HL Deb 06 March 2002 vol 632 cc255-7

3.00 p.m.

Lord Elton

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they intend to take to reverse the growth in the prison population in England and Wales.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, that is not fair. I have just said to my noble friend Lady Blackstone, "Don't do what you did yesterday and give the killer answer that doesn't create any supplementaries".

The prison population has risen to unprecedented levels. The figure, as of this morning, is 70,019. We are committed to dealing with the issue. Prison must be targeted effectively and used for dangerous, serious and persistent offenders. We are committed to a radical re-think of the sentencing framework in order to make sense of sentencing by protecting the public, punishing people for the crimes that they have committed and ensuring that we engage in rehabilitation to reduce offending and prevent crime.

We welcome the approach adopted by the Lord Chief Justice and senior colleagues in underlining the fact that lengthy prison sentences should be focused on violent and repeat offenders, with appropriate intensive community sentences replacing short and ineffective custodial decisions.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I recall the discomfort with which, 22 years ago, I announced from that Dispatch Box a prison population figure that was over 23,000 less than the one that the Minister has just given, so I sympathise with the Minister as I thank him for the Answer. It must have been difficult to give the Answer against the background of the pleas made by the Lord Chief Justice to magistrates, recorded in today's press, and more difficult still in view of the Home Office's own prediction that the level in September 2003 will be 71,500.

When will the Government recognise that nothing that they are doing—or have been doing—has had an effect on this horrible phenomenon? When will they realise how much cheaper and more effective it would be—as well as more humane—to spend £5,000 to £6,000 on each child known to be at risk of becoming a criminal, rather than spending £25,000 a year, as they now do, imprisoning the small proportion of such offenders who are caught and put into custody, each of whom is reckoned by NACRO to have cost society £75,000? Surely, common sense, humanity and good economics all show that we should concentrate on getting to the children before they offend, not on trying to lock them up afterwards.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I agree with much of what the noble Lord has said. I fully accept that he was in this position 20 years ago. I was checking up on some of the issues this morning, and one that was drawn to my attention was the possibility of executive action under a piece of legislation from 1982. Lo and behold, when I looked to see who the then Home Secretary was, I discovered that the Minister of State was today's questioner.

There is a serious issue. We can make predictions of the prison population, but the fact is that the figure is 2,000 to 3,000 higher than was predicted in October/ November last year. There has been a substantial increase in the past few months. There is no single factor, but some factors have been highlighted and raised in the House. There is a large increase in the female prison population, especially in the past 12 months. There are two reasons for that: one is a large increase in the amount of fraud committed by women and the other is the substantial number of foreign nationals involved in the import or export of drugs. So there are some serious issues.

Nevertheless, as I said in my Answer, giving people very short sentences for non-violent offences does not make sense. It clogs up the system, does not help with rehabilitation and gets in the way of the rehabilitation of persistent offenders when we are trying to reduce the number of such offenders who go back to prison. There is a serious problem, and we are taking steps to reduce it. Later in the year we will make proposals for sentencing policy, following last year's report from John Halliday.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that the proportion of the population in prison in England and Wales is the highest in Europe, with the sole exception of Portugal? Has not the time come to set a target to reduce prison numbers in England and Wales, so as to reach at least the European average? The present system is totally unacceptable.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, it may be that, with today's figures, we have actually topped Portugal. That is not something of which we can be proud, but the fact is that people are going to prison for non-violent, non-serious offences for very short periods. It does them no good, and it does not help the Prison Service to run a decent, professional penal policy of rehabilitation and training. That must be addressed, and I hope, in the light of the Lord Chief Justice's decisions yesterday, that those who are responsible for dishing out extremely short sentences—six months or less—will take note of what the Lord Chief Justice said.

The Lord Bishop of Durham

My Lords, can the Minister say what proportion of prisoners are on remand? What is being done to reduce the time that prisoners on remand spend in prison due to the processes of the legal system?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I regret to say that I do not have a figure for the numbers on remand, although I should have. The same applies as for short sentences: people must have a good reason for sentencing someone or holding them on remand. They must consider the nature of the offence and the likely outcome.

We read too often that, when a case is finished, the person concerned, having got a sentence, does not go to prison because he has probably spent longer than the sentence on remand. That shows a failure in the system on the part of those who are responsible for handing out short sentences.

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