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February 2019 - Edward Argar MP

Minutes of the Meeting of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs, held on 26 February 2019


Guest speaker

Edward Argar MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice.

The meeting included the presentation of the annual Robin Corbett Award for Prisoner Re-integration.


Victoria Prentis MP (in the Chair)
Baroness Masham
Baroness Healey

Victoria Prentis MP welcomed everybody to the meeting. Victoria explained that Lord Ramsbotham, who normally chairs these meetings, is involved with the Offensive Weapons Bill and has sent his apologies. The meeting began with the presentation of the Robin Corbett Award for Prisoner Re-integration 2019. Victoria introduced Lady Corbett to present the awards.

Lady Corbett: Thank you. Minister, Madam chair, my lords, ladies and gentlemen. First a few thank yous. I have to thank all our judges, and the Prison Reform Trust, especially Zoe, who has helped to make this award as prestigious as I believe it is. Many thanks to the Worshipful Company of Weavers who pay our admin costs and I thank especially The Chrysalis Foundation, the main sponsor of this award which is why we can give so much for prizes. Under the inspired leadership of David Apparicio and his supportive wife Jo the Chrysalis in prison courses have turned many caterpillars into butterflies which is why I have got their butterfly here (a brooch).

As many of you know, the Robin Corbett Award recognizes outstanding rehabilitative work with offenders by a charity or group working with prisons. It was set up in memory of Lord Corbett who was the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee and for ten years up to his death he was chair of this committee. So because of the award I kept on meeting charities who were working in their own pond and I thought wouldn’t it be great if we could all collaborate in a sea and achieve far more. Well luckily a lot of people agreed with me and I can’t tell you how collaborative the Corbett Network has become. We now have a coalition of 54 decision makers of major charities and organisations who subscribe to our motto, engage, empower, enjoy, employ, enjoy as well but employ! So there are several networkers here, can you put up your hands please, oh I feel like a mother hen! [LAUGHTER]

The main aim is to risk assess and make job ready and then persuade more firms to employ people with convictions so we are producing a video with the same aim, it will be launched after Easter, and in June we will be presenting our first Employer of the Year Award at the House of Commons but now the big news. In 2015 I handed a cheque to Professor Belinder Winder of the Safer Living Foundation, whose work with sex offenders had an 83% non -reoffending rate. Little did I know that four years later the prize money would help fund the building and on February 13th I cut the ribbon on the Robin Corbett Centre for Prisoner re-integration in Nottingham. It is an initiative between Nottingham Trent University and the Safer Living Foundation, Nottinghamshire police and HMP Whatton and it is the first such building in the world and already two areas have asked if they could have Corbett centres as well. The building is grade two listed and it will help counsel and support all ex- offenders. I was very touched to see the plaque in the entrance hall dedicated to my husband and me. So I have updated the book I wrote about Robin, we can’t fundraise in the house, so I am giving them away free but if you want it signed you will have to pay ten pounds. [LAUGHTER.]

Now to the Robin Corbett Award winners for 2019. We received 35 applications and most were of a very high caliber but the three winners were our unanimous choice. Short videos of these winners will be on the Robin Corbett website and social networks tomorrow.

So the winner of the Robin Corbett Award for 2019 is Recycling Lives, a charity which defines social value as the savings created for society by reducing reoffending and supporting homeless ex- offenders. Hundreds of ex -offenders across 11 prisons have benefitted from their programmes which offer training and employment in recycling and waste management as well as providing mentoring and assistance plus amazing accommodation in a purpose built block of flats. When the national average of reoffending is above 50% they have a reoffending rate of 4% and more than 70% find permanent employment on release. So the winner receives five thousand pounds, this glass plaque, and the book I wrote about Robin, I have written a very nice thing in there, so accepting the award is the Chief Executive Alasdair Jackson (APPLAUSE).

The highly commended winner is A Fairer Chance a charity which connects women in prison with employers who match their skills and aspirations during and after release. The prize money they will go directly to a planned programme of cross sector events, open days and the profile that comes from the awards will enable them to expand their operations and engage with a wider range of public and private sector employers. The highly commended winner’s prize is three thousand pounds -I’d like to hand over a cheque it’s so much nicer but they all wanted money transferred into bank accounts. So the prize is three thousand pounds plus the glass plaque and the book about Robin. And accepting the award is the Chief Executive Maggie Walsh (APPLAUSE).

The commended prize is awarded to Circles South West for its work rehabilitating individuals convicted of sexual offences and they say the raised profile resulting from the award will impact positively on future funding, enabling them to extend their work in prisons in the South West. So the commended winner receives a thousand pounds, plus the glass plaque and the book and accepting the award is their Chief Executive Jo Burden (APPLAUSE).

