment followed after two strikes only.
What happened next? Let us rehearse the sequence. Immediately after the election in May 1997 the new Government announced their intention to implement the first two categories but to postpone the mandatory minimum sentence of three years for the third time domestic burglary conviction. The reason was unstated, but was widely believed to be the forecast effect on the prison population.
Most close observers doubted that the mandatory sentence for repeat burglars would ever be implemented. It was the high point of populist 1364 ideology, and the practical consequences would prevent its implementation. It was thought that the new Government would allow a decent interval and would then seek a suitable moment, in the course of time, for repeal. That did not happen.
Earlier this year, a totally unexpected announcement was made by the Home Secretary that the mandatory three-year sentences for repeat burglars would be implemented. The last date that I heard for implementation was December 1999. I should like to hear from the Minister who is to reply whether that date has now passed, or whether it has been postponed. From the information available to me, it was the proposed date for implementation. At the time the statement was made by the Home Secretary earlier in the year, the prison population was relatively stable. The forecast indicated that might continue.
However, since then the numbers are on the increase again. If what I take to be a commitment is met, the inevitable result will be greater overcrowding, especially in local prisons. There will also be further impoverishment of regimes. It is always a key indicator to look at the number of hours spent in constructive activities, especially in local prisons. On the latest information, the situation is well below target, particularly in education. If there is to be an additional inflow of repeat burglars into the system, there will be a further, unavoidable, downward trend.
The second example I can take more briefly because it is before the House at present. I refer to the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill. The Government's intention is to terminate the right to jury trial for accused persons charged with offences triable either summarily in the magistrates' court or on indictment in the Crown Court—the so-called "either way" offences. This proposal has also been around for a long time. It was recommended by the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1993 and then again in 1997 in a Home Office review of delays in the process of justice carried out by Martin Narey, the current very able Director General of the Prison Service.
Neither recommendation was accepted by the then government, although further consideration was being given to it at the time Parliament was dissolved in February 1997. Who could have anticipated, however, that within two years such fundamental and essential principles of justice as proportionate sentencing and a right to jury trial for either way offences should be set aside and, indeed, set aside by a Labour Government? I suggest that all this goes to show not only that the present Government have embraced some of the most illiberal penal policies of the previous government but that they are now proposing to take them further.
§ 8.38 p.m.
§ Baroness Harris of Richmond
My Lords, I shall take a slightly different tack and, I hope, offer some helpful solutions to your Lordships other than just sending people to prison. The Question before us this evening is whether this Government's penal policy differs from that of the previous government. I feel I am pretty safe from these Benches in assuring noble Lords that 1365 neither this Government nor the previous one have given sufficient funding to prisons to enable them to rehabilitate offenders rather than teach them to become even more adept at committing crime.
I chair a police authority and have been a magistrate for 16 years, so I speak somewhat from the heart and from some experience when I say that losing one's liberty is punishment enough. Believe me, if your Lordships had visited prisons—as the noble Earl who spoke so eloquently this evening has done—and youth offender institutions, as I had to do many times as a magistrate, you would realise how precious freedom is. The smell, the noise, the lack of privacy, the constant tension, and often the abject fear, are quite overwhelming.
There are appalling problems for prison officers to handle, not least huge drug problems. We really ought to limit the use of our prisons to those people who pose a genuine danger to society, instead of clogging them up with non-fine payers and those who fall at the very lower end of the criminal sentencing scale.
In doing some research for my speech tonight I came across a project being run by the north-east London probation service. It is a programme designed to enable offenders serving community orders to earn credits from the open college network which help towards getting on to courses, into college, or into work. There is clear evidence that people are 70 per cent less likely to offend if they have a job.
It is a laudable project which is well worth supporting. However, I understand that funding for it has had to be raised through matching charitable funds with the single regeneration budget. The work that needs to be done in order to find the matching funding could be better directed at producing more projects rather than being tied up in a bureaucratic tangle. I plead with the Minister, if he can, to find better ways of encouraging such excellent schemes than tying up their instigators in red tape.
I now turn to another area which I think the Government might like to consider, and which in fairness the previous government did not have much opportunity to see brought into practice; namely, the scheme known as restorative justice. Restorative justice is a term used to encompass all those who are affected by an incident. It seeks to bring the stakeholders—I am sure that noble Lords opposite will recognise that term—together and attempts to find a solution which will be acceptable to all sides.
It starts with the idea that crime is fundamentally a violation of people and of inter-personal relationships. We on this side of your Lordships' House see it as complementary to the formal criminal justice system and therefore able to contribute to the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of justice as a whole. It helps offenders take responsibility for their actions.
