Select Committee on Justice Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 340-359)


12 DECEMBER 2007

  Q340 Chairman: Good morning and welcome Mr Tidball, President of the Prison Governors' Association; Ms Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons; Mr Bridges, Chief Inspector of Probation; and Ms Lyon from the Prison Reform Trust. We are very glad to have you with us this morning. Which of you were consulted by Lord Carter? Nobody is volunteering.

  Anne Owers: At my request I had coffee with Lord Carter on one occasion in the Treasury in July.

  Q341  Mr Tyrie: This was at your request?

  Anne Owers: Yes.

  Juliet Lyon: At my request I had a cup of tea and a cup of coffee on two separate occasions with Lord Carter.

  Q342  Chairman: Otherwise.

  Paul Tidball: The PGA had an hour with Lord Carter which was a formalish hour, I think it was at his request. We managed to extract from him an interest in our putting in some written evidence after it but this particular inquiry did not formally ask for evidence in a way that I have been used to, as with effective sentencing for instance.

  Q343  Mr Tyrie: When you had these cups of coffee, were they on the basis of evidence that you had submitted?

  Anne Owers: No.

  Q344  Mr Tyrie: Was evidence requested?

  Anne Owers: No.

  Q345  Mr Tyrie: Did you submit evidence?

  Anne Owers: No.

  Q346  Mr Tyrie: Why not?

  Anne Owers: Because evidence was not requested and because actually I am producing evidence all the time every time I produce a prison report, but there was not a call for evidence in the way that there normally might be.

  Q347  Chairman: Were any of the ideas that Lord Carter is developing tested out on you, like large prisons for example?

  Anne Owers: No.

  Q348  Alun Michael: There is not much in the Report about how to cut reoffending in order to cut the requirement for prison places. Are there any glaring omissions in the report?

  Anne Owers: I think my own response is that it is disappointing. To be fair to Lord Carter one would not want to start from here, but I think—

  Q349  Alun Michael: That is usually the case.

  Anne Owers: This is a belated and narrow response to some of the issues that many of us have been raising for some considerable time. My fear is that what we will get is more prisoners and worse prisons, a focus on efficiency rather than effectiveness, and also a moving away of resources from those things which are currently leading to the rise in prisoner numbers, in other words things like the over-stretched Probation Service, the under-funded mental health services, the kind of things that Baroness Corston thinks are necessary for women and the kinds of support that are needed for those with complex needs coming out of prison. I would have preferred to see a more transparent and broader inquiry. I think it is a missed opportunity to do something like Lord Wolff did 15 years ago which would have allowed all these issues to be fed in and a public debate about what kind of penal policy we want.

  Juliet Lyon: I absolutely agree with the Chief Inspector and I think the Government had an opportunity in 2002 when the Social Exclusion Unit presented a report to the Prime Minister which made it abundantly clear that the solutions to preventing reoffending did not lie as was then in the Home Office, and as now in the Ministry of Justice. And that the only way that government would be able to solve the issue of reoffending was to go across departments to look to the Department of Health to look to Housing, to look to other initiatives in much the same way as the Children's Plan has just proposed a cross-government response. When you asked are there any gaps, it is the most narrow of narrow reports without consultation and without even reference, as the Chief Inspector says, within the criminal justice system to probation and other measures but, in particular without any reference to the role other government departments must play.

  Andrew Bridges: It is very easy to say but fiendishly difficult to do but to reduce reoffending you have got to do the right thing with the right people at the right time in the right way. It is about differentiated practice and that is very much about what offender management is about and prisons are part of that system. I think as far as this report is concerned, it is what was reasonable to expect given the brief but it is the wider questions which are the interesting questions.

  Q350  Alun Michael: You rightly say that prison is part of that equation but there is a relationship between the application of community-based interventions and prison interventions, is there not. Can you deal with one without the other?

  Andrew Bridges: The pattern has developed over the last 20 or so years that in terms of the whole spectrum of seriousness of offending that prison has expanded down the scale and community sentences have expanded even more down the scale and it is the other sentences that have shrunk. It really does not help to come at reducing reoffending by looking for one-size-fits-all panaceas; it has to be individualised.

  Q351  Alun Michael: Those responses are clear in general terms but there is the issue which the Report says little about which is of resources for community interventions. Would any of you want to comment on that?

