HL Deb 05 November 2001 vol 628 cc98-122

9.11 p.m.

The Earl of Dundee rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to reduce prisoner recidivism.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, we recall the discussion introduced recently in this House on our Prison Service by my noble friend Lord Hurd. It was an excellent debate which revealed a strong measure of agreement.

We must work together to reduce the prison population and its high percentage component of reoffenders. In so doing, we cannot succumb to certain forms of political muddle-headedness which, in the past, have frequently prevented progress. On the ground and within the service, we must guard against and control bureaucracy, lack of vision and self-interest where, unnecessarily, these features strive to hold out against change.

There is also consensus, I believe, that no constructive purpose will be served through party political wrangling or jockeying for position. Previous mistakes, made when in office by both the Labour and Conservative parties over prison policy, have co-existed, if ironically so, with well-meaning intentions and, quite often, with the implementation of sensible short-term expedients. Yet, broadly speaking, the mistakes and failures of both political administrations have derived from an apparent unwillingness or inability to form proper long-term plans which can then be carried out with patience and determination.

Let us now hope and assume that the latter approach can at last become adopted. If that is the case, not least is it fitting to pay tribute to again today, and to thank—which was done during my noble friend's debate by many of your Lordships—certain key public servants. They include the Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, Mr Martin Nearey, the Director-General of the Prison Service for England and Wales, and Sir David Ramsbotham, recently retired Chief Inspector of English Prisons. Their combined advocacy of the urgent need for reform has been as powerful as it has been unequivocal. To this list, I should like to add the current Chief Inspector of the Scottish Prison Service, Mr Clive Fairweather, who has been no less energetic and adamant in speaking out for this priority.

The specific focus and Question this evening is prisoner reoffending and what steps the Government are taking to reduce it. The first anomaly concerns value for money when our own Prison Service is compared with others elsewhere. While we spend less than our European partners on health and education, we spend much more on prisons. Yet, at 75 per cent, our own prisoner recidivism level has not lowered as a result of increased expenditure. Nor has it become any lower than the European average.

Secondly, there is the anomalous relationship between custodial and non-custodial sentences. We have seen the introduction and steady application of non-custodial sentences. Yet not only have these failed to effect a proper reduction in custodial sentences; they have even co-existed with a large growth in the number of custodial sentences and with a large rise in the number of prisoners—from 46,000 in 1991 to roughly 67,000 at present, with a predicted figure of 83,000 by the year 2008.

In spite of the availability of non-custodial sentences, there are still far too many both below and above the age of 17 who are in prison for minor crimes and who should not have been imprisoned at all. In particular, it is still the case that far too many young people are detained. In the majority of cases, the detention of young people is as futile as it is counter-productive.

Then, paradoxically enough, there is even the worrying anomaly, or at any rate its future prospect, which relates to the pursuit of much better practice. Recently, the Government appear to have expressed all the right sentiments. Within prisons they seek to address systematically the task of rehabilitation. Their aims include better education, improved employability and reduced drug dependency. Yet such schemes will work properly only if the number of prisoners is reduced; otherwise, resources will remain too overstretched for prison staff to fulfil those objectives.

The Minister has commented previously that the Prison Service, in conjunction with the National Probation Service, has been set a target by the Government; namely, to reduce the rate of re-convictions of all offenders punished by imprisonment or by community supervision by 5 per cent by April 2004. He has also commented, quite properly, that to the extent that sentencing decisions are a matter for the courts, the Government cannot set targets for reducing the prison population.

Nevertheless, there is the recent government publication, Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead, published jointly by the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Attorney-General's Office. Many noble Lords will wish to support the paper. Its concept is that every part of the existing system, from detention, prosecution and punishment to the resettlement of prisoners, will be subject to reform and co-ordination.

Does the Minister agree that the Government's plans for improved prisoner rehabilitation and a reduction in the rates of recidivism, while much to be welcomed, will nevertheless fail unless they correspond to convincing targets for a reduction in prisoner numbers? However, secondly, does he acknowledge that owing to its focus on co-ordination and reform, such targets can now begin to be structured within a scheme of implementation for the Government's paper, Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead?

Thirdly, and following from this, will the Minister concur that one of the best weapons for dealing with intransigence and bureaucracy within the Prison Service is just such a radically enhanced degree of common purpose within the various parts of the criminal justice service? A topical and very recent example of intransigence within the Prison Service concerns the Kainos programme. In recent years, this programme has produced encouraging results. Regarding reduced prisoner reoffending, arguably it has even indicated better results than any other prisoner scheme or process. Nevertheless, there is now a move within the Prison Service to wind it up. Will the Minister look into the matter, with a view to preventing that outcome? I imagine that he would agree that the thing to do with any prisoner scheme which is more successful than some others is not to propose to wind it up, but instead to plan to extend it.

Another important theme is the scope for improvement that can arise out of comparisons between our own Prison Service and that in other countries. The focus must be on evidence of what works best in the form of measures to deter crime and to promote security through improved rehabilitation and reduced reoffending.

Curiously enough, and in spite of their recent civil war, certain states in the former Yugoslavia already reveal encouraging prison management results, which in several respects stand to give good guidance to ourselves and to other European states. Two such are Slovenia and Croatia. The Croatian prison service provides a clear example. It has comparatively low numbers of prisoners per head of population, and it demonstrates comparatively high levels of civilian prisoner rehabilitation. As chairman of the UK Parliamentary Group for Croatia and as a Council of Europe parliamentarian, I was able to introduce our own Home Office overseas service to the Croatian prison service. This has led to the establishment of a training centre by Zagreb for the training of prison governors and other staff.

Clearly, there are many constructive channels for disseminating improved practice between different states for the better management of their prisons. I am well aware that the Minister is in favour of such exchanges. However, does he agree that we should start to evaluate the methods and results from other prison services much more acutely than we have done up until now? We should seek to do so not least because our own record has been as disappointing as it has.

In summary, the key challenges presented by prisons to the Government are plain: to reduce prisoner reoffending, and thus prisoner numbers, and to enhance prisoner rehabilitation and hence improve community morale and security. The Government must acknowledge the many deficiencies and anomalies which still obtain. They must tackle bureaucracy and self-interest within the service. They must adjust by heeding evidence and case studies; and they must set a much more responsible example and produce radically better results within this country and its communities and for the benefit of others elsewhere.