The beauty of this approach is that it is open, transparent and it works. The public will have more confidence in a system in which they can be listened to and have their views taken into account and where they can be offered a face to face apology, if that is the 1366 appropriate outcome. Work on this system is being undertaken in the police service, most noticeably and particularly in the Thames Valley area, where the chief constable, Charles Pollard, has taken the lead in developing this approach to restorative justice in this country.
The two most familiar facets of restorative justice are known as victim-offender mediation and group conferencing. If your Lordships will indulge me for a moment I wish to mention the extent of this system world wide. There are now at least 300 restorative programmes in North America and over 500 in Europe, not counting the numerous southern hemisphere schemes. Norway has a national mediation policy, while Austria and the Netherlands have introduced victim-offender mediation into their legislation. Conferencing became statutory in New Zealand in 1989. Since then the idea has spread to Australia, Singapore, here in the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, Palestine, Sweden, the United States and Canada.
There is a prospect that restorative justice will become the basis of the Belgian juvenile system, while restorative principles are already implicit in France. A number of American states have realigned their state departments of correction along restorative justice principles, for example Minnesota and Vermont. In the United Kingdom, Thames Valley police have been joined by the Nottinghamshire and Surrey forces in a strategic partnership to promote restorative justice. By 31st September this year Thames Valley had conducted a total of over 5,000 restorative cautions and restorative and community conferences.
Interim results show that conferences make victims feel safer and more involved. Conference victims were six times more likely than court victims to receive some form of repair for the harm of crime. Some 89 per cent received an apology or some form of material reparation, compared with only 14 per cent of court victims. Some 82 per cent of victims invited to attend a conference went, compared with 7 per cent of the victims invited to attend court. Only 10 per cent of the conference victims were still afraid of their offender after the conference. Some 20 per cent of court victims feared their offender would victimise them in the future compared with only 7 per cent of conference victims. Conferences left victims feeling far more optimistic about the future behaviour of their offenders. After a conference young offenders were more apologetic than after court; more likely to feel ashamed of their crime; and twice as many as those who went to court said that they felt the conference gave them a chance to repay their debt to society.
This approach is seen by all parties as offering both a fair process and a fair outcome. Research is still being carried out in the Thames Valley police area but the emerging findings from other parts of the world indicate that conferencing has shown significant reductions in re-offending. A series of four American studies carried out between 1993 and 1997 has found a statistically significant reduction of one-third in recidivism for juveniles after mediation was carried out.
1367 Too often the victim sits in court, observes the process, but feels no psychological restitution, and the perpetrators are in many senses divorced from the impact of their actions on victims. Restorative justice ensures that the two sides identify the impact that crime has had on a personal level and seeks to heal the wounds on the one side, and brings home to the accused the impact of their actions.
I have tried to demonstrate how one effective system might be more widely used and that it may well prevent offenders being sent to prison in the first place. The Government's support for this system would demonstrate their willingness to pursue enlightened policies in this area, should they wish to do so.
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, it is good to have this opportunity to debate possible improvements in penal policy. Ideally we ought to have a full day's debate in which noble and learned Lords could participate. However, no such day is on offer, or has been on offer for quite some time. Therefore, we are grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for giving us this rare opportunity to debate this matter in his birthday week.
I speak with trepidation as a complete layman. But surely crime, the consequences of crime, and the criminal law are too important to be left solely to lawyers, magistrates and penal experts as we are all affected by these things, directly or indirectly. I have visited a prison, but it was an open prison and therefore it was not the unpleasant experience that the noble Baroness has just described.
I cannot pass myself off as the man on the Clapham omnibus; the man on the Kensington omnibus might be nearer the mark. However, given house prices in Clapham these days, I do not think that our respective views are so very far apart!
I have a number of wide-ranging questions, or, more accurately, tentative suggestions for the Minister. I do not suppose that he will be able to respond to all or even necessarily any of them tonight, especially as I have not been able to give him notice of them. All I ask is for the Minister and his department to glance at them to see whether any of them strike a chord or provide any kind of basis for future detailed examination. The first three relate to the imperative need to sustain public confidence in the penal system.
For many years, there has been widespread public cynicism about sentencing policy. Even before the wholesale release of murderers and terrorists in Northern Ireland under the Good Friday agreement, most of the public, rightly or wrongly, were convinced that sentences imposed by courts bore little relationship to the time actually served. The previous government recognised this and declared themselves in favour of "honesty in sentencing"—if I have put the phrase correctly—although, unfortunately, they never got round to doing very much about it.
