6 July 2010: Crispin Blunt MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Justice

The annual general meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Penal Affairs Group took place in committee room G at the House of Lords on Tuesday 6 July. Here we publish a transcript of his speech.

Introduction

As a minister for all of two months I am grateful for the opportunity  to colleagues tonight – on a subject of interest to us all – and certainly of great interest to our constituents.  And one which has been at the forefront of national debate in the wake of Ken Clarke’s speech last week.

It will not surprise you to learn that I wholly endorse Ken’s typically perspicacious contribution.  I would be excited in any event by the challenge of the post I hold, but am especially privileged to have the opportunity to work with such a distinguished politician – and one who clearly wants to get policy making on sentencing and criminal justice to be based on what actually works. And I am even more excited by the fact that I believe we have a once in a generation opportunity to transform our criminal justice system and that I can contribute to that change.
 
That’s why I am spending as much of my time as I can visit a number of prisons, probation trusts and youth offending teams across the country. I want to hear the views of staff – the people at the sharp end who know what does and does not work; to find out more about the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis; and most importantly to listen to them on how they would improve the system. I have already met very good people out there, doing some fantastic. I know  the commitment and professionalism of the staff.  I am proud to be ministerially responsible for over 70,000 people directly employed in offender management in the prison and the probation services.  They are in the business of providing security to the people of Britain as in different ways are our armed forces and police.  Whilst the risk is less intense it exists and is present on everyday of their working lives with offenders.  I hope we can get that recognised and appreciated more than it is, as well as the realisation that their success in rehabilitating offenders in their care makes all our futures more secure.

But it is just as clear to me that in many areas the criminal justice system is failing – it’s failing the people who serve in that system, it’s failing the offenders managed by that system and by extension their victims and the victims of the future we are creating – its failing in summary to serve the public.

Criminal justice is founded on the central  obligation of any state – the security of its people.  Yet we face the wretched reality that everyday we will fail.  However effective we are at securing the realm from our external enemies, everyday hundreds, in fact thousands, of our fellow citizens have their own security shattered by their homes being invaded by burglars, their peace ruined by intimidation and violence, their lives scarred by criminally inflicted injury and for about two families everyday their lives shattered by the homicide of a family member. And there is no magic wand by which us politicians can wave all this away.  Everyday we are and will be reminded of our failure through the graphic and awfully compelling stories in our media of the reality of crime experienced by individual victims.

The causes and solutions to crime are not absolutes, or simple; do not lend themselves to easy nostrums presented in a single press release or even a single speech.  Success will be measured over a generation.  A singular challenge for policy makers in the age of the 24 hour rolling news cycle.


The Challenges

Today I want to share some of my early thoughts on the challenges we face, and to explain what will guide us as we look to revolutionise the system   First, we face an unprecedented economic situation. Our ambition to reform the system must be seen in the context of the constraints on the public finances. Achieving savings will mean driving value for money and delivering more from less. The test of an effective criminal justice system is not how much money we’re spending on it, but on the outcomes it is achieving. Over the summer we will be developing options on how we serve the public in the future with a significantly lower budget.

Second, victims of crime are too often poorly treated. According to the British Crime Survey, 80% of the public believe that the criminal justice system respects the rights of the accused.  Just one third believe it meets the needs of the victims. Regardless of what people perceive, we know that a failing criminal justice system is failing the public. It means more crime. That means more victims.

Third, we are just not dealing with offenders properly. Half of all crime is committed by people convicted in the past. And of that half, a small group of these are committing a disproportionately large number of offences. This much is clear:  there is just not enough rigorous intervention to stop the ‘revolving door’ of offenders entering our criminal justice system. Most short sentenced prisoners receive no supervision or support on release. Half of adult offenders reoffend within one year of release from prison – and the rate of reoffendingreoffending has risen in recent years. And it is not just about adults, we need to manage young offenders effectively. And if you don’t get their treatment right, the young offenders of today are the repeat offenders of tomorrow.  All this must change.

Many offenders need a great deal of support. They might have been failed by absent parents.  They might have suffered childhood abuse. Many have failed in the education system, abused drugs and alcohol or ended up homeless. 45% of sentenced offenders have emotional wellbeing issues including mental health illness and one in three report that they have an accommodation ‘need’. These figures are shocking enough. But we believe the problem to be even greater. There is a cycle to crime – from generation to generation.  Children with a parent in prison are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour and have contact with the criminal justice system in later life.

And fourth the sentencing framework is highly complicated, utterly confusing and ultimately disingenuous. Sentences bear no resemblance to the time actually served in prison. This leads to confusion for victims of crime. It creates a sense of injustice when the public discover that a criminal will actually serve a much shorter time in prison than was specified in court, and undermines public confidence in the criminal justice system as a whole. Our challenge is to bring consistency, honesty and transparency to sentencing – for the public, victims of crime and practitioners.

The Vision

These are hardly new challenges.  Indeed they are all too familiar.  But this cannot go on. We just cannot continue to spend more on a system that does not have the faith of the public and which does not break the cycle of crime. We have a once in a generation opportunity – to think carefully and creatively how we reform the criminal justice system to more effectively protect the public, to prevent crime, rehabilitate offenders and cut reoffending. And we are going to set out in detail our proposals for rehabilitation and sentencing reform in a Green Paper after Parliament returns in October.

