My Lords, I am very pleased that the House has an opportunity to debate the causes of crime and reoffending and the effectiveness of rehabilitation, including the contribution made by the voluntary sector. I am also delighted to welcome the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, to the Front Bench—I believe that he was here yesterday, but this is his first debate. He is very welcome. The whole House will benefit from his expertise and experience, including as a judge for the General Court of the European Union and president of the Competition Appeal Tribunal. Most recently, he gave forthright advice to the Government following his criminal legal aid review. It is a nice touch that his central recommendation of a 15% funding uplift for fee schemes, increasing investment by £135 million a year, was announced by the Ministry of Justice the week he makes his maiden speech. I am sure the whole House is anticipating what he will say as keenly as I am.
I am thankful to all noble Lords who put their names down to speak and look forward to hearing all contributions, particularly that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. His report on the contributors to the riots that began in HMP Strangeways in 1990 and spread to 20 other jails was an indispensable foundation for my own two reviews. These built on one of his 12 recommendations, linking prison safety with family contact. I emphasised the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family ties to prevent reoffending—including, of course, while inside prison, the focus of the Woolf report—and intergenerational crime.
Before I turn to the importance of healthy and supportive relationships in rehabilitation, I want to start with the causes of crime and reoffending. There is not time to do justice to the many criminological theories that try to explain these causes, each of which has its own strengths, weaknesses and gaps and applies only to some types of crime and not others. Simply, some see individuals as rational actors capable of making their own choices, including whether to commit crime, by weighing up likely benefits and disadvantages. Others focus on relative deprivation and suggest crime happens when individuals or groups see themselves as being unfairly disadvantaged compared to others who appear similar. Front-line practitioners describe the high prevalence among criminals of family breakdown, father absence and other adverse childhood experiences, as well as neurodiversities such as dyslexia.
The Prison Service refers to criminogenic needs: the characteristics, traits, problems or issues in an individual’s life that directly relate to their likelihood of reoffending. The “big eight” are accommodation, employability, relationships, lifestyle, drug misuse, alcohol misuse, thinking and behaviour, and attitudes, as well as three others which affect how offenders respond to support—learning disability and challenges, mental health conditions and low maturity levels. However, the idea that there are causes of crime is a relative newcomer. The late Professor Christie Davies pointed out that it was not until the 1890s that the thought processes of the educated and prosperous elite became “causalist”. They looked down, as he put it, at
“a mass of weak people divided into the virtuous and the offending only by chance opportunities and adversities that caused them to act as they did. They were not truly free agents”.
In today’s parlance they would be termed “victims”, in the sense of those who have come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment.
The half century up to 1900 saw a decline in deviance: a drop in crime and social disorder that was directly linked to the influence on popular morality of religious institutions, notably the Sunday schools. These turned out such relatively law-abiding young people that the average age of prisoners rose. The turning point of this decline was the First World War, which started a flattening out, and the late 1950s ended it, just before the dawn of the sexual and social revolutions of the 1960s. That is when we begin to see Davies’s “U-curve of deviance”, based on data, not theory. This U-curve reflects a fall and subsequent rise in crime, drug and alcohol abuse and births outside of marriage. He associated this rise with a decline in “moralism”—knowing the difference between right and wrong—which implies that individuals have autonomy to choose whether they behave with, as he put it,
“virtuous innocence or deliberate guilt”.
This was gradually replaced by an ever-expanding legal corpus. To give an example, when I started in the City in 1963, its famous motto was still, “My word is my bond”. The complete trust in a word and a handshake slowly disintegrated to a recognition that one was bound only by what the law allowed or forbade. Religiously reinforced moralism, with its totemic notion of free will, was replaced by the causalism I described earlier. The loss of commitment to and identification with religion, and country, led in turn to a loss of the idea of service, sacrifice and the moral driver of duty. Perhaps one reason we admire the Queen so is because she embodies these values, which are self-evidently right and needed.