To sustain public confidence, there needs to be some fixed and immutable relationship between "gross" and "net" sentences—descriptions I coined, but which seemed to find favour with the late Lord Taylor of 1368 Gosforth when he was the Lord Chief Justice. By "gross sentence" I mean, of course, the sentence imposed by the trial judge; and by "net sentence" I mean the time actually served after remission. In other words, the public need to be able to work out at the drop of a hat that when somebody is sentenced to three years, they will actually serve two; if they are sentenced to five years, they will serve three years and four months; if they are sentenced to 12 years, they will serve eight years, and so on.
It does not matter whether remission is set at one-third or one-quarter or whatever, so long as it is applied consistently right across the board and is not altered every few years. However, having said that the proportion does not matter, I submit that 50 per cent remission is excessive from the point of view of public confidence, while a mere 20 per cent remission—which the previous Conservative government proposed—is probably an inadequate incentive for those in prison to behave well. It is important to get rid of the current state of affairs whereby someone sentenced to four and a half years spends 12 months longer in prison than someone sentenced to four years—that is to say, three years inside instead of two.
That brings me to the obligatory life sentence for murder, which has been much criticised by the judiciary but over which neither Labour nor Conservative governments seem prepared to budge, on the supposition that life sentences boost public confidence. I fear that they do not, and that most of the public are convinced—erroneously, I believe—that practically no murderer ever spends more than nine years behind bars. Why can we not consider the sentencing policy of some American states, where those convicted of serious crimes are often sentenced to serve, say, between 15 and 99 years—99 years effectively meaning life since no adult is likely to live longer than that? Translated into English terms, this might entail someone convicted of a domestic murder with considerable extenuating circumstances being sentenced to between six and 99 years, which would mean that person normally being released on parole after four years. Someone convicted of shooting a policeman during a bank robbery might be sentenced to between 25 and 99 years, which would normally mean release on parole after 16 years and eight months—but with the 99-year Sword of Damocles always there as a deterrent against reoffending.
I turn now to the treatment of those in prison yet who may quite possibly be innocent. As much as the general public want punishment for the guilty, they are equally concerned with justice for the innocent. Inescapable and inevitable human error ensures that however hard the system tries, at any given moment some convicted persons are statistically bound to be innocent. But, as Byron Rogers reminded us in a poignant case history in the Sunday Telegraph last Sunday, it is ridiculous to expect a totally innocent man in prison to admit to a non-existent guilt—yet if he fails to do so he will lose all kinds of prison privileges, not least the right to be transferred to an 1369 open prison. What is the solution to this obvious injustice? Surely a solution, or at least some amelioration, is not beyond the wit of man.
I step down now from the Kensington to Clapham omnibus—the No. 49, I think—being uncertain as to whether my final two suggestions will win popular favour. I suspect that they may not. The first relates to the force-feeding of a certain hunger striker, notwithstanding the ruling of the then Home Secretary in July 1974. The Home Secretary in question was, by interesting coincidence, Mr Roy Jenkins, as he then was. Having tabled a Question for Written Answer about this, I suspect that I shall be told that the mental state of the notorious individual in question prevents him from making a rational decision. I would argue that anyone told—possibly with every justification; I do not dispute this—that there can never be any light at all at the end of his particular tunnel is making an entirely rational decision if he decides that he no longer wishes to go on living. I submit that the maxim "Thou shalt not kill—but need not strive officiously to keep alive" is the morally correct one to adopt in this and similar circumstances.
Finally, and closely related to that, we come to the treatment of those who can hope to see some light eventually at the end of a very long tunnel but who have been detained beyond the period that the trial judge deemed appropriate for the purpose of deterrence and retribution, either because the prisoner is genuinely believed to be a possible danger to the public, or because the government of the day are fearful of public opinion if the prisoner is released on the date the trial judge originally deemed to be right and proper. Such individuals are effectively being kept in preventive detention, having fully served out the due period of actual punishment merited by their crime. Should they not therefore be afforded the most comfortable treatment in detention as can reasonably be provided, with the opportunity to earn a decent wage and to use those wages to buy in food from outside, and so on, as remand prisoners used to be able to do before the drugs problem became so bad? I leave the Minister with that thought.
Had there been more time, I should have liked to argue the advantages of reintroducing the principle of partly suspended sentences, at least for certain first offenders. It is a proposition with which I know that at least one noble and learned Lord agrees. This would ensure that a hitherto respectable individual, in a good job, who had acted totally out of character—for example, in an air rage incident, having drunk too much or having taken too many tranquillisers—and who had to be given a prison sentence for deterrent purposes, would none the less receive the short, sharp shock of, say, a month in prison without destroying his career or his marriage, in the knowledge that if he reoffends he will go back to prison for a very long time. But a full exposition of this matter will have to wait for another occasion, however distant that occasion might be.