Rehabilitation Revolution

Serious offenders who commit serious crimes are still going to go to prison, whatever interpretation the excitable try to put on Ken Clarke’s speech last week.  But we must end the revolving door of reoffending. Time in prison must be an opportunity for offenders to gain skills so that they become productive members of society. Prisons must focus on getting offenders off drugs, on work and  prepared for release – with homes and jobs to go to and as far as we can helping them not reoffend.

And as part of their rehabilitation, offenders can and should pay back to victims and society for the harm they have caused. So we want to allow for deductions from the earnings of prisoners in properly paid work to contribute towards services for victims, as a way of helping make amends for their crimes.

This involves a wide range of partners from across communities and government. It includes early intervention work; improving life chances and voluntary sector mentoring and support. It involves challenging families to tackle the intergenerational cycle of crime. The Justice Committee’s excellent report, ‘Cutting Crime: The Case for Justice Reinvestment,’ will inform our work as we go forward. I want to see much better recognition of the fundamental links between poor social outcomes and crime and reoffending, right across communities and government. The ministerial group on homelessness offers us a vital opportunity to reinvigorate action over housing provision for offenders.

The government is just as committed to welfare reform so that work is the best solution for people, offering them a route out of poverty, and for offenders, providing them with stability to stop offending and become a better member of society. The Cabinet Committee on Social Justice, which will meet for the first time tomorrow, was set up to consider issues relating poverty, equality and social justice, meets this week to begin coordinating this agenda.

It’s clear that centralised direction and targets will either be inefficient or ineffective.   We can no longer afford either.  So we need to empower local agencies – both criminal justice agencies and others such as local authorities, primary care trusts and Jobcentre Plus - to work together in tackling those entrenched social issues that many offenders face.

We must work with communities to build public confidence in the system. Funding and decision-making must be devolved to local groups; greater volunteering; and engaging the voluntary sector to run innovative services that tackle the root of the problems and provide value for money.

We must build confidence in the criminal justice system.  And that means an evidence-based approach, spreading information about what works in the system and ensuring those who work in it are equipped to do the job. We want to move away from a plethora of new initiatives and announcements – we want the criminal justice system to be judged by its ability to deliver results not on the basis of a fanfare of announcements.  Put simply, we are moving to evidence based policy making from policy based evidence making.

And the incentives need to be right. We will move away from a system where targets are the incentives to one where we offer stronger incentives by opening up competition in penal services and paying providers by results. As many of you will know, we are currently running a competition to select national framework providers of community payback services. Probation Trusts are also taking a Best Value approach to reviewing their current community payback provision. And we are enthusiastic about the work starting soon on social impact bonds in Peterborough Prison.  We will pay social investors there if, and only if, they reduce the reoffending of short-sentenced prisoners.

We have a historic opportunity to look at how restorative justice can be introduced into the criminal justice system. I met with representatives from the Restorative Justice Consortium, and I have asked them to work with my officials, to put forward proposals on how restorative justice measures could be used across every phase of the criminal justice process: from pre-trial right through to interventions in prisons to prepare offenders for release.

I expect these will be radical changes.  And they give us the chance to empower those organisations left out of the process for so long. We want to listen to new ideas to improve the criminal justice system, and we want listen to a wide range of groups: from the established and respected voluntary organisations such as the Howard League for Penal Reform and Prison Reform Trust, to the small community-based organisations – our door is open. I am keen to explore how we carry out this engagement in a structured and effective manner. As part of that process, I am organising round-table events with voluntary sector organisations to discuss these ideas in more detail.

 
Assessment of Sentencing

Finally we will assess the sentencing framework - a comprehensive look at how we can increase consistency, honesty and transparency. It will look in detail over the coming months at the full range of penalties and restorative measures available in the criminal justice system in both the adult and youth sentencing framework, ensuring that appropriate links are made between the two.

We will specifically examine proposals for reform through a system of minimum/maximum sentencing. Our aim is to increase public confidence in the criminal justice system by improving honesty in sentencing. The offender will serve a minimum period in prison as set by the judge in court. The victim, family and witness will know that the offender will not be released any earlier than this point. The judge would also set a maximum period to be served and the offender has to earn any release earlier than this point by, for example, complying with the prison regime and actively engaging in rehabilitation.  This is just common sense.

For too many decades the sentence passed by the court does not reflect the time served in custody.  It is through legislation that I want to see the minimum custodial sentence being exactly that, the minimum time that must be spent in custody. I am not advocating doubling sentences or increasing sentence lengths. But I do want to do away with countless legislative changes that have meant sentences don’t make much sense to anyone unless they are an experienced criminal lawyer.  Actually since my brother is an experienced criminal lawyer I know that isn’t true either.

This is a complex subject, even for judges. Making it simpler benefits everyone and increases public confidence. This is an opportunity for anyone to influence how the sentencing framework should look and operate in the future.

Conclusion

The Coalition Government understands the need for a new start. We know this will not be easy in the current economic situation. We will have to make some very tough decisions and the Ministry of Justice and our partners will have to make radical changes to the way we deliver services together.

As I said earlier – this is a once in a generation opportunity. We will take the time needed to get this right and will consult widely before bringing forward plans for reform. We will publish detailed proposals in a Green Paper in the autumn, leading to a coherent package of legislation in the second Parliamentary session.

In summary victims of crime today must be front and centre of our consideration and part of our plans for sentencing and rehabilitation reform. We must ensure that offenders are rehabilitated and potential offenders diverted from their current path into the revolving door of today’s criminal justice system. Only by doing that will we reduce the number of victims of tomorrow, and if we do that we will build public trust in a criminal justice system we can all be proud of.