So I end as I always do with a quote which inspired me to do this work, ‘All men die but some men live on’. Through the Robin Corbett Award, the Corbett network and now the Corbett Centre for prisoner reintegration my husband’s name and legacy live on and I could not be more honoured and more proud, thank you (APPLAUSE).


Victoria Prentis MP: Thank you Val, that was a really optimistic and positive way to start our meeting and we are thrilled and congratulations to all the winners.

And it is right that we celebrate achievements in this sphere and on that note there is something else I would like to celebrate, Gemma Buckland who has just walked into the room, who is today leaving the service of the House and the Justice Select Committee and is going to stay in this space to do private consultancy work in this space so we will all be seeing a lot of her but I for one will really miss her wise counsel so could we give her a clap too (APPLAUSE).

Now we are going to break all the rules, can you come and sit down, because it is quite ridiculous to have empty chairs with people standing up. We want to enjoy what the minister tells us so please make yourselves comfortable. If we are suddenly inundated with members of the House of Lords that need to sit down I know you will all be sensitive.

So we are really lucky to have Edward Argar with us, he has become a great friend to justice in the time that we’ve had him, serving in the Ministry of Justice, I don’t think he needs much further introduction. So go Ed and then we will do questions and answers afterwards.

Edward Argar MP: Well thank you very much Victoria, I was looking forward to speaking to the chairmanship of Lord Ramsbotham but it is even better to serve under the chairmanship of my old friend Victoria. And it is a pleasure to be here this evening and to see so many in the room and I suspect that it is rather more to do with all those who have quite rightly just won awards, rather than the speech I am about to give but I will nonetheless take advantage of a full room. The work of the group is of course hugely important in highlighting key issues, key trends and developing policy in this area. For example, around deaths in custody which I understand you looked at late last year and of course in promoting and supporting the hugely important role of the voluntary and charitable sector in supporting prisoners.

But I wanted to begin just by congratulating all of those who have just been recognized for their hugely important work in supporting offenders to reintegrate back into society to live crime free and responsible lives. And Recycling Lives, A Fairer Chance and Circles South West, all examples of organisations that strive to provide the vital support and security that people with a history of offending need in order to genuinely turn their lives around. So the role of your organisations in doing that, giving people a second chance, and serving society as a whole go much wider that the impact you have had on any individuals. They are fundamental to how we envisage justice in the criminal justice system working. So I want to give my personal thanks and congratulations to everyone involved in each of these fantastic organisations and I am sure your successes will continue for a long time to come. And I, like you, very much look forward to reading Val’s kind gift to me. 

As a Minister, I am very fortunate to have a portfolio in the Ministry of Justice that covers a huge and diverse range of issues. But each and every one of them is vitally important to those that come into contact with that bit of the portfolio but also relates very closely to the others. As you will be aware in the context of custody, I am in charge of the youth justice service, the youth custody service, I am in charge of female offenders, veterans who end up in the criminal justice system, Offender Health across all prisons, which is a huge and challenging area. Also the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme, the Criminal Case Review Commission, and a range of other things with the devolution of justice in Wales and relationships with the Welsh government and the Lammy review and the race disparity audit as well as human rights law in a domestic context.  So it is an interesting and broad portfolio but it’s absolutely fascinating as well. Now as I’m sure you are all aware more broadly last week the Secretary of State [Rt Hon David Gauke MP] set out his clear vision for the criminal justice system moving forward. And his emphasis there was on the need for smart justice, you might term it,  actually looking at the evidence to determine what it is that works to reduce re-offending and that approach is at the heart of the work I am leading on to tackle the underlying cause of offending in young people and in female offenders and support people to turn their lives around. Now I will turn, after a few further opening remarks, to youth justice, and what we have achieved there in diverting people away from custody and reducing the custodial population. I will also speak about how that ties in with what we are seeking to do with the Female Offender Strategy and to replicate that for the female offenders population.

On offender health, we are committed to working very closely with our health and justice partners to improve health outcomes for people in contact with the criminal justice system. It is a slightly odd commissioning landscape as you will be aware. I am the minister for offender health but all the commissioning is done by the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care. That dates back some years, it’s the right thing to do but it does emphasize the need for closely aligned partnership working between me and my opposite number Jackie Doyle-Price MP in the Department of Health and Social Care. I am very lucky that in Jackie we have a Minister there who fully understands the challenges we face among the offender population and to support them and to address their multiple and complex needs. So I am very optimistic about what we can achieve in this space.