§ 8.57 p.m.
§ Lord Dholakia
My Lords, I should like to start with an anecdotal example. Some years ago I was waiting outside the railway station in Lewes when I saw the majestic figure of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, walking out of the station. There were no other trains or other transport around, and so I said to him, "Do get in my car. I know where you are going". He said to me, "You do not even know me. Where do you think I am going?" I said, "You are going to Lewes prison". I think he was absolutely shocked. But his fame goes before him and, when his history is written he will probably be on par with some of the great prison reformers such as Lord Butler, and the noble Lords, Lord Hurd and Lord Jenkins and, if I may spare his blushes, perhaps with historians such as the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving us the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
When the Labour Government first came into power in 1997, they inherited a record and rapidly rising prison population. They also inherited deteriorating prison regimes, budget cuts and many demoralised prison staff, who could see that much of the progress made following the Woolf report, which was produced under that enlightened Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd—now the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell—had been halted and reversed in the time since Michael Howard had become Home Secretary. Staff reductions; cuts in prison education; a reduction in the level of constructive activity; an increase in the numbers held to a cell and the postponement of repair and refurbishment plans, all led the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, to write in his annual report for 1996–97 that,While money has been made available to implement recommendations made in the Woodcock and Learmont Reports, it has been cut, and continues to be cut, despite the provision of some extra financial resources, from activities designed to help prisoners to lead law abiding and useful lives in custody and after release. Probation Services have been cut, both in the number of seconded staff working in prisons, and staff to supervise prisoners on release. Education has been cut in virtually every prison for financial reasons. There is no laid-down minimum of education for prison, except for those of under school age, and even their statutory needs arc not being met in all cases. There is not enough work in too many prisons because instructor posts have been cut and workshops closed. Psychologists, who design and help to run offending treatment programmes, have been cut. Prison staff trained in resettlement work, are all too often required on other duties since numbers have been cut, and so too many prisoners leave prison without proper preparation for release … In sum, while money and attention have been directed at the security part of the mission, the reverse has been true of the rehabilitation".How true are those words from Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons.
In April 1997, the prison population stood at 60,137. That was 48 per cent higher than at the end of 1992, and the women's prison population was 93 per cent higher as a result of the more punitive climate fanned by some of Michael Howard's "prison works" rhetoric.
1371 Against that background, what difference have the Labour Government made? At this point I should like to he helpful to the Minister. In relation to the prison population, the Government have done two things right. First, they have not argued that "prison works", or explicitly exhorted the courts to gaol more offenders. Secondly, in January 1999, they introduced an early release scheme combined with electronic tagging for short-term prisoners. That reduced the prison population by about 2,000 without endangering the public. In addition, measures such as the new drug treatment and testing orders and the planned extension of diversion schemes for mentally disordered offenders have the potential to divert many more offenders from prison and from crime in the longer term.
The Government's measures to tackle delay in the criminal justice process should reduce periods spent in custody on remand. Overall, if we tackle fine defaulters; if we tackle the heavy emphasis on remand in custody; and if we tackle mentally ill offenders, I think we shall substantially reduce our prison population.
Following the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Government also provided an extra £200 million over three years to improve prison regimes. This will finance an increase in basic education, in offending behaviour programmes, in drug treatment programmes and in bail information work, together with providing improved facilities for those aged under 18 in a new "juvenile estate". Alongside these developments is the very welcome "Respond" initiative which is working to confront racial harassment and discrimination, to recruit and support more minority staff, and to ensure equal access to regime opportunities and services for prisoners from racial minorities.
These are all important steps forward in comparison with the bleak position in the latter years of the Conservative government. Much more needs to be done and I am pleased that the Home Office and the Prison Service are currently considering proposals to increase resources devoted to work to secure employment anti housing for released prisoners and to improve resettlement services for short-term prisoners. I very much hope that these can be taken forward and funded in the next Comprehensive Spending Review round.
However, in our view the Government have spoiled their record on prisons in two ways. The first is by way of the sin of omission. There has been little sign of any concerted attempt to argue the case to the public for a more sparing use of imprisonment and for a greater use of punishment in the community for many of the less serious offenders whom we now imprison. Sentencers' decisions are clearly affected by the political climate. It is possible for Ministers to "talk up" or "talk down" the prison population; the former Home Secretary did that quite effectively. I should like to see a concerted drive by the Home Secretary and other Ministers to produce a more balanced climate by highlighting the case for a more rigorous use of constructive community sentencing instead of prison. In the absence of such a drive, the prison population 1372 continues to increase steadily and currently stands at a record 66,143—the figure as of 26th November—which is some 5,000 more than when Labour came into power. This is what leadership is all about; it is to lead public opinion and not simply to follow it.
