On Tuesday afternoon, I led a debate on Sentencing of Repeat Offenders in Westminster Hall.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. Attendance at today’s debate is affected by the debate in the main Chamber on access to GP services and NHS dentistry, but there is plenty to get our teeth into with the issues that we will be discussing over the next 90 minutes or so.
My initial point is that the Government are failing to deliver an efficient and effective criminal justice system. Instead of defending the indefensible and playing down law-breaking in Downing Street, the Justice Secretary should tackle the crime wave caused by repeat offenders, who are menacing our communities. The criminal justice system is failing communities at every level, and the Government are also failing our police, Crown Prosecution Service, Prison Service and probation service, thereby compromising public safety.
I must declare my interest: I was honoured to be invited to, and to speak at, the Prison Officers Association annual conference in Eastbourne last month, where I heard from numerous prison officers about ever worsening conditions in our jails. I am also a member of the justice unions parliamentary group, which is a coalition of the Prison Officers Association and its sister unions, including Napo, which is the probation officers union; the Public and Commercial Services Union; the University and College Union, which represents prison educators; and the Police Federation of England and Wales.
Before I continue, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to thank the exceptionally hard-working neighbourhood police teams who serve my constituency of Easington in County Durham. From the many conversations we have had, I know that they are frustrated, and I share their frustrations. Recruits join the police service to serve their community, to be on the streets and to protect the public. They do not expect to spend hours on the telephone effectively handcuffed to the desk, waiting for the overworked and understaffed Crown Prosecution Service to return charging decisions. While police officers are tied up with administrative tasks, the community clearly loses out, because the officers are not available to tackle the issues on the streets. Added to the mix is the loss of 20,000 police officers since 2010, which—make no mistake—was a political choice by the Conservative Government. I welcome moves to restore police numbers, but it will take many years, if not generations, to recover the years of lost experience.
Police officers work under challenging circumstances on the frontline, and they pick up the pieces when repeat offenders are released back into the community. In a letter to the Minister dated 9 June, I outlined the case of a prolific offender who has been charged more than 100 times with various offences. When he recently went to court, he was handed a community sentence—a non-custodial sentence—and a £10 compensation order, which is being paid at 25p a week. The victim is understandably disgusted and said he lacks confidence and faith in the criminal justice system.
I will elaborate some of the related issues and explain why prison is not as effective as it might be, although it is an important alternative, particularly for serial offenders. The victim of the particular crime that I referred to has completely lost confidence in the system and has said that he would not give evidence in future, because he thought that the sentence that was given was inappropriate—in fact he said that it was laughable.
When a case goes to court and the outcome is an affront to justice, it is the police who experience the fall-off in public confidence. Members might be aware that YouGov regularly conducts a survey in which it asks the public whether they have confidence in the police’s ability to deal with crime in their area. The trends are very worrying; 47% of the public lack confidence in the ability of the police to tackle crime, compared with only 43% who are confident in the police. Overall, the number of people who believe the police are doing a good job—nationally, and not in County Durham; I think we have an outstanding police force—has fallen from 75% to 53% in the last two years. I hope that sets alarm bells ringing for Ministers.
The failure is systematic. When I presented my Prisons (Violence) Bill in the previous Session of Parliament, I warned that offenders often left prison more damaged and more dangerous than when they arrived. The out-of-control levels of prison violence make rehabilitation in the current circumstances practically impossible. That leads to more reoffending, at a cost of tens of billions of pounds a year to the criminal justice system, as well as causing misery for millions of victims and their loved ones, who have to live with the consequences of even more crime.
That situation is more than an appalling waste of both public money and people’s lives; it is nothing less than a crime against our communities, and I must say that the Government are complicit in it. The Conservative Government and all Ministers are responsible, first, for the devastating cuts to the budgets of the Prison Service during the coalition years of austerity. It was those cuts that triggered the escalating level of violence in prisons. For example, the number of prison officers was cut by a quarter. That meant that a massive amount of experience, held by experienced prison officers, and of that most precious resource, which prison officers refer to as jailcraft, was taken out of the system at a stroke. The vacuum that was created was quickly filled by prisoners who had become more experienced than many officers on the landings of our prisons. The vacuum has also been filled by violence.
Despite recent recruitment drives, the Prison Service has lost almost 90,000 years of prison officer experience since 2010. That is a shameful statistic, but it just gets worse every year. As the experience of the prison officers who are in charge of our prisons goes down, violence goes up; there is a direct correlation. In turn, that leads to even more officers leaving the service. Not surprisingly, the retention rate for prison staff is at a record low, as of course is their morale.
It has not helped that this Government have raised the retirement age for prison officers to 68. Frankly, for prison officers—both men and women—who are grappling with young and fit criminals, 68 is far too old. It is a cruel policy, which we have discussed on many occasions in this place.
The Government consistently ignore the advice of their own experts. The Prison Service Pay Review Body has proffered advice that prison officers should be given a proper pay rise. Ministers have ignored experts for three years running, and we are currently waiting for them to respond to this year’s pay review body recommendations.
The Government broke our Prison Service when they robbed it of resource, in the name of austerity, and now they need to fix it if they want to have any chance of reducing reoffending. The Government have also broken our probation service with a failed privatisation experiment. They took an award-winning service, envied and held up as a model and example around the world, and smashed it—fragmented it into little pieces, each to be run for private profit.
I received numerous invitations from prison officers when I was in Eastbourne. I held a surgery for prison officers to raise concerns, anonymously if they wished, and there is a catalogue of issues to be addressed. Prison education is certainly one of those, but that is normally delivered by members of the UCU, the prison educators, who have an unenviable task, which I will come to in a moment.