Not for a minute am I saying that the century when deviance fell and flattened was a perfect golden age. However, no one can say the changes that have taken place since the 1960s have produced one either. The House of Commons Library describes the history of crime in the 20th century as being dominated by the sharp rise in offences since the late 1950s. The 1960s were the only decade in the last century when crime doubled. Family breakdown has also soared. Half of all children are born outside an explicitly committed relationship. Hence, one-third of children live in separated families, a million rarely or never see their fathers and 80,000 are in local authority care. So, as we talk about the causes of crime today, we need to hold that concept in tension with Davies’s sense of de-moralisation. Ultimately, the cause is always the freely exercised decision of someone’s will to commit a crime—which may, of course, involve coercing others, against their wills, to be involved. But there is in everyone a contributor, without which they would not have ended up in criminal behaviour.
Turning to what is effective in curbing reoffending, the Ministry of Justice’s own statistics highlight how good relationships with families and significant others can aid rehabilitation. When I wrote my first review in 2017, reoffending rates were running at 43% and over 60% of children of prisoners went on to offend themselves and end up in prison. However, prisoners who receive family visits are 39% less likely to reoffend than those who do not. Intergenerational transmission of crime is, if anything, higher when mothers have been incarcerated, presumably because they are more often primary carers whose absence typically makes life more chaotic. Possibly as few as 5% of children stay in the family home, for example.
Yet the stark truth is that, pre pandemic, around half of prisoners were never visited. Given that around 25% were in local authority care, this is perhaps unsurprising. Looking at very recent reports from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, the level of visits in some prisons has not yet picked back up to its rate in early 2020. The Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service must be congratulated on the swiftness of the implementation of my reviews’ recommendations to make video calls available when prisons locked down at the beginning of the pandemic. However, these should complement and supplement but not replace physical visits.
In some jurisdictions only video “visits” are available, and this is very far from my policy goal. I met prisoners who longed to see their children in the normality of their home environment. One man, who had been in care, and in prison for almost three decades, yearned to see his only remaining relative, his grandmother, who was too old and infirm to visit. I heard about teenagers undertaking exams which precluded a long, possibly overnight journey to prison. A video call can make a huge difference when physical visits are not possible, but a woman I met recently highlighted the value to her daughter of seeing her father in the flesh, saying “When my daughter visited the prison, the school said it was a breath of fresh air for her, they could see how the face-to-face contact brought a massive improvement.”
The quality of physical visits is also another very live issue following the pandemic. I visited eight prisons in late April and late May this year to see how they were faring with their strategies to improve prisoners’ relationships with families and significant others. While so much of the outside world really has returned to normal, many prisons feel far from that, even if it is a long time since an outbreak. High Perspex screens shot up during the pandemic for public health protection, and social distancing was still in force. Gradual changes may have been made since my visits, but normality must be re-imposed everywhere on the estate as quickly as the restrictions were brought into force. It will be very important to clear away all artefacts of the pandemic, so that in 10 years’ time they have not become so entrenched in visits that, for example, no one knows why officers are still behind Perspex screens. Prisons should not be among the large sections of the public sector which seem to have a case of long Covid.
There are many vacancies in the Prison Service, and officers are being lost to Border Force among other places. Can my noble friend the Minister outline what the Government are doing to recruit and retain them? Without adequate staff, rehabilitation is almost impossible.
Other important rehabilitation activity addresses prisoners’ lack of education, employment skills and accommodation, and helps them to get off drugs. I know other noble Lords today will do justice to these issues, but relationships provide essential motivation. One deputy governor I met recently impresses on his staff that, “Without a supportive family to return to he’ll return to crime regardless of the education he takes part in and the accommodation he gets upon release.” We need to ensure that relationships are truly embedded in the reducing reoffending culture. That means that in all national and local strategies, and in every speech from politicians, families and relationships are firmly screwed in as the third leg of the rehabilitation stool, without which it falls over. I see part of my role as ensuring that this happens.