The second is a sin of commission; namely, the introduction of mandatory and minimum sentences, in particular the implementation on 1st December of this year of Michael Howard's legislation introducing three-year minimum sentences for repeat burglars. I shall not expand on that particular problem because the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, has so ably dealt with it.
However, perhaps I may say that minimum sentencing is a crude and unjust measure which has no place in a rational policy to combat crime. Repeat burglars range from persistent professional offenders to inadequate young people whose amateurish burglary attempts arise from problems that should best be tackled by intensive probation programmes. Many burglaries are committed to feed a drug habit, and sentencing drug-addicted burglars to drug treatment programmes would be far more effective than mandatory prison terms. Courts should be able to choose sentences that fit the varying circumstances of each case.
The Government estimate that, over time, minimum sentences will increase the prison population by 4,000. We believe that that is a serious underestimate because it wrongly assumes that there will be no knock-on effect on sentencing for other offences. We welcome the Government's anti-burglary measures, including the extension of burglary prevention programmes. If the money needed to pay for minimum sentences were used to extend preventive measures to more households, it would prevent at least six times more burglaries. Home Office research into the Safer Cities programme showed that every pound spent on burglary prevention saved twice that amount in reduced burglaries.
It would be wrong to equate the present Government's penal policy with that of the last government. The Government have a more balanced approach to penal policy. That is not denied. There is a greater emphasis on rehabilitation. However, the prospect for developing constructive prison regimes would be greatly improved if the trend of the past six years to a greater use of prison sentences could be arrested and reversed. Above all, we need to rediscover the enlightened message that came out of the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, on the disturbance in Strangeways Prison.
Only two or three weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar at All Souls College by David Faulkner, who was one of the most senior civil servants in the Home Office. He was talking about what a modern prison would look like. He said:The Prison Service is not unique among public services, and the Government's approach should apply to the management of prisons as it applies to the management of other services.The Government's commitment to fairness, opportunity, inclusiveness and citizenship should apply to offenders as it does to anyone else. Offenders, including prisoners, are still citizens.1373If the Government is really determined to reduce crime, it must recognise that jobs, homes and families are likely to have more influence on offending and re-offending than any programme which can be provided in prisons.Punishment is a matter for the courts, not for the Prison Service. The content of prison regimes should not be made deliberately unpleasant, still less humiliating or degrading, as a means of reinforcing the sentence's punitive effect.As citizens and human beings, prisoners are to be regarded as having equal worth as people with other members of society and of the prison community, although their position is necessarily different in terms of authority and status … Within the law, and the policy as approved by Parliament, the treatment of individual prisoners should be a matter of professional or managerial, and not of political judgement".
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ Viscount Bridgeman
My Lords, I am sure that we are very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for initiating this debate. The House is indeed privileged to have the benefit of his experience of the Prison Service, which extends over many years.
As I am sure your Lordships will be aware, we on these Benches aim to provide constructive opposition and there are a number of government initiatives which we do support. The first point on which I am very pleased that this Government continued the policies of the previous government was in the reappointment of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, who was originally appointed by my right honourable friend Mr Michael Howard, who was then Home Secretary. Your Lordships will be aware of the excellent report on his work in 1997 and 1998 which was produced earlier this year. I refer in particular to his policy of unannounced second visits, which revealed such glaring shortcomings at Feltham young offenders' prison and at Wormwood Scrubs, to name only two.
We particularly welcomed at the time Sir David's critical remarks on what is known as "the culture"—the practice at every level of the public prison service of treating prisoners as subordinates, of resistance to change and, on the part particularly of the older prison officers, of stifling any initiative among younger officers. This is something which, not unnaturally, causes many of them to leave for the private sector. In this respect I am aware that I am addressing this problem from a slightly different angle from the noble Earl. The report displayed a commitment to the subject and was full of constructive comments.
On the subject of the private sector, we support the policy of the Government in continuing a prisons regime containing both publicly and privately run prisons, since in no way can the private sector take over the whole of the prison regime. On the other hand, privately run prisons provide a valuable competing yardstick against which the Prison Service institutions can be measured.
My noble friend Lord Windlesham and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, have both referred to the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 as one of the last measures introduced by the previous government. We are very pleased that on 1st December the Home Secretary gave 1374 effect to the minimum three-year sentence for those convicted for a third time of domestic burglary. I ask the Minister to take the advice of my right honourable friend Miss Anne Widdecombe and extend the three strikes policy to cover assault, vandalism and car theft.