  Andrew Bridges: I have been on the record on the question of the probation system in the forward of our last Annual Report making the point that the capacity has been gradually squeezed over a period of ten years and it is the whole question of efficiency savings which are entirely legitimate one year at a time but over a period of time they add up to a considerable amount. Government is correct that the resourcing for probation has increased by a considerable amount in the course of the last ten years but what they are required to do has increased by considerably more than that. If I could just take one figure in the last five years probation staffing has gone up by over 10% which is good but the number of people they have to deal with has gone up by over 20% and that is even before you start looking at what is being asked of Probation to do with them when they have got them.

  Juliet Lyon: Might I say something about the costings because I have an anxiety that the figure of £1.2 billion might not be quite right. I also have a concern. I do not fully understand, and maybe the Committee would want to investigate, how one can borrow ahead of the Spending Review. I thought the whole point of a Spending Review was to produce evidence in order to demonstrate a case for significant public expenditure, but there seems to be, as I understand it, an agreement already made that this money will be taken ahead of the next Spending Review. My understanding—and this is in discussion with senior people in the Ministry of Justice—is that we are talking about more than £2 billion. I think the greatest fear of the Prison Reform Trust is that expenditure on this scale, without proper public consultation and without proper parliamentary debate, will totally eclipse any real advances in rehabilitation, any real efforts to solve a very long-standing problem.

  Q352  Alun Michael: Understanding that position could we focus on the question which was glaring omissions in terms of how other interventions could reduce the requirements for prison, which obviously is the focus of the report? Is there anything anybody would like to add specifically?

  Anne Owers: I mentioned in my opening remark mental health services, for example. We produced a thematic review on the mental health of prisoners which pointed to the need of course to improve services within prisons but, crucially, to the need to improve services outside prisons and court diversion schemes that might direct people to them. There is a very helpful consultation paper at the moment on offender health which includes mental health, but my understanding is that there is no new money to be diverted to that.

  Juliet Lyon: Specifically on an example of a costing that would make a difference, the estimated cost of residential drug treatment following a PQ was £35,000 a year. All the evidence suggests that residential drug treatment is effective in enabling addicts to break an addiction which is fuelling most acquisitive crime. If we look at binge drinking, and I am not sure proper costings have been given as to how to enable people to stop hazardous drinking but we know that binge drinking is driving most violent crime and public disorder offences, It seems completely sensible to look at those two issues alongside mental health.

  Q353  Julie Morgan: The day after Lord Carter's report, we then had the Government response to the Corston proposals and I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you what your views were about the Government's response and generally about women in prison and how we should move ahead. Perhaps I could ask you first Juliet, because I know you were involved in the report.

  Juliet Lyon: I worked as a member of Baroness Corston's review team all of last year and I think we as a group were very optimistic that at long last, after a very long period of time from 2001 onwards when Government published its new strategy on women offenders which made it very clear that it believes the solutions to women's offending did not lie within the prison system, but at long last a very measured and thorough-going review would lead to a set of proposals which could change things radically and reduce offending by women. The Government have responded positively to 39 of the 43 recommendations. The omissions are disastrous. The money has not been allocated to take forward Baroness Corston's recommendations at all as far as I understand it and the Commission that Baroness Corston proposed that would drive the reforms has been dismissed. So you have a very small team of civil servants and ministers who undoubtedly are committed to wanting to take it forward. The intentions are still there. The policy commitment is still there. But I cannot see from my perspective any prospect of change or delivery and yet actually the proposal would interestingly in the light of the Carter proposals, over a ten-year period have freed up the women's prison estate entirely. Baroness Corston was quite clear that it was possible to close the women's prison estate, to establish small custodial units for those few women who were violent and needed to be locked up and a network of community centres which we observed—Asha in Worcester, Calderdale in Halifax and Centre 218 in Glasgow. All of which were up and running with extremely impressive results, in terms of outcomes and reduction in reoffending, simply by enabling women to take responsibility for their lives, to get out of debt, to take proper care of their children, to deal with their mental health issues and to break addictions. All of these three centres were delivering that in an impressive manner. I am almost speechless. It is such a tragedy to have Titans stamping over something that potentially would make a huge difference.

  Q354  Julie Morgan: That is certainly a very pessimistic view. Anne, have you got anything to say?