Youth justice is an area which I understand many of you have a keen interest in and a great depth of knowledge and expertise. Now it’s encouraging seeing the number of children entering the criminal justice system has fallen by around 86% since 2008 and we have seen a reduction in those under 18 in custody down from around three and a half thousand down to around 850. That is a dramatic reduction in the number of children who are in custody. Now that is very welcome news, but it comes with challenges as we would expect. This cohort of children and young people who get sentenced to custody are often a much more complex cohort who have committed rather more serious crimes, often involving violence and often much more challenging young people. There are a wide range, as you will all be aware, of issues, that actually lead to children offending. One of the ones that I am particularly interested in and we are exploring closely is the link between adverse childhood experiences and future offending. The cohort cases cover a multitude of traumatic experiences such as familial drug and alcohol misuse, domestic abuse, and parental offending, and that cycle of offending being replicated in some cases in those young people.

Many of those young people, given that background, are not only offenders entering the criminal justice system. They are also victims themselves in many cases. Either of very traumatic experiences in their own lives or being witness to some very, very violent events. That’s why we need, and why we are prioritizing, a trauma informed approach to address the needs of those young people.

Now of course as we all know ideally prevention is better than cure. We are working across government to divert children away from crime through a whole range of activities. In April last year the government published its Serious Violence Strategy to help tackle the rise in knife crime and gun crime and homicide. Last October the Home Secretary [Sajid Javid] announced the £200 million Youth Endowment Fund, a fund to be delivered over the next ten years, targeting and supporting those children most at risk of becoming involved in serious violence and focusing on early intervention and prevention. But we must all work very closely together to end serious violence and to continue to work not only across other government departments but with other parts of the state.

I attended a round table recently chaired by Baroness Massey with a number of young people who came to talk to me about their experiences - young people who got into trouble, one or two who had been through custody, others that hadn’t got that far. They cited a whole range of factors that kicked in on their journey to getting into trouble including exclusions from school, problems at home, health issues. And they told me that on each step on that journey there was an opportunity that was missed to scoop them up and help them divert them away from where they eventually end up. So the reality is when a young person ends up in my in tray, metaphorically speaking, at the Ministry of Justice, that’s almost the end of the process. Because they have ended up in custody and they are in one of the custodial institutions that I have ministerial oversight for. So we have got to focus on that early intervention, the liaison and diversion services and working with local authorities, the NHS, schools and others to intervene as early as we possibly can.

It’s vital that we have a system in place that is able to actually meet the needs of those children, tackling those root causes. That’s why we are looking at the future of the custodial system for those who do end up in it. You will have seen the £5 million we are investing in the first of these secure schools we are aiming to develop which is Medway. It’s the first step on implementing our vision for youth custody for the small number of whom that is still necessary. Some YOIs and others are seen as a custodial establishments with education of varying quality, depending on which institution. With secure schools, we are seeking to prioritise the educational provision and learning with a degree of security, which has to be there given the nature of it, but we are trying to flip the prioritisation between those two.

To provide oversight of that youth secure estate as a whole, in September 2017 we created the Youth Custody Service (YCS) establishing for the first time a distinct arm of HMPPS responsible for the entire youth secure estate and focused entirely on the needs of those young people, those children, in that system. Through that new service we have increased our efforts to recruit staff who are specially trained to work with vulnerable children. By September last year the number of key frontline officers in post had grown by 27%.  On top of that I have been particularly heartened to see over 300 frontline staff now enrolled onto a new Youth Justice foundation degree. We will ensure that all YCS staff have the opportunity to complete that training by 2023. Now of course there are still, as we drive that vision forward, some real challenges we need to overcome, particularly around safety, in the youth estate. That’s one of the reasons why we are investing in specialist services and units to address this issue. We are making progress here, YCS has introduced a new behavior management framework and it is being implemented alongside a new integrated approach to strengthen the provision of mental health care developed by the NHS. On top of that we are investing in the development of enhanced support units to provide specialist psychological support and services to children and young people with the most complex needs. The first of these has already opened in HMYOI Feltham. The second will open a little later this year in HMYOI Wetherby.  

Now while the impact of this new approach and these new units will take a little time to be reflected in the statistics and the safety figures, I’m encouraged by talking to governors as they have seen some improvement already. This has been reflected in some of the inspection reports since this reform programme began in 2017. With that in mind I was particularly pleased this week to see the inspection report for HMYOI Parc which, as you will be aware, had its last inspection in 2017. This previous report showed some very real causes for concern. The prison has now gained a ‘good’ rating in two of the four measures, ‘reasonably good’ in the other two. We have seen some very positive improvement, a 33% reduction in that period in the number of incidents of violence. There is a lot more to do but it shows that it can be done with focus and with a dedicated team of staff and a strong leadership determined to make that difference for young people.