9.20 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

My Lords, I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, for securing the debate and for so eloquently raising pertinent issues which I have no doubt will shape our interventions today.

Exactly 170 years ago on this night, the bonfires of England burned the effigies not of Guy Fawkes but of the Church of England's bishops who had been responsible in this House for throwing out the reform Bill. The old jingle, Remember, remember, the 5th of November", was that year changed to, Remember, remember, that God is the sender of every good gift known to man. But the devil to spite us sent fellows in mitres who rob us of all that they can". Since 1831 no bishops' effigies have ever again been burned on bonfires—so no recidivism there! But perhaps that is because the Churches have taken a serious part in helping to prevent recidivism and especially prisoner reoffending.

The latest available figures for prisoner recidivism reveal some startling facts. Fifty-eight per cent of all prisoners released in 1997 were reconvicted within two years. Within this overall figure there is a variation with different categories of original offence. Perhaps more worrying are the statistics for younger people. Seventy-six per cent of males under 21, 58 per cent of females under 21, 50 per cent of females over 21 and 54 per cent of males over 21 reoffended.

Recent research has shown that three issues have a major influence on how newly released prisoners react to their situation back in the community: secure housing, a job and close family relationships all enable former inmates to settle back into the community without falling again into crime.

I am aware of this from my own experience with inmates at Wakefield and New Hall Prisons. Furthermore, those very issues are the focus for the work of an ecumenical network formed this summer called the Churches Criminal Justice Forum. It is working in two specific areas. First, it is tackling the problem of recidivism by employing two officers full time, thanks to the generosity of the Salvation Army. These officers work at developing community chaplaincy or community resettlement. This concept was established in Canada a decade ago. There are now 50 such projects there. By bringing together education provision, healthcare, housing and employment the chances of an offender becoming a law-abiding citizen become much higher. None of this takes away the work of the Probation Service, which is happy to work in partnership with the voluntary scheme in Canada (where the probation service is called the Correctional Service).

In England, the Churches Criminal Justice Forum is now developing three such local projects in Swansea, Gloucester and Blackburn, where the task of the development workers is to help by pointing to signs of good practice, encouraging volunteering programmes and much more. The local prison governors are keenly supportive. I believe that it is important that the Home Office Active Community Unit gives as much support to this scheme as possible and that, as in Canada, it grows to be an effective way of preventing recidivism.

A second issue in relation to recidivism is that the present reliance, both on the extensive use of custody and on the traditional use of punishment, needs to be questioned. The Halliday Report on sentencing, Making Punishments Work, shows that sentences have increased substantially in the past decade, yet the rates of recidivism have also increased. It is because of this, and because of the feeling of victims that their needs are being ignored, that there has been great interest recently in restorative justice.

Recent research from the Youth Justice Board, especially in Thames Valley Constabulary, shows that the rate of reoffending falls dramatically if new forms of restorative justice are used for young people. It is for this reason that the Church's Criminal Justice Forum is now about to appoint a restorative justice worker, thanks to a generous grant from a trust fund. The aim of the work will be to involve church people in restorative justice projects, thus hopefully helping to reduce crime and to improve the treatment of both victims and offenders.

I have mentioned two examples of how the Churches are involved in reducing reoffending, but let me mention a third example, which is to do with sex offending. Led by the Quakers, there is another scheme, which again began in Canada and is now being piloted in this country. It consists of providing support from a circle of people committed to helping a released sex offender into the community. Such a person of course remains under the supervision of the probation service and the multi-agency protection panels, and that involves the police. However, the additional support of trained volunteers, often from the Churches, can add to helping greatly in preventing relapses. The Home Office Dangerous Offenders Unit has welcomed this move. It is in an early stage; the proposed pilot schemes remain confidential, for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, it is another example of how the Churches are able to contribute.

In my own diocese the Christian-based Langley House Trust has an impressive record. Over the past year none of its clients has reoffended. Here I talk of ordinary prisoners and ordinary crimes rather than sex offences. It achieves this by looking carefully at the risks that its clients present and by providing a level of care that offers the best chance of not reoffending. Again—and this is always very important—the trust works closely with the probation service, with the police and with qualified social workers and staff with psychiatric training.

When this Christian-based trust tried to open two similar houses in London, I regret to say that crowds gathered outside and fierce opposition was voiced, based on an unjustified fear of the type of former offenders who might be clients of the trust.

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, also mentioned the Kainos Community, taking its title from the Greek word meaning "new beginnings", which my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, will remember well from our Greek classes together. The community has been working in four prisons over the past few years. I understand that a recent study into the effectiveness of its work, based on Christian principles, has proved inconclusive. I have not seen that study myself, and I would be interested to hear the response of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to the noble Earl on that point.

It is nevertheless true that the press coverage of the Kainos Community has served to highlight what I and the noble Earl have been seeking to emphasise in mentioning Kainos tonight: that in seeking to reduce prisoner recidivism, mainstream Churches in particular have a significant spiritual part to play.

Unfortunately that work and the work of others in helping prisoners not to reoffend is undermined when the prison regime itself is so bound by budgetary constraints that, as has happened in the past few years, the level of humanitarian, educational and spiritual content within prison life has to be reduced. I very much hope that in his winding-up speech the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will be supportive of the efforts of Churches and others in preventing recidivism, but I also dare to hope that he may have some encouraging message to give us about improved resources within the Prison Service to enable us, be we statutory or voluntary, to work together far more effectively to prevent prisoners from reoffending.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I join the right reverend Prelate in thanking my noble friend for introducing this timely and important debate.

The huge growth of the prison population over the past 20 years, to which he drew your Lordships' attention, is an indictment of governments of both parties over that period. As a Minister responsible for the Prison Service for three years during the 1980s I share that responsibility. Since leaving office I have contributed my own small effort to reduce that growth by reducing the number of youngsters who are drawn into crime. Had it been the Government, not me and my friends, who had concentrated their efforts and their money on achieving that objective, I do not doubt that the growth in numbers would have been dramatically reversed. However, we have to deal with the world as it is, not as it should be, and our debate is about those who become criminals and the small proportion of them who have been caught, convicted and given prison sentences.