I turn briefly to the voluntary sector, which includes prison chaplaincy. The sector has a vital role to play in weaving that golden thread of relationships through all the processes of prisons. Although prison chaplains can be the overlooked service, they stayed on the front line during covid, as did many family service organisations. They are statutorily required to meet all prisoners upon arrival at a jail. On my recent visit to HMP Durham, a reception prison, I realised that these early days are possibly the most stressful time of a sentence. Indeed, Professor Alison Liebling found that one-third of all prisoner suicides take place in the first week of custody.
The organisation Nepacs runs a dedicated early days in custody programme in HMP Durham, and all the men on the wings know Tracy, who runs it. Her work is rooted in awareness that the huge stress that comes from being in prison, after being on the outside, is compounded by not having your glasses, not having your own underwear, or not having your own false teeth. She sources these, and the messages she passes between prisoners and their family members dampen some of the shock and crises all are experiencing straight after arrest or sentencing.
The voluntary sector often excels at spotting important unmet needs such as these and filling them, but organisations have to go to charitable trusts and dig into their own reserves to do pioneering work. The commissioning process needs to incorporate and act on proven effectiveness of new ways of working. Can the Minister tell me if the Government are convinced that their commissioning process drives continuous improvement and innovation, rather than just preserving the status quo?
I will finish here because I am very keen to hear all noble Lords’ contributions, particularly my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy’s maiden speech. I thank noble Lords for contributing to this vital debate.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Farmer on securing this debate and making a speech that I thought was one of the most important, courageous, thoughtful and worth re-reading of any speech that I have heard since I have been in this place. Indeed, all the speeches so far have been important contributions and well worth reconsidering. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, with whom I do not always agree, said, as she focused on rehabilitation, that those of us who do so are often accused of being lily-livered liberals. She is a Liberal and my liver is undoubtably “Lilley’s”.
I get most of my original interest in this subject from a great Christian Tory, Samuel Johnson, who, back in the 18th century—and little has changed since, as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, indicated—said that prisons are academies of crime. People go in because they have not been good at their crime, and they are more likely to learn from fellow prisoners than they are to be taught or helped by anybody else to be rehabilitated and leave crime behind them when they leave prison.
My experience of the prison system is far more limited than that of most people contributing to this debate. It is limited to visiting and talking to friends and constituents who have had the misfortune to go there. They confirm the impression that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, brought home forcefully: that though we pay lip service to the importance of rehabilitation and there have been initiatives—my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier endeavoured to emphasise the importance of rehabilitation—it has not had much impact. My impression is that it is incredibly hard, physically and culturally, to change the culture of prisons, which are basically about incarceration.
I suspect that we need to set up an entirely new prison, as a pilot project, focused primarily on rehabilitation. It should be staffed, equipped and designed with architecture to make rehabilitation possible. Such a prison would put great emphasis on literacy. As one of the speakers has pointed out, illiteracy is a major problem in the population of our prisons—and certainly in the experience of my constituents who have found themselves there. The day would be designed around work, to give people work and reinforce the habit of work, so that when they return to the working world they have not lost touch with it. There should be links with employers who are willing to take on former prisons, so that jobs will be available to them. There should be training in skills suited to the individual, so that they can take up work when they leave prison.
Such a prison would tackle drugs more seriously than we do. Something that I learned when visiting a friend in prison on an open day was that most of his fellow inmates were on marijuana. He said that in the drugs wing—where prisoners are not allowed out on visiting day—they were all on heroin. I asked if you only go in there if you are on heroin. He said, “No, you go in there if you are caught taking marijuana, but once inside, you learn that you cannot wash marijuana out of your system for the fortnightly test. If you take 16 litres of water, you can wash heroin out, so they all switch to heroin once they are in the drugs wing.” If that is going on in prisons, and we are encouraging people to move from soft to hard drugs, it shows what little thought is being given to one of the most prevalent and damaging problems that causes and prolongs lives of crime.
We should also build into the system at this pilot model prison aftercare services, so that people have planned accommodation and planned work, and links, I would hope, with the charitable and voluntary sectors so that they have people to call upon for support and help. Hopefully, that would work. We would then have some experience that would then be possible to spread throughout the prison system. If not, the chances of converting existing prisons and changing the priority from incarceration to rehabilitation are, I fear, limited.