These are prison matters on which we from these Benches support the Government. There are, however, some on which we do not. In addressing the specific subject of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in initiating this debate, we regard some of the steps the Government are taking as retrograde in a number of respects. For instance, we are in favour of tagging in limited situations. While we support tagging as a community punishment and as a convenient and effective way of ensuring a home curfew, we do not support tagging as an excuse for early release, particularly for violent and sexual offenders. The only reassurance we have received from the Government is that,no sex offenders will be released from early curfew unless there are exceptional circumstances and then only if there is the clearest evidence of no risk to the public".I should like from the Minister some clarification of what he means by "exceptional circumstances". I note that in a Written Answer in another place on 28th April 1999 Mr George Howarth stated that of the 3,730 offenders who had been placed on home detention curfew up to 19th April, 617 had a current conviction for an offence of violence—exactly the situation we need to protect the public against. Will the Minister assure the House that extra precautions are being taken to safeguard the public in respect of this very dangerous category of criminal?
Much has been made by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary of being tough on crime. Does the Minister believe that allowing offenders sentenced to six months to get out of prison in just six weeks is being tough on crime? It will certainly help to reduce the prison population but it is very unsatisfactory.
My noble friend Lord Windlesham and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, referred to the inadequacy of education facilities in prison. We are particularly critical of the Government's current policy on purposeful activity in prisons. In her speech at the Conservative Party conference, my right honourable friend Miss Ann Widdecombe said:If you really want to make prison purposeful then you've got to have prison workshops with a full working day that replicates the conditions of the outside world".During Home Office Questions on Monday 6th December, my right honourable friend referred to the recent Prison Service annual report, which stated that purposeful activity in prisons has declined to less than 23 hours a week. Mr Paul Boateng tells us that the Government have put in place a target for 1999–2000 of 24 hours. Yet that does not begin to match the 26 hours that the previous government achieved in 1994–95. It is a depressing statistic, made even more so by the revelation in a Written Answer that 260,000 pairs of slippers will have been manufactured in the Prison Service between March 1997 and 2000.
1375 I contrast that with an initiative that is taking place at Wormwood Scrubs, where a friend of mine is teaching embroidery to prisoners. The class is fully and enthusiastically attended. That is a small initiative but it just shows that an enlightened service can introduce such worthwhile activities. There are plenty of people in the community waiting to assist. Our idea is to get away from the unrewarding work and to ensure as well as possible that prisoners are properly prepared for life in the community when they are released.
In the notorious leaked letter from Mr Alan Milburn to the Home Secretary, as reported in the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Milburn warned the Home Secretary that he was leaving himself short of funds for priorities other than police numbers, including measures to ease overcrowding in prisons. It included the somewhat positive statement that:You should know that I"—Mr Milburn—will not countenance a further reserve claim for these issues".As I said earlier, the Government should not be tempted to abuse the tagging system to relieve overcrowded prisons if public safety could be put at risk. I would ask the Minister to confirm that the Treasury has re fused to provide additional resources to relieve pressure on overcrowded prisons.
In conclusion, I should like once again to refer to the report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons. He quoted from his report of the previous year:It is a sad but undeniable fact that all too much potential progress in the Prison Service is bedevilled by an industrial relations climate that can best be described as uneasy".This year he went on to say:I must be even more direct because I find it quite inappropriate that industrial relations procedures should inflict such severe impact on the treatment and conditions of prisoners".This is a problem with which successive governments have wrestled for many years past. It is a problem with which I know the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General, when he was Minister for Prisons, was concerned. This debate has certainly been about continuity between the policies of the previous government and. the present Government, or lack of it. Any progress that the present Government, in co-operation with the chief inspector, can make in tackling this insidious problem will have the support of these Benches.
§ 9.18 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl on securing this debate and I join in the general congratulations to him on his birthday of last Sunday, when I understand he was 94. I am sure that everyone in the House will wish him well in his 95th year. Long may he be with us. His distinguished career puts many of us in the shade. He has made a profound contribution to issues of penal policy over a very long time. We pay great tribute to the noble Earl for that.
1376 I feel rather humble in the company of this small but select band of debaters, all of whom have a great deal to offer on this subject. Noble Lords have raised these important issues over many more years than I have dealt with them. The debate has been wide-ranging and interesting. I shall attempt to address the issues raised. However, I am sure that the House will forgive me if I do not cover them all, and I am more than happy to write to noble Lords to clarify points raised.