The purpose of imprisonment is not only, or even chiefly, to punish offenders; it is the protection of the rest of society. Merely keeping an offender off the streets until he has to be released to offend again does not amount to anything like effective protection. You do not have to have the humanitarian interest in the welfare of prisoners that I am sure the Minister shares with others in the Government to see that rehabilitation—which is shorthand for the conversion of offenders into honest citizens—is essential if our citizens are to have any kind of effective protection.

So what you do with prisoners during their sentences is of prime interest to anyone who wants to protect the public and, therefore, to the public as well. Most prisoners are young males under 35, full of energy and ambition. That energy must be used to constructive effect—to educative effect—or it will burn out any remaining good will the prisoner might have had towards society, let alone authority, and he will be a more vicious and more effective criminal than when he was arrested.

Providing purposeful activity for all these people is the very minimum requirement that any rehabilitation should offer. That means accommodation and staffing sufficient to have them active and out of cell for at least the equivalent of a working day, not five but seven days a week. What are we achieving? The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that we manage about 23 or 24 hours per prisoner per week. That is less than four hours a day of purposeful activity. Imagine what that would do to your Lordships' morale at our advanced stage of life when we are accustomed to taking things steadily and reflectively, particularly after lunch. On prison fare and at the age of most prisoners it would be destructive. Neither the staffing nor the accommodation is adequate.

A Written Answer by the Minister in another place on 16th October gave figures only for individual prisons. If my arithmetic is correct, which it may well not be, at the end of August over 10,000 prisoners were held in pairs, each sharing a cell designed to hold only one prisoner, and nearly 500 were held in threes, sharing cells designed for two.

What is the result of all this? If the aim of the Prison Service is to protect the public by preventing reoffending, what is its success rate? My noble friend has suggested a figure of 25 per cent. The right reverend Prelate suggested 40 per cent. I suspect—or hope—that the truth is nearer to the right reverend Prelate's estimate, but even so it is not brilliant. It is better than 20 years ago, but nothing like enough.

Think what the effect would be if the proportions of those who reoffend and those who do not were reversed. The number of reconvicted returners would be dramatically cut, resources would become dramatically more sufficient and the regimes dramatically more effective and there would be an exponential effect on reducing recidivism further.

Of course, the rehabilitation of prisoners does not end with their release. Throwing a convict out through the gate into the world with no idea what to do or where to go, next to no money in his pocket, no prospect of a job and no one to turn to for advice will produce desperation within 24 hours and make robbery the natural means of survival in 48. The right reverend Prelate has given striking examples of what can be done. I endorse in passing his support for restorative justice, though I shall not elaborate on that. I saw the early stages of the Thames Valley experiment and believe the idea to be exceedingly encouraging and well suited to the state that our society has got itself into. No doubt the Minister will deal with all that in his reply.

In my few minutes I shall concentrate on what happens in prison. If only someone could find a programme that reduced reoffending by 20 or 30 per cent, even at modest extra cost, it would effectively save the Prison Service and the taxpayer a significant amount. It would mean a huge increase in the efficiency of the Prison Service and a welcome increase in the protection offered to the public. How we would welcome it.

The extraordinary thing is that such a programme exists—it has been mentioned twice in the debate already. It has been tried out in four prisons and I am told that it reduces reoffending not by 20 or 30 per cent, but by nearly 40 per cent. The even more extraordinary thing is that on the eleventh of last month, the director of resettlement wrote to the chairman of the trustees of the programme and told him that, following careful consideration, the Prison Service Management Board had decided that it must be closed down by March next year.

The Kainos programme—I always thought that words ending in "os" were singular, so "Kainoi" would mean new beginnings, but my Greek is rusty— has been running in the Verne prison. Can the Minister confirm that following its introduction, the number of prisoners brought before the governor for discipline from D wing, where the programme was running, fell as reported in the press, from about 200 annually to just 13 last year? Surely even that result must have reduced the cost and difficulty of running the prison significantly. Can the Minister tell us the recidivism or reoffending rates in the year before the programme was introduced and last year? I tried to give him notice of that last question, albeit rather late in the day, so I hope that it reached him. What were the equivalent figures for Swaleside, Highpoint North and Highpoint South? If the Minister can refine that answer to the wings in which the programme was working, the indication of its efficacy will be much greater. If he cannot, I shall remain dubious of the board's decision, because it must have had that information before deciding whether the programme was effective.

What were the reasons for this apparently extraordinary decision by the board, which certainly seems to have gone into the matter carefully? Were those reasons really as stated in the second paragraph of the director's letter of 11th October to the chairman? The letter said that the board, did not wish, as a matter of policy, to provide public money, either locally or centrally, to support religiously based offender programmes in prisons. Nor did it wish Kainos to continue in its present form. It recognised that religious groups had, and would continue, to provide a valuable contribution to prison life, but it was particularly concerned about the appropriateness of intensive religiously based interventions in prisons". If they were, can he say whether he, the director and the board that made this decision accept that, as stated by the chairman of Kainos in his reply, less than 10 per cent of the courses had any religious content whatever?

Where, then, does that leave us? Only the other day we debated religious freedom in this very Chamber. Is it not to be permitted or even supported in our prisons? Rumour has it—it is rumour, but the noble Lord may be able to kill it tonight and that would be a very good thing—that this is the result of pressure from other religious groups. It is said that the Christian religion receives favourable treatment in prisons. Surely the proper way to address that problem is not to reduce the benefits to Christians but to increase the benefits to others; otherwise, it seems to me that this decision will be entirely destructive and most regrettable.

I hope that the noble Lord will be able to reassure your Lordships about this matter. I also hope that he will bring about a review of the decision before March, which is when Kainos must wind down. The earlier that such a review takes place, the better. In my time, I have chaired a charity and I know the desperate difficulty of reassuring people who can see the end of the line when their employment will cease and the will have to find other employment. If the decision to keep the programme going is made after those people have gone, enormous and avoidable damage will have been done.

I am deeply grateful to my noble friend for introducing this debate and for providing a platform on which to draw attention to this quite extraordinary decision.