Now turning to female offenders, like the children we see coming into contact with the criminal justice system, female offenders also often have complex needs. I will run through a few statistics, many of which will be familiar to many of you in this room. With almost 60% of those women who end up in custody having experienced domestic abuse, we need to recognize that many of them too are victims as much as they are offenders. We know that 49% of female prisoners report needing help for mental health issues, compared to 18% of male prisoners.

Now as many of you will know our Strategy for Female Offenders was published on the 27th of June last year. That strategy is something that I am actually quite proud of on behalf of the department. It sets out a very clear vision to see fewer women coming in to the criminal justice system in the first place. Fewer women coming into custody, especially on short sentences, and with a much greater proportion managed successfully in the community.

There will always be some people for whom the seriousness of the crime and the nature of it means a custodial sentence will be handed down by the judge. For those people it is important that we work to improve the conditions they experience in custody and the support they get. It’s another area where I know the work and the expertise of the voluntary sector and a number of campaigning organisations is hugely valuable in helping to drive that forward.

Now I mentioned briefly earlier the impact that adverse childhood experiences, such as parental offending, can have on future offending behavior for children. It is important that we recognize the destructive impact custody can have on people’s lives. Not just on their own life but on those around them, and particularly children. It is particularly true for women, who are statistically more likely to have primary caring responsibilities. It is also the case that, due to the nature of their crimes, women are often sentenced to short term custody. It is long enough to totally disrupt their life, potentially impacting on their accommodation, their job and their relationship with their children. But it is far too short to actually make a meaningful difference in helping them turn their lives around. In 2017, 57% of female offenders were sentenced to a custodial sentence length of up to and including three months, compared with 35% of male offenders. That’s why we want to see robust community alternatives to prison available to sentencers where appropriate.

To give an example, as many of you will have seen, we have committed to developing a residential women’s centre pilot in at least five sites across England and Wales. A pilot aimed to develop an evidence base as to how we might reduce the numbers of women entering and re-entering custody for short periods and to provide intense support. We are currently consulting with stakeholders, partners and providers to refine the design and delivery of that pilot. Now that was one the announcements that got a lot of coverage and prominence when we launched the Female Offenders Strategy. You could argue, as the media would, that’s because they saw it as the new thing in there, something different, something new.

Now I know, as many of you will know, if Jean Corston were here, she would say ‘that isn’t new, I said that in 2007 and I am glad you are beginning to look at it again now’, and she would be right. I think they can play a genuinely important role as another tier in the system which will give an alternative to custody. But I think we have also got to be very clear, and I’m very clear, the reality is that the foundation of support we can offer women, female offenders, and those who are victims of crimes, remains the network of outstanding local services provided by women’s centres up and down this country. I had the privilege just a few weeks ago of visiting Brighton’s Women’s Centre, to hear about their work. This included some extraordinary innovative work using their hub network as a safe and trusted space with staff for meetings with those who have been released from prison, females who have been released from prison, to have conversations and meetings with their probation officers.

Because just last week I was sitting in a debate in Westminster Hall and I think the statistic was, although I might be slightly out, over 50% of the recalls of women to prison were because they had broken contact with their probation officer or couldn’t keep contact with them. In the Brighton example, they cited around 15% improvement of compliance with those meetings, because it was taking place in an environment the women knew, with people they trusted and where they were having other aspects of their lives supported at the same time. I think it is a really interesting model we can look at there. And we know that if we are to support women to address issues that may underlie their offending, statutory and voluntary agencies such as women’s centres need to work in partnership. And that relationship that I saw in Brighton between the Community Rehabilitation Company and Brighton Women’s Centre was a brilliant example of that.

Now we know that the voluntary sector can play an important role in helping women turn their lives around. But often these organisations, such as womens centres, face serious and very real funding challenges. Now that’s why our strategy up front announced £5 million of investment to sustain, enhance and create new provision, including innovation in the community for female offenders and women at risk of offending. And that funding has been targeted supporting a wide range of projects up and down the country, including among them establishing new women’s centres where there is a proven gap and where there is an organisation willing to take that forward as well as services and interventions to address specific needs including domestic abuse. And alongside that you may have seen that late last year I also announced that I had managed to find and secure funding to give a 10% funding uplift to rape support centres across England and Wales, and to move them from an annual funding settlement to a three year multi- year funding settlement.