Our Government were elected on the promise to be tough on crime and tough on its causes, and we are doing just that. Since we were elected, we have been laying the foundations for the most co-ordinated and coherent attack on crime in more than a generation. Under this Government there is less crime and more criminals are being brought to book. Recorded crime has fallen by 9 per cent since the election, and the number of convictions in the courts rose by 6 per cent in 1998 alone.
Labour is putting public protection first. Tough and consistent prison sentences, tougher enforcement of community sentences and a crackdown on anti-social behaviour send a clear signal to offenders. We believe that by getting people off welfare and into work, supporting families, improving education and housing and investing in our communities, the Government are also focusing on the factors which lead to crime in the first place.
We are trying to ensure that our approach to penal policy fits within our overall objective of reducing crime in our communities. For that reason alone, it must be part of a coherent strategy which focuses on outcomes. Prison regimes must, of necessity, be tough but purposeful. They must be driven by a desire to put in place strategies which discourage re-offending and encourage those who leave prison into the world of work and away from lifestyles based on criminality.
We also need to be realistic and accept that some offenders cannot be turned away from crime. Some will forever be habitual offenders and the public will always need to be protected from those who commit crimes of violence, sex crimes and major organised crime. Incarceration for those types of offender serves two purposes: it protects the public and it prevents further criminal activity.
Importantly, we also believe that prison provides an opportunity for offenders to make a commitment to changing their lifestyle away from one based on crime. For that reason, we want to do all that we can to make prison regimes more purposeful, educative and training based. No regime should be seen as a soft touch or an easy option. We want regimes which help those who want to change to make the change.
That explains, for example, why we have put in place mandatory drug testing and voluntary testing regimes to discourage drug abuse in prisons and the potential for continued abuse dependency and related criminality outside. For that to work, we know that we need to raise standards of health care in prisons. As noble Lords will know, we have embarked on a joint review of the prison health care service.
1377 Recent evidence suggests that the deterrent effect of drug testing can have an impact on offending rates and in particular, on acquisitive crimes. Part of our strategy means that we also need to ensure that there are services available outside prison to keep offenders away from drugs. Again, we intend bringing forward widely supported reforms that will be included in the Crime and Public Protection Bill, which will refocus the work of the Probation Service. Its primary purpose will be to concentrate on community punishment and the rehabilitation of offenders.
The crime reduction strategy, published on 29th November, focuses on the targeting of crimes and criminals. It summarises our approach in seven main areas. How can we achieve the maximum impact through the work that the police and local crime and disorder reduction partnerships undertake? How can we best tackle burglary and property crime, and break the vicious circle of drug addiction and property crimes? How can we best tackle vehicle crime to meet our national target of a 30 per cent reduction by 2004? How best do we deal with disorder and anti-social behaviour? How can we ensure that youth justice works well in dealing with young offenders? How best do we deal with adult offenders and improve the criminal justice system? And what more can we do to help victims and witnesses?
We have the most comprehensive programme ever to tackle crime. There are 375 local crime and disorder reduction partnerships up and running. There will be an extra £1.24 billion over the next three years for the police; £400 million for the crime reduction programme; a complete reform of the youth justice system; £34 million to build a national DNA database; and a crime fighting fund will provide funding for 5,000 more recruits over and above the number that forces would otherwise have recruited during the next three years.
The noble Earl, Lord Longford, asked a number of questions. He asked whether our penal policy differs from that of the previous government. We are not embarrassed to say that some of the policies of the previous administration were sensible. Where appropriate, we have implemented measures that we supported while in opposition and which we inherited when we came into office.
The noble Earl referred to the report of the Penal Reform Trust which states that half of all prisons are overcrowded. The Government continue to believe that serious, dangerous and persistent offenders should be sent to prison. There will always be some for whom prison is the only appropriate response. We recognise the problems that overcrowding can cause. We remain committed to providing constructive regimes for prisoners so that they can be given the opportunity to address their offending behaviour and seek useful employment on release. To this end we have provided an additional £226 million from the CSR for the enhancement of prison regimes. Last year we hit our key performance indicator target to ensure that we reduced overcrowding in prisons. The extra funding should enable us to make further progress. 1378 I can tell noble Lords that, unfortunately, as we speak, for 11,820 of the prison population two are held in cells designed for one. We know that we need to do more to tackle that problem.
However, prison may not be the best or most effective option for less serious offenders. Many noble Lords have raised that very pertinent point this evening. We intend to ensure that courts have available to them a range of community punishments that are effective, punishments in which the public can have confidence and which also have the transparency called for by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. This Government's penal policy was established in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. It introduced a number of new sentencing initiatives, including a major reshaping of the youth justice system. It introduced anti-social behaviour orders, sex offender orders and drug treatment and testing orders. Those have been widely praised by many, including the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and are important initiatives.