9.42 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for bringing this debate to your Lordships' House. Primarily what drew me to speak was an interest in the prison education system. That interest dates back well over a decade to when I worked in an organisation called the Apex Trust. Its entire activity involved trying to break the offending cycle by getting prisoners into jobs. When I worked there, I discovered that the average prisoner was incarcerated for economic crimes; that is, crimes for profit. They were, as we have been informed, young and uneducated or, indeed, educational failures. Thus, they found crime to be a viable option.

I declare two interests. I am the patron of the Adult Dyslexia Organisation and a vice-president of the British Dyslexia Association. I would give the initials of those bodies but, as a dyslexic, I always get them mixed up. Dyslexics, as a group, are very much overrepresented in prison. I came across that assumption independently when I worked at the Apex Trust and discovered that other people had been there before me.

For those who have heard me speak on this subject before, my preamble is intended to show that there are two issues here which contribute to each other. Dyslexics from the recruitment ground for crime tend to be in the lower social echelons. It seems that they are more likely to resort to crime because, for them, it provides a viable option in gaining economic or spending power. That is not a very pleasant circle, but one must attempt to square it. It has been said that dyslexia is a middle-class disease because middle-class parents banged the drum loudly and obtained assistance and help for their children.

In the prison system, this group has all the problems of other prisoners, plus a multiplier of other difficulties. I spoke in those terms when we discussed the subject of children in care approximately two weeks ago in this House. A very high percentage of children in care go on to become prisoners. Their problems are the same as those that we have already mentioned: they generally come from bad educational backgrounds and they have a low level of parental support, and so on. Thus, they find themselves offending at a much higher rate. I tried to point out then that there was a great danger that that problem would not be spotted because of other social problems. Prison is probably the end, or the sink, of our social welfare system. It is reached when all attempts to help have failed. At that point, we have an opportunity at least to identify problems and, I hope, to help.

It is rather odd that someone with a short-term sentence may not have the opportunity to be helped properly. Our current system does not have a sufficiently adapted organisation identification process in terms of the basic assessment that is made of people's educational needs when they first arrive in prison. There is no automatic, built-in process to assess dyslexia.

The lowest estimate that I have seen is that 17.5 per cent of the prison population has a significant problem with dyslexia, and the highest estimate is 50 per cent, which came from the Dyspel Project. That means that an enormous chunk of the prison population has different manifestations of the same problem—they require different types of help.

When dealing with an adult male who is an educational failure, if one identifies the fact that he is dyslexic, one must, to make any difference at all, explain the situation to him and give appropriate help. That is not as easy to do as it sounds. If one gives, for example, child-based educational support training within a classroom, one is merely going to make those receiving it increasingly alienated from authority and the educational system. Going through such a process insults one's dignity.

If we are to deal with that section of the population which suffers from the multiplier effect that I mentioned, we must identify those affected and give them some support—we must explain what problem and what disability they have. One needs to explain that they do not have a disability because they are thick or lazy. If we are dealing with an unidentified problem, they will, almost by definition, have heard such allegations throughout their often very brief educational experience. We must train people. I have just finished scanning some notes from the Dyspel Project, which said that we must train people appropriately in terms of what the problems are. That means that one must invest in training and ensure that the relevant information can be conveyed in whatever context.

The Department for Education and Skills—I believe that that is its name, but I have lost track of the changes—is taking over the running of the prison education service; that is not before time. The situation has previously been chaotic. There have been pockets of good practice, areas of drift, transfers of staff and the shifting of resources. If the department is to make a real impact in this field, it must do various things. First, there must be one uniform programme of assessment, or at least related programmes of assessment. Secondly, there must be a process for explaining to inmates what their problems are. Thirdly, we must offer realistic help to inmates.

If we are dealing with a disability, not everyone affected will be able to acquire basic skills to the normal level. We must be honest with those—a severe dyslexic is never going to master basic English spelling to the same level as someone who is not dyslexic. However, there are ways round that; for example, different ways of taking exams, the academic part of a training course or even a vocational training course. An amanuensis or new types of computer software can be used. Such people must be kept informed and shown that there is a reason for indulging in the education process. They will thereby become educated, employable and, I hope, get off the merry-go-round of offending.

What currently tends to happen is that only those on very long-term sentences are found and receive help. I have heard much criticism of education in prisons. People are moved around the system; they may be half-way through a course when they are sent somewhere else where they cannot finish it. I hope that the Department for Education and Skills will ensure that people are allowed to finish all the courses that they start.

Of course, the Probation Service must be included in this consideration and educational notes must be passed on to any new institution with the offender. There are many cases of notes being one or two jumps behind. When I was looking into this matter, I found several people who went through the basic assessment, but then nothing happened and they were moved on again. That is a total waste of time and effort. Unless those problems are addressed, the education system will be greatly undermined and more time and money will be wasted. Unless there is a coherent approach, the errors that have been made will be compounded. This sizeable minority of offenders do not receive any help. They will be thrown back into society, unable to find employment and looking for economic opportunities through crime.

If a coherent approach to screening, advice and tuition appropriate to the offender is instituted, we stand a good chance of removing a sizeable proportion from the system without making other major changes. Looking purely at the economics, that is an option that should be explored. Without that, we are missing an opportunity to remove a sizeable proportion of offenders from the prison population.

9.52 p.m.

Lord Chadlington

My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend for raising this all-important subject and for introducing it with such skill and understanding. For many years I have been involved in the Prison Service in a variety of voluntary roles and have supported the Howard League for Penal Reform. Most recently, I have taken groups of professional men and women to visit prisons and to spend time with prisoners. Those groups have been drawn from your Lordships' House, Members in another place and leading figures from commerce, the media and the acting professions.

Such visits have provided an opportunity for those who have influence to experience first-hand the state of our prison system and the plight of prisoners. In almost every case I have been told by those attending that it has proved to be an eye-opening, even life-changing, experience.

I want to say a few words about one such experience which, for me, encapsulates many of the problems that we are discussing today. I shall take care in recounting this story to preserve the anonymity of the individual. Within that constraint, the facts that I lay before your Lordships are accurate and as faithful to the truth as I can make them.