I want to continue my point about the role of probation. In the complex jigsaw of the criminal justice system, there are vital elements: the police; magistrates; the Crown Prosecution Service; prison officers; the prisons themselves, which should be properly staffed and resourced; probation and prison educators. Those are all important elements of that mosaic. Probation officers play a vital role that is largely unrecognised in reducing reoffending. That is what their jobs are all about and how we gauge their success. They perform a vital public service, protecting our communities from crime, while helping ex-offenders to develop the skills they need to turn their lives around.
By introducing a profit motive into probation—a mistake since acknowledged—the previous Government betrayed the highly skilled and priceless work done by probation officers with many years of experience, leaving their pay, terms and conditions at the mercy of private firms, which tried to reduce their role to little more than a tick-box exercise. That led to a flood of resignations, with people leaving the system, and all the problems we saw as a result.
Even now, two years after the Government admitted defeat and announced a full reintegration and renationalisation of probation, the service is still in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis, very similar to the one in prisons. Napo has told me about the workload crisis facing its members. Many probation officers are working over their recommended offender management levels—the number of cases they have to look after—by between 20% and 50%, and in one case, by over 90%. The staffing and workload crises in probation have had terrible and tragic consequences in the past. It is no wonder that the mental health of many probation officers is at breaking point.
The Government have put the public at serious risk from reoffending by trying to run prisons and probation on the cheap, and undermining the pay and terms and conditions of those critically important workers in the process.
The greatest tool to tackle record rates of reoffending must be effective rehabilitation. At the heart of rehabilitation is education, which is desperately needed by so many prisoners. Prison education is a complete mess; that has been confirmed by independent inspectors, by the Education Committee, which is highly respected, and by Ofsted. The Government have announced plans for yet another shake-up, promising a new prison education service—I hope the Minister will say something about that. Unfortunately, details are still very thin on the ground. Ministers have had little to say about teachers, who, it might be thought, would be central to any new strategy to turn around the current, failing system. The Education Committee’s report said:
“Poor pay, lack of career development, unsafe working environments and no time or respect to do a quality job has left the recruitment and retention of qualified and experienced prison educators at crisis point.”
I hope that the Minister will listen, if not to me, then to the Education Committee, which is chaired by a Conservative, the right hon. Member for Harlow.
The problem is the Government’s ideological obsession with running key services, including the criminal justice system, for profit. Four giant prison education providers compete for business while cutting all sorts of corners to maximise profits. According to the union sources I have spoken to, pay and terms and conditions can vary widely. Any serious plan for fixing our broken prison education system should start with standard contracts across the whole sector, plus a pay rise to bring wages up to comparable roles outside. I do not want to go into the details of the issues that have been highlighted to me, but there are things that I hope will be included in the new prison education strategy, which the Minister might refer to when he responds.
Prisons are simply not fit for purpose. In the main, that is as a result of this Government’s savage cuts and poor treatment of the workforce—and all of us are paying the price. However, I believe that prison can and must work. A custodial sentence for a repeat offender provides the community with respite from their offending. In the communities that I represent, which in the main are fairly poor, a relatively small number of prolific offenders cause havoc and cause the majority of crime and antisocial behaviour.
Quite frankly, many of the most prolific offenders are linked to organised crime gangs and their links with the illicit drugs trade. I have done quite a bit of work as vice chair of the drugs, alcohol and justice all-party parliamentary group and I was heartened by the report published by Dame Carol Black in her review of drugs policy. She highlighted the need to divert resources into that area and quoted some quite interesting figures, showing that “a cohort of around 300,000 heroin and crack users drive nearly half of all acquisitive crime and homicides. Spending an average of £40 to £50 per day on drugs, these users cycle in and out of prison” in a kind of revolving door.
It is important that we address rehabilitation and proper prison education. There are some good models where they work very well. When the criminal justice system fails, it fails communities such as mine, which suffer from crime, antisocial behaviour and all the things that go with that. The Conservatives have portrayed themselves as the party of law and order and they like to claim that tag. However, the reality is that if we look at the prison system and the amount of reoffending, the Conservatives are the party of crime and chaos.
Cutting police funding by £1.6 billion since 2010 means it is not surprising that the number of people saying they have never seen a police officer on foot patrol has doubled in that time. I look forward to making the case and standing on a manifesto at the next election setting out Labour’s commitment to community policing. Multi-agency neighbourhood police hubs will deliver not only responsive policing but, more importantly, preventive policing. Highly visible policing may have an up-front cost and seem expensive, but effective policing can deliver significant savings further down the line in the criminal justice system. More importantly, effective and preventive policing creates happier, healthier and safer communities, reducing the number of crime victims.
In conclusion, I have some questions to put to the Minister. Twelve years after taking office, when will we have more police officers, police staff and community support officers than in 2010? The 20,000 promised at the last election was, in my opinion, an admission of failure—that the cuts had gone too deep. For our prisoner officers, my ask is this: what action is the Minister taking to tackle prison violence and allow prisons to reform, rehabilitate and educate offenders? Why are the Government refusing to measure the level of violence against prisoners and staff as part of their new key performance indicators, as I called for in my private Member’s Bill in the last Session? We want prisons to reduce reoffending and not hold offenders only for a defined period.
On the causes of crime, can the Minister deliver a practical and sensible solution to disrupt organised crime gangs and break the cycle of offending and reoffending with a reform of drugs policy? We need to overcome misinformation and political dogma to focus solely on cutting crime and the causes of crime.