  Anne Owers: I am struggling to be more optimistic than Juliet but not entirely succeeding. I can remember and I think Juliet probably can as well that we have been here before. We were here in 2001 when Juliet's organisation and the Women's Policy Group in the Home Office put forward proposals for small community-based women's units and those got knocked out of the way by a rising prison population which led to more resources and energy being put into building prisons. I fear that we are running into the same kind of thing again and it is very disappointing that it was possible the day after Lord Carter's report to allocate whatever significant resources there are to the prison building programme but nine months after the Corston Report no significant money is forthcoming. It is also in the larger picture—I have to say I find it somewhat paradoxical that the approach towards women in prison, which I entirely support, is that we should put resources into things that are not prison and we should have smaller community-based places close to home but for any man over 18 the approach is we should put lots of money into building prisons and put them in prisons 2,500 strong. I would be the first to say that women are different but I would submit they are not that different.

  Q355  Chairman: We will come back to some of the implications of that.

  Andrew Bridges: I would just want to stick to the principle about what should be done with individual offenders and the Corston Report is right about providing an individualised service for individuals and it captures a range of individual issues that women in particular are likely to face including their vulnerability, but having said that, that is the same principle that should apply with this particular group of offenders, and in that sense I agree with Anne.

  Q356  Julie Morgan: Mr Tidball.

  Paul Tidball: I was the Governor of a women's prison not so long ago for over six years and regularly daily had to deal with people who were 150 miles away from home in some cases and had committed not much more than multiple shoplifting because they had a unfortunate and tragic drug habit. Across the piece not just about women's prisons I think we could think outside the box a bit as is now happening ironically now happening in the USA where a lot of money is invested in communities, not to reduce reoffending but to stop it happening in the first place even. Investment in communities is the way forward. I have referred to the USA. There are a couple of states in the USA where local authorities are actually given the sentencing budget and they decide what to do with it. This is being piloted in a couple of states and it has resulted in 70% less use of imprisonment so I am sure that in those states they will be investing that money that is diverted rather than spending the amounts of money we are talking about today into community facilities to support women and men. That is why they are able to reduce the huge expenditure on prisons.

  Q357  Julie Morgan: We did see some of the community work in the USA. What do you think would be the most important thing that could be done now to drive the Corston Report forward because I take the point that some of you have made that the same remedies are needed for men maybe but certainly we could lead the way with women and then we could follow with men, so what would be the most important thing now at this stage where we are to drive this agenda forward?

  Paul Tidball: My understanding is, having had a brief look at the Government's response, that the feasibility—I can understand the frustration about going back to 2001 and similar undertakings being made at the time, but the feasibility of women's custodial units nearer home will be looked at. The only way I would differ slightly from Lady Corston in fact is that she speaks of small, multi-functional custodial units. If they are secure units which are so secure that they do not have the facility to put women out into community activities from the custodial units, it is not going to be a multi-functional unit because it will not be big enough for it to be multi-functional. There would be a limit to the custodial regime that can exist in those units.

  Juliet Lyon: I think the Committee could, if I might say, play a critical role here. I am sure that Ministers have issued a strong statement of intent, led by David Hanson, and they have talked of the timeframe in which they are going to establish an inter-ministerial group and set up a cross-departmental criminal justice women's unit. It is not the same; it does not have the same level of authority or budget in the same way as Baroness Corston envisaged, but it does set a timeframe for moving the recommendations forward, which we welcome. If it were possible for your Committee to hold Government to account this time on a set of clear promises (but, as yet, as I said, no opportunity to deliver on those promises) and if it were possible to interrogate to see how it proceeds—I do not know whether that is possible.

  Chairman: It is like teaching grandmothers to suck eggs, but we will do our best! It is part of what we do.

  Q358  Alun Michael: Within the Carter recommendations there were some references to measures to cut demand for prison places—if we stay on that issue. Jack Straw gave a general and positive response to the report but do you think there is something more specific that is needed on those Carter recommendations? For instance, reform of the Bail Act, time spent on conditional bail, restriction of community sentences? Or is there anything else you want to refer to?

  Anne Owers: There is certainly a need to move on the IPP sentences, which the Lord Chancellor has said he will do. I think my concern about this, really, derives from what we have seen about Lord Carter's previous report, the 2003 report. Lord Carter then recommended two things very clearly: he recommended the creation of a National Offender Management Service and an offender management approach with it, but, also, that the prison population should be kept below 80,000. It is obvious which one of those we have got. This report recommends prison building and measures to reduce demand in the short and medium term, and in the longer-term a sentencing commission. My fear is which one of those we will get and how difficult it could be—and it has proved difficult previously—to reduce demand for prison places unless we do things differently.