Recently on a visit to a prison I met and lunched with a prisoner whom I shall call George. He was in prison for receiving stolen goods and he told me his story in some detail. George's parents had separated when he was 10 or 11. Within a year or so he had become too much for his mother to handle, so he was sent to a special school for delinquent children and by the age of 17 he had been to a number of such schools and ended up in Feltham. Three further arrests for stealing or receiving stolen goods, mainly to finance his drug habit, had led to his current custodial sentence.

It had been explained to me that because of a shortage of staff, many prisoners like George were locked up for 18 hours a day with little opportunity for exercise or social contact. George told me that his girlfriend had been to see him the previous evening with their young son. She had told him that if he ever returned to prison, he would never see her or his son again. They would simply disappear while he was inside.

Naively, I said to him, "Now, that really is an incentive to go straight, isn't it? You really have a good reason to stay out of trouble". For a while George was silent. He obviously thought over carefully what I had said and with a resigned shrug of his shoulders said, "No, I don't think so. You see, I can't read or write very well"; and with a twinkle in his eye he added. "But I can start a car at 100 yards and life in here isn't too bad. The food is okay, we get drugs relatively easily if we want them, we are relatively comfortable and if you stay out of trouble it's fine". He said ruefully, "No, I feel I belong here". George was about to celebrate his 22nd birthday.

Even allowing for the fact that convicted criminals are not necessarily to be relied upon for their truthfulness, I have learnt from many visits to prisons that George is not the exception. His story and thousands like it all contain the same elements and the same causes that lead those young men to crime in the first place and explain why they go back to prison time and time again.

The five trigger points that lead to criminal behaviour and subsequent prisoner re-offence are clear. These are five areas on which government can take action, to a greater or lesser extent. First, we live in a society in which nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Broken homes are now the norm rather than the exception, as they were 50 years ago when I was growing up.

Secondly, if someone commits crimes when young, what chance does he have of a sound, thorough, if basic, education? Without that, how can he find a job? Thirdly, when someone ends up somewhere like Feltham, of which I have detailed knowledge and experience, there is a real chance that he will meet others who will promote his criminal ways. Non-criminal friends are vital if he is not to offend again. Fourthly, once in prison, there is no resource to educate, train or inspire for life outside the prison walls.

Fifthly, as the Minister knows, I have often raised the issue in your Lordships' House of the link between prison, crime and drugs. When visiting Brixton recently, I was told that 40 per cent of all remand prisoners had taken illicit drugs in the previous 72 hours. Thirty-three per cent of men on remand and nearly half of sentenced men reported using drugs during their time in prison.

The tragedy is that for George and thousands like him it is the life outside prison that is frightening and in which they feel inadequate and not the custodial life behind bars. That is where they feel safe, protected and able to lead the lives that we have taught them to expect. We often ask whether prison is a deterrent to the young potential offender. That is a fair question. But we should also ask whether life inside prison now deters people from welcoming the opportunity of taking up a responsible life in the outside world.

9.57 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, perhaps I may add my thanks to the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, for this debate. He is right to express his concern. The prison statistics make grim reading. Last year the average population in custody was 64,600, the average remand population was 11,270 and the sentenced population increased by 2 per cent from an average of 51,690 to 52,690.

The incarceration of female prisoners must also be a matter of concern. Their number increased by 3 per cent from an average of 3,250 to 3,350. In England and Wales there were 124 prisoners for every 100,000 members of the general population. That was the second highest among western European countries. Only Portugal has more prisoners relating to its population.

There are questions that I ask repeatedly, having served as a member of the board of visitors and a magistrate, and having taken part in a number of criminal justice agencies. Why are so many people remanded in custody? Why are so many mentally ill people in prison? Why are so many women incarcerated?

There is an encouraging sign that the crime rate is falling and there seems to be a recognition at least that that is largely a result of crime prevention rather than the operation of the criminal justice system. We need more detailed information and public debate about sentencing to try to reach more of a consensus about what we want to achieve. We should be more questioning of the use of imprisonment.

Perhaps I may congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Warner, chairman of the Youth Justice Board. He expressed concerns about the number of young offenders being given custodial sentences when community sentences might be more appropriate. I also welcome the latest statement by the Home Office that in future the publication of recorded crime statistics will regularly be accompanied by the results of the British crime survey. That will provide a more accurate picture of crime patterns and trends.

The tough approach to crime may have widespread public support but this is ineffective in reducing crime. The matter is not helped by the way in which some of the media report crime. Your Lordships might care to cast your minds back to the time when they made much of the 4.3 per cent rise in recorded violent crime.

It is simplistic to argue that society is becoming less safe. The fear of crime has far exceeded crime itself. More people are now reporting crime. The police have done a lot to encourage victims to report offences such as rape, racially aggravated attacks and domestic violence. Greater confidence in the police is an important element not only in reducing crime but also in reducing the fear of crime.

Alternative to custody must now form the basis of our crime prevention strategy. It is not to say that violent criminals should not be sent to prisons. It is to argue that we are making excessive use of prisons and prisons are an ineffective way of preventing re-offending, particularly by young male offenders. The latest prison statistics show that around three-quarters of young men released from prison were reconvicted within two years.

I welcome the increased attention, which the Government are currently giving to the resettlement needs of released prisoners. I also welcome the range of recent resettlement-related initiatives, including the establishment of the Prison Service Custody to Work Unit and the Social Exclusion Unit's current inquiry into reducing reoffending by released prisoners.

The damaging effects of imprisonment on offenders' community ties are well documented and the right reverend Prelate dealt with that subject. The resettlement survey carried out by NACRO—the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders—which I chair, shows that 55 per cent of prisoners were unemployed before entering prison, while another 34 per cent lose jobs because of their prison sentence. Whereas 13 per cent of prisoners were homeless before imprisonment, another 34 per cent lose homes as a result of their imprisonment. One-third of prisoners in NACRO's survey state that they have lost contact with families during their time in prison.

An important aspect of diversion away from crime relates to how we deal with recidivism. Here I welcome the latest joint thematic review by HM Inspectors of Prisons and Probation. The core message they convey is very simple. It calls for, a national strategy to be drawn up and implemented and identifies some of the changes necessary in the system, approaches and priorities of both the prison and probation services to support co-operative and targeted work and achieve the effective resettlement of offenders sentenced to imprisonment". Both Rod Morgan, the Chief Inspector of Probation, and Anne Owners, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, are new appointments. I wish them well in this important work. They have a tough job to follow their predecessors.