Some years ago, before I was a member of parliament, I was a trustee in a charity, not in this sector. I knew just how frustrating it was not having clear views on the sustainability of funding. We knew we would probably get what they needed by the end of the year for the next year. But they weren’t certain and in some cases staff might have been put at risk of redundancy. There was an inability to leverage in additional funding because no one could predict what was going to be there to match it. Also frustrating was the limited amount of time, often particularly so for small organisations, that the Director or Chief Executive had to give to writing bid after bid for different pots of money, often with virtually the same information. But they were the only ones who could do it because they were the ones who had the knowledge. Too often they were up late at night churning out bids to get enough in the pot to give them the budget they needed.

Now what I want to do going forward is to look at the scope to increase the sustainability of our women’s centres across the country. Now this won’t be quick or necessarily easy to achieve. But firstly we are building a very clear picture now of the mapping of provision across the country, where those services are.

Victoria Prentis MP: You know what Jean would have said…?

Edward Argar MP: She’s saying it’s already been done…the reason I say this is because as many of you know the sector is actually quite a dynamic one. You see developments and you see changes and what you see particularly at the moment are changes in the nature of demand for those services.  So you can look geographically at the map, there is a fair spread, a good spread of services there. But what that doesn’t show is the volume of demand in some of those places, so you can see the geographical spread but you won’t necessarily get just what the level of demand those services are dealing with. So you have got to understand the nature of the demand, the nature of the service provision and at the same time the nature of the finances of some of those different organisations.

What I want to work with colleagues across government to do, to try to move towards what we have done with the rape support centres, which is increase the long term sustainability of the funding to try to move to multi- year funding settlements for those services. I also want to look at ways in which we can try to significantly reduce the bureaucracy and the amount of time that has to be spent on supplying the same information to essentially different bits and different pots of government.

As I say, that won’t be simple and it probably won’t be the quickest thing in the world. But I think it is something we shouldn’t shy away from because the prize if we can do it I think is significant. It’s also significant because there are a number of organisations and charitable trusts who provide considerable amounts of money to support this sector. If we can move to a position where instead of them having to support in some cases individual organisations in an in-year basis they can start investing that money and their priorities strategically to really develop and enhance the provision in the system. I think that will make a huge difference to the lives of women, vulnerable women, offenders and victims up and down this country.

I only have a few more comments to make before I think we will have a few questions. I am very pleased that we published the Women’s Policy Framework in December last year, complementing the strategy by setting out guidance for prison and probation staff on how to work with and support women in both custody and in the community. In addition to that work we remain committed to publishing a national concordat for female offenders and are currently engaging with national and local partners to develop this, bringing together all those parts of the system in a clear and understood agreement on how they will work together to create that joined up service around an individual rather than in a governmental silo.  It will include a clear framework for best practice for local organisations and partnerships allowing them to commission services effectively for better outcomes. 

And finally, as we look forward there is a lot more on the way across the Ministry of Justice’s work which I hope will complement and enhance that which I have touched on today. One example is the draft Domestic Abuse Bill which is a piece of draft legislation jointly owned by the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office which we published in January. It will go through pre legislative scrutiny as well as a joint committee of the two houses. I am sure that many in this room will continue to feed in their thoughts on that before we develop the final bill to bring forward to parliament. And as many of you will have seen again last September I launched the Victim’s Strategy, which included a raft of measures on strengthening the Victim’s Code, developing the detailed proposals around the Victims’ Law to underpin it. Included in there is a full review of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme to come forward later this year.

I mention this because, although not specifically related to female offenders, a large number of female offenders and youth offenders are victims of crime just as much as they are offenders, and the services to be provided through those strategies will I think help support them.

Now there are key challenges to be tackled but I hope you would agree there is much positive work underway and a positive direction of travel. Although I think we have got to vote in a few minutes, I do look forward to taking a few questions before I do. But I wanted to conclude by emphasizing once again the important role I see for the voluntary sector, for campaigning organisations and experts in this area.  They may occasionally nudge me, always, or nearly always courteously, but often quite firmly, and I think that actually speaks to the health of debate in this country around this area, the interest in this area and the strength of our democracy. I want to see us continuing to build a criminal justice system that delivers for victims of crime, that delivers for our society but also delivers for offenders.

At the heart of that criminal justice system must be our desire to protect society and to support a healthy society. To my mind, that is in no way incompatible with saying let’s focus on what actually works in supporting offenders to reduce recidivism, reduce reoffending, because every offender who doesn’t reoffend again means fewer victims of crime and means a safer society. For me that is a clear, logical conclusion. So I look forward to working both with this group and to working with my friend Victoria as well as continuing to work with the ministerial team at the Ministry of Justice and all of you to help make that a reality. (APPLAUSE)