  Juliet Lyon: In Annex E of Lord Carter's report on pages 50 and 51 he sets out a package of measures which we welcome—not all, I understand, the Ministry of Justice has responded to positively. Just very briefly, Prison Reform trust has produced a briefing paper which I shall submit on the IPP sentence,[3] just showing, really, how very rapidly, against projections and predictions and questions in the House, it had grown to well over 3,000 people serving those sentences (more than 400 of whom are now over tariff), and the way in which that badly drafted and very unjust measure had had a major impact on the population and those who have to administer the prison system. One of the things we have identified, in particular, in relation to IPP, because we are doing a programme of work on learning disability, is that those with a learning disability or an IQ below a certain level are disbarred from attending these programmes.[4] So they really are in a maze with no exit. They are, in effect, serving a longer sentence because of a disability, which I think is a human rights breach. We have submitted evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights to that effect. I do not think it is reasonable to have a sentence which requires people to jump through a series of hoops then not make those hoops available, and then to disbar particular individuals because of a disability from even entering that particular race. The measures on IPP are right to try and reduce its ambit, and, in the view of the Prison Reform Trust, it would have been legitimate to withdraw the sentence entirely. I think that might have been something the Lord Chief Justice has referred to on public record—that it was simply a bad sentence. If I might say just a couple of other things, because there are recommendations about bail, we know that, for example, if you look at the women's prison population, two-thirds enter on remand but when they get to a court case, after a matter of a few days, then a fifth are acquitted altogether and more than half go on to serve a community penalty. In our view, there is still an overall of custodial remand, and I think those recommendations would have made a difference. On recalls and the idea of limiting to 28 days, we know that six out of ten recalls to custody are for technical breaches of licence, and very many of those people are simply behaving in a chaotic way, which is difficult to manage but, arguably, does not warrant a long period of imprisonment. That has swelled the numbers colossally; 11% of the local prisons are now taken up by people on recall to prison. These measures seem to be very sensible to rebalance a system and reintroduce some degree of proportionality.

  Q359 Dr Palmer: I have a couple of questions to Mr Bridges, if I may. The pressure on your resources is clear, but talking to local probation officers they had two primary concerns: one is that they feel that a lot of the additional resources that have been given to the Probation Service have gone to the managerial level rather than to the front line, and the other is that they feel that they have been led into a somewhat defensive culture where, because of a few, high profile cases where somebody re-offended and it was found that the probation officer had not re-interviewed them at the appropriate date, they were really focused on box-ticking; on making sure that they had the required number of interviews at the required number of dates rather than the broader mandate of preventing re-offending. The combination of those two things made them feel that they were simply becoming much less effective.

  Andrew Bridges: Like everything else in the criminal justice system, everything is always terribly complicated and there is never a simple answer. So let's try to get the big picture. As I have said already, I think resources have gone up; demands have gone up by more. How much of that additional amount is down to additional management, as alleged by people who have spoken to you, yes, some of it—there is now an enormous national headquarters compared with the past—with a lot of it involved in probation policy and the equivalent of that ten years ago was absolutely minute. However, that is just a small part of the issue. A lot of it is specialist interventions which simply did not exist before; some of it is particular services that probation officers are required to do that they did not have before. So it is always complicated. It is a factor, but it is a bit of a stereo-type to say that it is the whole factor. As for the question of what probation officers are now required to do and are they defensive and on the back foot (and, of course, some people say: "Yes, well, look, if you publish reports like this then, of course, people will be on the defensive"), we are very clear about what is expected of probation staff and their partner staff in the police, the prisons, etc, when managing offenders, and it is to take all reasonable action. When we review a case and we say: "Yes, under the circumstances, they did everything that was reasonable", that is okay because you absolutely cannot eliminate risk in the community. This is the issue that is bedevilling all of the discussions about criminal justice. We say something is more effective than something else. You have to understand, it is by a few percentage points. Now, that is a big gain, a few percentage points, in numbers, but that also means there are lots of disappointments as well. Some of them are awful disappointments, and people get upset about them. So, yes, probation officers are being held accountable now in a way that they were not before, but what we are not doing is asking them to achieve the impossible.

3   Note by witness: The enclosed "Indefinitely Maybe?" Prison Reform Trust briefing highlights the unjust and unsustainable nature of the IPP sentence. Back

4   Note by witness: In my answer to Q358 I referred to the Prison Reform Trust's concern that since those with a learning disability or an IQ below a certain level are disbarred from attending offending behaviour programmes they are in effect serving longer sentences. Enclosed is a copy of the submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights to which referred in my answer. I also enclose a copy of our latest report on this important issue "No One Knows". Back

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