Research shows that unemployed former offenders are twice as likely to reoffend as those who get and keep a job. Homeless former prisoners are nearly two-and-a-half times as likely to be reconvicted as those with stable accommodation. Prisoners without family support are between twice and six times more likely to reoffend than those with support from a family. Drug dependent former offenders who continue using drugs commit around five time more offences than those who enter treatment programmes.

Most prisoners are short-term prisoners. Of the 90,000 people sentenced to imprisonment each year, 60,000 received sentences of less than 12 months. In addition, short prison terms are served by around 45,000 people who are remanded in custody each year but who do not subsequently receive prison sentences—they are either acquitted or given non-custodial sentences. Short-term and remand prisoners receive no post-release supervision from the probation service. Any assistance they receive is from voluntary organisations whose funding is limited and whose availability is therefore geographically variable.

Recent recommendations on sentencing reform in John Halliday's report Making Punishments Work, which has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, include proposals for a new sentence of "custody plus" under which short-term prisoners will receive post-release supervision from the probation service. While that would be a very welcome reform, we should not believe that that alone means that prisoners' practical needs relating to housing, employment, benefits and family support will necessarily be sorted out. Many young and adult prisoners serving sentences of over 12 months, all of whom already receive short-term supervision, receive wholly inadequate help with such practical problems. Many probation officers do not regard it as part of their responsibility to provide direct help with housing and employment problems.

Often such help is provided, if at all, by underfunded voluntary organisations. Yet, according to parliamentary Answers given to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, earlier this year, the Home Office plans three-year funding increases of 20.4 per cent for the police; 37.4 per cent for the probation service; 29.4 per cent for the CPS; 12.8 per cent for the Prison Service; and 35 per cent for victim support organisations, but no increase for voluntary organisations that work with offenders. John Halliday says in his review: Involving voluntary organisations in areas like employment, housing and mentoring will be essential to reduce risks of re-offending. How that should be done—independently or within contracts or service level agreements with statutory services—is beyond the scope of this review; but if all provision for work with offenders under sentence were to be made through statutory services, it would be desirable to have a substantial component earmarked for funded partnerships with voluntary organisations". I plead with the Minister to ensure that adequate resources are channelled to voluntary organisations which are so important and to make sure that many of them which suffer hardship at the present time have at least the resources to be able to continue the good work that they are doing.

The report of the Prison and Probation Inspectorates' joint thematic review Through the Prison Gate recommended that the Home Office should produce and implement a resettlement strategy and that the Prison Service and the National Probation Directorate should work together to develop a co-ordinated partnership plan which is monitored to assess its impact on the resettlement of offenders. These recommendations are sensible as far as they go, but if any national resettlement strategy is to be effective it must also include the voluntary sector as an equal partner. This can be done by involving the Alliance for Reducing Offending which includes all the national organisations involved in prisoners' resettlement and can speak jointly on their behalf.

Four important changes are needed to make a resettlement strategy work properly. First, we need a national strategy for the involvement of the voluntary sector in providing services for the resettlement of prisoners, such as housing, employment, mentoring, mental health and addiction problems. This should be drawn up in partnership between the statutory side—the Home Office, the National Probation Service and the Prison Service—and the Alliance for Reducing Offending which represents the voluntary sector.

Secondly, there needs to be a national policy decision that in every prison there should be a resettlement team, not simply a resettlement committee, but a team of full-time staff, like the education department. Its members should speak to prisoners at every induction course about its services; interview every single prisoner, sentenced or on remand, who enters the prison; take, or help the prisoner to take, immediate action to keep open the prisoner's existing accommodation and job wherever possible; draw up a practical resettlement plan for every prisoner; carry out housing advice work to line up accommodation on release; carry out job preparation and job search work; co-ordinate regular input into the prison from outside agencies which can help with prisoners' resettlement; make links with community projects; and run pre-release courses.

These aims could include suitably trained seconded prison officers or probation service officers, but they should be run by the voluntary sector contractors and work in partnership with the Prison Service.

Finally, tomorrow I chair the annual general meeting of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. My message is clear: in some cases changes are not happening fast enough. At a time when crime is decreasing we see prison numbers rising. Home Office projections now estimate that the prison population could reach the 80,000 mark in the next few years. That will make us the prison capital of Europe. This crisis in public policy—that even when crime rates are going down, the Government feel that it makes political sense to allow prison numbers to rise—needs to be addressed with some urgency. We can make a start, a positive start, which will prevent our young people from re-offending.

10.10 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Dundee should feel gratified that in this debate he has brought forth a strong and unified approach to the problem of prisoner recidivism and a common recognition of what is required to reduce this particularly difficult problem.

I come to this field as a novice. It made depressing reading that about half of all crime is probably committed by about 10 per cent of the criminal fraternity, of whom over half are under 21, three-quarters started offending between the ages of 13 and 15, two-thirds are drug users, three-quarters have no work and half have no qualifications.

Frankly, by the time that we reach this problem we are too late. I do not apologise to my noble friend for making that point. If we went back to an earlier stage we could perhaps do something to reduce prisoner recidivism by qualifying children, who would otherwise have horrendous problems, for life so that they did not finish up as criminals. That aspect is very important. This goes back to a poor family life, perhaps no family life, and certainly in many instances, if not most, a broken home. The divorce rate has already been mentioned. I am sure that that is a potent factor in the unsettlement of so many young people. Another factor is areas where unemployment is too high. These are all problems we are all aware of. Truancy was not mentioned much tonight, but again that is all too often a precursor to criminal activity.

There are also the children with no educational motivation. Schools do the best they can but in the end they have to devote their resources to those who are receptive. Therefore, some children benefit very little, if at all, from their time in school. These are all failings which matter in this respect.

I return to the problem of prisoner recidivism. When it comes to rehabilitation, when someone is trying to rebuild a life that already has a basis of failure, that person has a very deep problem indeed. We need especially to address that aspect.

