HL Deb 10 March 2003 vol 645 cc1101-3
Lord Janner of Braunstone

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they expect the prison population in the United Kingdom to rise during the next five years; if so, by what number and proportion; and what steps they are taking to enable the prison system to cope with any such increase.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, the Government will continue to provide the places necessary to accommodate those sentenced by the courts by providing additional capacity together with other measures, including reforms to the criminal justice system. They recognise that they must provide for a prospective increase in the prison population over the next five years. They have already announced plans which will increase the capacity of the prison estate by more than 3,000 by the year 2005–6.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend accept that our prisons are dangerously overcrowded and are likely to become more so even with the changes that Her Majesty's Government have in mind? Does he accept that the Prison Service is gravely overstressed and overworked? Does he understand that reforms to ensure that prisons are not filled with people who should not be in prison at all but should be on community service are long overdue? In view of the very serious situation, when can we expect really vigorous action?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, whether or not people should go to prison is a matter for the courts. Serious, persistent and dangerous offences will always merit prison sentences. The prison population at the moment is in the region of 72,000. That is not quite up to capacity. We recognise that we must provide more prison places, hence the announcements to which I referred in my main Answer. The question is not whether community sentences are better than custody but rather what is appropriate for the offence and the offender.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the scheme that has operated since 1999 of the National Grid Transco Foundation whereby young offenders are trained while they are in prison to become engineers or forklift truck drivers? That is having a remarkably good effect with only 6 per cent reoffending among the 94 who have been trained to date. Does the Minister think that that is a desirable scheme to help more people to become useful members of society?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am not aware of that scheme but my noble friend Lady Ashton is aware of it and informs me that it is extremely successful. Such schemes that try to help people in prison learn a skill and provide them with the means of getting a job when they leave are extremely good. One of the matters on which the Criminal Justice Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, focuses is to make sure that people in custody receive training that will help them not to reoffend when they leave. However, they need support when they leave custody to try to ensure that that happens.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the rising prison population results in intolerable conditions in our prisons? Will he take into account the anomaly that although the crime rate for certain crimes is falling, the prison population is rising? The latest figures available from the Home Office indicate that the custody rate in Crown Courts for indictable offences rose from 45 to 64 per cent and that the sentence length for adults rose from 21 to 26 per cent. Will the Minister examine where within criminal justice sentencing that anomaly arises?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as I indicated, the number of people going to prison has increased. Capacity is also being increased. The work done by the Prison Service in providing tolerable conditions, education and training programmes and anti-offending behaviour programmes is impressive. One should not lose sight of that. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is right to say that, overall, crime has gone down over the past few years. However, the mix of cases going through the courts needs to be looked at to ensure that it is still the case not only that the appropriate people are going to prison but also that the appropriate people are receiving community sentences.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord share the encouragement that many of us feel at the rising number of people who are concerned about the rehabilitative function of the Prison Service? Is he glad, therefore, that the Chaplain General gave the General Synod an account of the number of young people with mental health problems now in prison and that the Chief Inspector of Prisons' meeting at the General Synod was one of the best attended? Does he accept that there is now a strong group in our society who support the Government in finding a larger number of appropriate sentences that can really benefit offenders and restore them to a useful place in society?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

Yes, my Lords, I am encouraged by that. I am extremely grateful for the support of the right reverend Prelate for real steps to try to reduce reoffending; that is, effective community sentences but also effective resettlement measures, both within prison and outside the prison gates, particularly in the context of drug-fuelled offending. We know all too well that people who step outside the prison gates without proper support all too readily fall back into the same habits that caused the crime in the first place.

Lord Morris of Aberavon

My Lords, given that a high proportion of the prison population is made up of reoffenders, what priority are the Government giving to examining the causes of reoffending? Are they winning on that front? Despite the increase in education provision in prisons, when does the Minister think that there will be adequate education provision and psychiatric help in prison?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, we have sought to examine closely the causes of reoffending. One can never come to a firm conclusion but the Social Exclusion Unit published a report last year in which it addressed the issues that cause most reoffending. I refer particularly to people in custody. As one would expect, the report refers to lack of employment, lack of good housing, lack of connection with family and a connection with drugs and alcohol as issues that cause reoffending. Addressing those issues helps to reduce reoffending. That is what the Social Exclusion Unit report recommends and that is what the Criminal Justice Bill seeks to promote.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, are there sufficient centres in prisons for young women offenders?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, on the number of places specifically for young offenders, the number of young women—that is, those under 18—in prison is too high, but the figures have gone down. The number of women overall in prison has gone up.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that one of the reasons for the steep rise in the number of women prisoners is the huge numbers of drug mules who are being sentenced to comparatively long sentences of up to seven years' imprisonment? Would the noble and learned Lord consider giving courts the power to award suspended sentences to drug mules, with recommendations for deportation so that they do not appear at our airports again?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, that is a matter for the courts, which have always taken an extremely serious view of drug mules. They have a variety of powers and have taken the view that long sentences are appropriate. I have no intention of taking a different view.

Lord Acton

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, we are past allocated time now. We cannot just trundle on with the same Question.

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