The new Crime and Public Protection Bill contains new measures further to improve the criminal justice system. It will modernise and improve the effectiveness of the Probation Service and enable the police to test those charged with acquisitive crimes and Class A drug offences, especially those involving heroin and crack cocaine. The courts will be able to take a positive test into account when considering bail conditions. Another significant measure in the Bill will extend the use of electronic monitoring, which has also been praised extensively in this evening's important debate. It will provide for the conditions attached to licences to be monitored electronically when prisoners are released from custody. It will create a single service to cover children and family court proceedings. It will also establish a scheme to help prevent sex offenders and other unsuitable people from working with children. Taken together, these measures will make a real difference in tackling some of the root causes of crime and ensure that the sentences of the courts are properly monitored and enforced.
The noble Earl raised two further points. He asked whether a member of the POA should sit on the Prison Service Strategy Board. Consideration has been given to this matter but it has been decided that it would be inappropriate. The board is a policy-setting forum chaired by the prisons Minister, my right honourable friend Paul Boateng. As such we cannot agree that a member of POA should be included. There are ample opportunities for the POA to discuss its concerns with both Prison Service senior management, including the director-general, and Ministers through regular meetings. We do not believe that it would be appropriate for it to be singled out from other trade unions who represent Prison Service staff.
The noble Earl also asked for an update on the position at Wormwood Scrubs prison. I am pleased to be able to inform noble Lords that considerable progress has been made. The action plan is being implemented and all targets are currently on course for timely completion. A new staff attendance system was implemented on 3rd October. The POA has supported increased access to education and work for all 1379 prisoners. The area manager and governor are confident that the Chief Inspector of Prisons will be satisfied with the progress that has been made on his specific recommendations when he returns to Wormwood Scrubs for the follow-up visit that he was invited to make by the Home Secretary.
I believe that the Government have also done important work in ensuring that they put lifelong learning at the heart of their policies. A number of noble Lords referred to the importance of improving basic skills. That is a very important part of our national strategy to upgrade the labour force, but we believe that it should be equally effective in prisons. Targets are being set in the Prison Service aimed at reducing by 15 per cent the number of prisoners being released in 2002 with basic communication and numeracy skills at level 1 or below. I can advise your Lordships that there was a 2.5 per cent increase in the number of student hours of study in the last year for which we have figures.
A number of noble Lords made reference to prison work. We believe that that is at the heart of constructive regimes. Its primary purpose is to prepare prisoners for release. Work places are currently provided for 12,000 prisoners daily. The Prison Service aims to expand the range and quality of work available and make work in prisons more equivalent in pace and hours to work outside in industry.
A number of noble Lords raised the question of drugs. We recognise that it is a key factor in offending and repeat offending. The Prison Service has implemented a new drug strategy aimed at tackling drug abuse. We have been providing an additional £76 million for drug initiatives from the Comprehensive Spending Review which will help us to introduce a new and expanded programme in every prison in England and Wales. The good work the Prison Service is doing in this area was recently acknowledged by the Home Affairs Select Committee. Those measures support the overall crime reduction strategy; they are part of it.
1380 Our priority is to reduce reoffending and therefore crime. As I have explained, we shall be taking powers in the Crime and Public Protection Bill to help us achieve those objectives. We remain committed to ensuring that the Prison Service continues its progress in delivering constructive regimes for prisoners, and focuses education on improving levels of literacy and numeracy which will equip prisoners with the basic skills required to participate in active and useful employment on release.
At the heart of our crime reduction strategy are the measures we shall be taking to ensure that every local crime and disorder reduction partnership and police force is performing to its maximum potential. At national level, we are establishing a new national crime reduction task force to be chaired by a Home Office Minister. The aims are to raise performance and to provide strong leadership and support. At regional level we shall appoint new crime reduction directors who will work with members of the local crime and disorder reduction partnership to develop and sustain improvements in crime reduction. I am sure noble Lords will agree that we have set out an ambitious programme.
In conclusion I wish to say this. The reward for achieving that ambition will be major inroads into reducing crime: an objective which I am sure we all share. The fight against crime is an integral part of the Government's commitment to making Britain a better place in which to live. The protection of the public comes first; and cutting crime will make a major contribution to improving the quality of all our lives. I hope that in this short debate we have shown that the Government's penal policy will do just that.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, exceptionally, perhaps I may join with others in wishing my noble friend Lord Longford well in his 95th year.
§ House adjourned at twenty-seven minutes before ten o'clock.