Although I am always sceptical about government expenditure, a large increase in expenditure on the criminal justice system is being put in place. But I wonder how much of that will come through into the prison service, and, more particularly, into those aspects of the prison service which will really help to educate prisoners, to give them a purpose, to increase their social skills so that they have some chance of getting on with people and becoming part of the community outside, and to give them qualifications so that they will get employment. All the work that is being done to improve performance in the courts and to increase—heaven help us—the number of prison cells will achieve nothing unless we seek to correct the problems of endlessly repetitive crimes being committed by the same groups of people.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this evening's debate was highlighted in the remarks of my noble friend Lord Chadlington when he spoke of George: prison becomes home. If that is the problem with which we have to deal, then although prison life should not be so grim as to be unbearable, we need to ensure that life back in the community is so ordered that prisoners are able to make a fresh start.

We should think carefully about the question of drugs. A great deal of evidence suggests that drugs are relatively easily available to people incarcerated in our prisons. Outside prison, the fact is that a drug habit provides an extremely strong financial motivation to indulge in criminality. Once a person is hooked on drugs, his demand for cash rises enormously and in a manner that is difficult to meet by honest means. The tendency is to fall into criminal ways.

Given that situation, I find it somewhat disturbing to read the mixed messages as regards drugs. On the one hand, drugs are readily obtainable in our prisons, while, on the other hand, the Government have recently taken a step over cannabis, possibly in the right direction. But, as I have said, at present the message is too mixed. The Government appear to be soft on some drugs, whereas in fact the use of Class A drugs is a serious criminal offence, as is anything to do with the distribution of drugs—and rightly so. Nevertheless, the question is raised whether drugs, which form such a powerful motivation to criminality, should not become far more controlled than the free market conditions which the criminal environment provides. Perhaps that is a matter for another day, but I cannot help but think that we shall not be able to solve the problems of crime and recidivism without instituting dramatic developments in how society treats drugs.

This has been a good debate. If, with their increased investment, the Government think that they can change totally the ethos of the Prison Service, then there may be progress. However, it was disturbing to learn that programmes based on Christian principles might be frowned on because the service could not be seen to take a position in favour of a particular religion. I am sure that the correct response to that is, as has already been pointed out, to offer other religions the opportunity to work with prisoners in a similar fashion. Not the least of the problems faced by prisoners is that most of them have nothing to believe in. That too is something they need.

I have always believed that mankind was put on the face of the planet to toil, but those who work in this field are indulging in a labour of Hercules.

10.19 p.m.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, we are all deeply grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, for raising this important issue and to all noble Lords who have spoken. There is no question but that reoffending by ex-prisoners is one of our most intractable social problems. I do not think that anyone can deny that. I make the same commitment as I made in our previous debate on prisons. On the points that I do not address—I suspect that that will be the majority of them—I promise that I shall write individually to each noble Lord who has spoken. All the questions deserve answers, and I shall see that they are provided. I would like to have given a few more answers now, but that will not be possible in the time that remains.

Let me give the bad news first: last Friday, the prison population reached an all-time high of 68,181. The figure is slightly lower today because of releases, but it reached that all-time high last Friday. That is not something of which this country can be proud or about which we should boast. As every noble Lord who has spoken knows, there are some people in prison who should not be there and, obviously, a few people are let out who should not be released. The fact of the matter is that we cannot boast about it, as we have a real problem on our hands with the size of the prison population.

I should like to deal with the themes of as many speeches as possible. I promise that I shall address the issue of the Kainos programme before I finish. The issue of drugs was raised by many noble Lords. We have many more drug programmes in prison than ever before. These days, they are part of the central fabric of the Prison Service. In every prison that I visit, people talk to me about what they are doing about drugs. It is true that drugs are still getting into prisons. I do not know how that is the case, but nevertheless, serious work is being done to try to change behaviour in terms of drug use. In many ways, that goes beyond the mandatory drug testing. This House and the other place have recently introduced orders on drug testing for people picked up and charged with some of the acquisitive crimes. We have got a serious problem and no one is going to gainsay that.

There is another issue that was raised by most noble Lords: preparation for coming out of prison. There is no doubt that having no job, no home and a family that has disappeared is a lethal cocktail that is bound to equal getting back inside for the vast majority of people. There is no easy answer to that. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, that I have met George. Anybody who has gone into prisons and listened to some of the young people there will have met him. I was very depressed when I met my George just after I came to this House, when I visited an establishment in which young people were held. The exact points that the noble Lord made were made then.

On education, I have done the odd very short prison visit as regards which one could not take the necessary time. I have sometimes said "Show me your education facilities" or "Show me your health facilities". I have gone unannounced and on state visits. But there is no doubt about it: in terms of education, there has been massive progress over the years since I first visited constituents after I became a Member of the other place.

Employability is fundamental. I have some figures which show that more than 60 per cent of prisoners have such poor basic skills that they are excluded from 96 per cent of all jobs. That research was done a while ago, but we have no reason to believe that the situation is any different today. Research has shown that level 2 qualifications are a major factor in helping individuals to gain employment. Almost 12,500 level 2 basic skill qualifications were achieved last year and the target for 2003–04 is 21,000. However, the majority of prisoners are at level 1 or below in literacy. We have an agreed basic skills target of 7,500 qualifications at entry level and 7,500 at level 1. That is pretty fundamental. Many of the programmes are subcontracted and run by colleges and not by the prison itself. That is a very important part of the programme.

I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on the issue of dyslexia. He raised it in a very detailed way and deserves an answer, especially in view of some of the statistics that he gave, which varied from 17 to 50 per cent. I can well understand that for short-term prisoners it is a major problem.

The last prison that I visited was Long Lartin. I called there at one o'clock the other day. I rang from the car park—my private office — to say, "Let the director-general know that I am about to knock on the door of Long Lartin to visit for a couple of hours". It was a quick visit. Obviously there are a lot of long-term prisoners in such a prison. Much more can be done with the programmes there. It is much more difficult to get the prisoners incentivised because they are going to be there for a while, but it provides a contrast. Prisoners can take Open University courses because they are going to be there for years: they can switch on and switch off. It is very difficult to get an effective programme organised for a prisoner who is in and out in 12 months and who may have been in three different prisons. It is a serious issue. As to the problem of dyslexia identified by the noble Lord, I hope to come back to him in some detail.

One or two noble Lords mentioned the Social Exclusion Unit study. I was involved in one aspect of this when I was a DSS Minister in the other place before the general election. I am very conscious that there are difficulties for people coming out of prison and straight on to benefit when the flow is not seamless. It is true that it is better for people to go into work, but the flow is not seamless if you cannot get into work and you are denied benefits because you cannot prove who you are, or you do not have an official piece of paper with your national insurance number on it. Those kind of issues are being addressed. We have to find solutions to them, otherwise we shall be storing up more trouble. We know that people will end up back in prison because they need the money.

As to the issue of restorative justice, I do not know as much about that issue as I should. A magistrate, who is a long-standing personal friend of mine, was waxing lyrical about a meeting she had been to in the Thames Valley area; she was absolutely full of it. She had written to the Home Office—I was pleased that the reply had been sent before I checked to see where it was—in a positive way. We are working on this. The Prison Service is working with the International Centre for Prison Studies to explore the potential for restorative justice initiatives.

We have to take on board that such schemes require the consent of victims. They are not wholly suitable for some persistent, long-term offenders who commit serious crimes against the person. We have to be careful. However, if we can model a system of restorative justice to help deal with some prisoners, we should use it and explore how it can be extended further.

There is education outside the classroom of course. I accept that the average figures for people who are locked up and denied purposeful activity mask enormous variations in the different prison establishments. I was at a prison last week where the prisoners are literally not coming out of their cells at all. They do not want to come out; they are so dangerous and so on. They are not coming out, and that can distort averages. Nevertheless, we have to provide more purposeful activity with, it is to be hoped, a job at the end of it.

As to Kainos, I have the lines to take here, a draft speaking note and a background note. But there will not be time to read either the lines to take, my draft speaking note or the background note, so I shall pick and choose from little bits of them. I shall deal with the matter in some detail by correspondence.

There will be a delay with the Verne's withdrawal from the programme, simply because of the way in which the dormitory accommodation was configured. More time will be allowed for a suitable replacement programme to be found.

As has been said, the Kainos community programme is a Christian-based offender treatment programme. It had been allowed to operate on an experimental basis in four prisons—Highpoint North, Highpoint South, Swaleside and the Verne—over the past two years in order to see whether, through independent evaluation, it could demonstrate its claim to make a significant impact on reoffending.

The evaluation has now been completed. While it has shown some modest, positive effects on prisoners' attitudes and behaviour, the research found that the programme had no impact on reconviction rates in the 12 months after the prisoner's release. In the light of that, the Prison Service decided as a matter of policy that it would not be right to continue the programme, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said. It said that it would take a similar approach with any faith-based offender treatment. I understand that this was done in the light of the evaluation and other available information, including the views of the Chaplain General and the Muslim adviser. I have no evidence that the programme was under attack from other religious groups. I shall seek more information about the particular rates; but the general thrust of the information is that, following an independent evaluation, the programme was found not to do the job intended. That was the reason for abandoning it. I give way to the noble Lord.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will take the opportunity to read the whole of the letter from which I quoted, and then consider whether the reason that he is now giving is the reason that was advanced by the authorities for closing the course.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I shall certainly take the opportunity to read the letter. If the figures are available, as I assume they must be, I shall also provide the detailed figures for which the noble Lord asked.

I cannot do justice to all the detailed points that have been raised. The programmes are taking place, based on research, in an attempt to change people's behaviour once they are inside prison and to make sure that they do not return to prison. The problem seems intractable, but an enormous amount of resources is going into the programmes—as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, accepted—over the next two years following the previous spending review.

Not all the programmes are perfect. Some are in their early days and we do not have sufficient results to come before the House with a compact on the basis that "this system works" or "this system does not". It is too early to say. I am certain that your Lordships will return to this issue on a regular basis. I can provide detailed reports from time to time on the progress of the schemes.

I shall seek to answer in correspondence the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, regarding voluntary organisations. The nature of the sentence, whether inside or outside prison, is fundamental. In due course, when we come to debate the consequences for the legislative framework and the criminal justice system following the publication of the Halliday report, we shall no doubt have extensive detailed debates on this issue.

I come with bad news as regards the level of the prison population. Nevertheless, work is going on around the country. I refer in particular to the Head Start programme in the North of England, about which I have been briefed in the past few days. Excellent programmes are taking place in northern prisons. I understand that hotels are taken over; employers go to the hotel, listen to the prisoners, see what they have done by way of work in the prison, and see whether jobs can be found for them when they come out; programmes are taking place and people can apply for jobs in association with the Commonwealth Games in a systematic way from one of the prisons. Prisoners will apply in the same way as normal members of the public. The idea is to prepare them in terms of filling in forms and doing the necessary work in prison. In that way, they stand a chance of leaving prison and going straight into a job, thus becoming part of the mainstream of our employment programme.

I accept the point that was made about international comparisons. Croatia was mentioned. We are interested in what other countries are doing and in what we can learn from them. We obviously have a great deal to learn, given the scale of our prison population compared to the population in the country. There are differences in jurisdictions and in legal and social contexts which must be taken into account. But in working to reduce re-offending we shall draw on the best of the international research. If a country has a programme that works, we shall look to see whether we can use the best from that research to apply to our own circumstances. We have no shutters up against any ideas in regard to one of our most intractable social problems—namely, the vast number of young men who keep returning to prison. We must do something for the Georges of this world, and we must be accountable if we do not succeed in doing so.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will he reassure the House that, even though he has expressed reservations about the Kainos project, the Government affirm and wish to encourage the work of church groups in prisons, not least in the area of preventing recidivism?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, as a general point, that is absolutely so. There is no reason whatever why church groups and the voluntary sector should not be involved in a positive way. This was a one-off project in four prisons funded for two years on the basis that it would be evaluated independently. Independent evaluation has demonstrated—I paraphrase— that it did not work. It did not work—I cannot go beyond what I have quoted—as regards reconviction in the 12 months after people left. I do not know whether there are any more figures available.

We are not putting up the shutters with regard to church groups and faith groups which make a contribution in that area.

House adjourned at twenty-three minutes before eleven o'clock.