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Rt Hon Alan Beith MP, former Chair, Justice Committee

Minutes of the All-Party Penal Affairs Parliamentary Group held on 4 March 2015 at the House of Commons

Lord Ramsbotham opened the meeting by welcoming all present. This time members were fortunate to have not only Sir Alan Beith MP as principal speaker, but also the award of the Robin Corbett Memorial prizes, for the third time, for which Lady Corbett would be making the presentations. He warned the meeting that there would shortly be a vote in the Commons, for which Sir Alan would have to leave for a short while.

He therefore had great pleasure in introducing Lady Corbett, who would present the awards for organisations involved in rehabilitating prisoners, a cause dear to her late husband’s heart. Sir Robin had been a distinguished parliamentarian, and chairman of this group for ten years. He was much missed.

Lady Corbett began:

 

‘I thought I would tell you a little about the man behind the award. Robin was born in Australia but his father, a political activist, threw a rock through the windows of the West Australian parliament. So the whole family was deported to Britain. Many years later Robin and I went on a parliamentary trip to Australia and he told the story to the Premier of Western Australia. The next evening at a reception the Premier handed Robin a bill for the window.

 

Like that Premier, Robin had a great sense of humour. I’ll tell you one of his favourite political jokes. A popular MP died and the next day a young man approached the political agent and started praising the deceased, wonderful MP, great orator etc. Finally he came to the reason for his visit. “Tell me,” he said, “could I take his place?” The agent thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” he said, “I’ll have to speak to the undertaker.”

 

But aside from his humour, Robin was a man of principle remembered for his Private Members Bill to grant anonymity to rape victims, and for the regeneration of Castle Vale, a former sink estate in Birmingham from whence he took his title. He wasn't a saint, as I told everyone at his funeral - he was actually quite stubborn. Once he decided a cause was just he stuck with it no matter how unpopular: like prisons. Prison, he said, should not be society's revenge but a chance to change a life. And prisons weren't full of bad people – they were full of people who'd done bad things and needed help to become socially responsible citizens.

 

Frankly without rehabilitation projects this is a vain hope. Judging these entries I am always struck by the diversity and the skill of committed people trying their best to change a direction of a life. You never hear about these schemes in the media, although The Observer last Sunday had a good report about the winner on page 19.

 

But first some thanks … we are very grateful to the Worshipful Company of Weavers for their generous support and, gentlemen, we hope to have a continuing association with you! I run a professional women’s network in London and two of my Networkers, here this evening, each donated £1,000 from their charitable foundations and I thank them again for this wonderful gesture. I also thank the team at the Prison Reform Trust for their admirable stewardship of the Award and know we will be together for many years.

 

This award is to small charities who do outstanding rehabilitative work with prisoners by a working in partnership with prison staff. I wanted to establish this as a legacy for Robin’s commitment to rehabilitation and education for offenders. He was not only the respected chairman of the Home Affairs Committee in Westminster but for ten years, until his death in February 2012, he chaired the All Party Parliamentary Penal Affairs Group, to which the Prison Reform Trust provides the secretariat. I am continuing in his footsteps because I am a trustee of Beating Time, which seeks to put choirs into prisons. It works very well.

The emphasis of the award is on work that fosters personal responsibility and which calls on people in prison, and ex-offenders, to take responsibility to help themselves and to help others.

 

So now we come to the prizes. It is always really difficult to choose winners and it takes some time because nearly every application has merit. But we do our best and I think once again we have got it right. We liked the fact that the first prize winner, the Safer Living Foundation, is a unique collaboration between HMP Whatton, National Probation Trust (East Midlands), Nottingham Police, Nottingham Trent University, Age UK and Circles UK working with adult male sex offenders. They have little or no social support, often have complex needs but find it hard to access services in the community and are at particular risk of reoffending on release.

Each ‘circle of support’ comprises four to six volunteers drawn from the local community under professional supervision. The circle provides guidance and support to a single offender whilst holding them accountable for their behaviour. Uniquely at HMP Whatton, the circle begins six months before a prisoner is released, thus helping to bridge the gap between custody and release. And to prove this works let me tell you that Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) is one of the charity’s initiatives and is a proven model for working with sex offenders which has delivered an impressive 85% reduction in sexual offending. I think that needs a round of applause.

 

The first prize is a cheque for £3,000, a framed certificate and a book I wrote about Robin. Here to pick up the award are: Lynn Saunders, Governor, HMP Whatton; Helen Elliot, Trustee of The Safe Living Foundation; and Karin Spencer, Coordinator, Circles of Support and Accountability project, The Safer Living Foundation.

 

The second prize is a cheque for £1,000, a framed certificate and the book about Robin Corbett. The second prize winner, Changing Paths Charitable Trust, was set up in 2009 at HMP/YOI Rochester in 2009 with funding from Wates Giving funded by the Wates Family Enterprise Trust and has now placed nearly 400 offenders from across the south east and London into purposeful employment in construction, retail and catering. When I spoke to one of the men learning stone masonry – of the highest professional standard – he said he didn’t like being in prison but he wouldn’t have learned this skill otherwise and now would have a marketable skill to get a job which is Holy Grail of rehabilitation. This project has supported over 500 people get their CSCS (construction skills) cards and over 250 beneficiaries have carried out 5,000 work experience days. Portland Stone gives them as much stone as they can use every month. I saw stone carved garden features, house signs, memorial stones, plaques and sculptures from natural stone brilliantly done and this offers ex-offenders valuable qualifications that can lead to sustainable employment. The charity has successfully placed former offenders with catering companies in London and established links with large employers such as Prêt a Manger to help them gain work in the food industry.

 

Here to pick up the award are: Andy Hudson, Governor, HMP & YOI Rochester; Chris Booton, Trustee, Changing Paths; and Dan Hayes, Trustee and CEO designate, Changing Paths.

I am really happy about this award because it keeps Robin’s legacy alive. As someone once said, all men die, but some live on; and through this award, he lives on. Thank you very much.

Lord Ramsbotham thanked Lady Corbett very much, and reiterated the meeting’s congratulations to the winners. He said how good it was to see so many practitioners present, as one of the group’s key objectives was to bridge the gap between parliamentarians and those involved in the field. As the election approached, he was more than ever aware that much of the good work that was going on was happening in silos, rather than as a result of inter-ministry collaboration. Other all-party groups with which he was involved had developed their own manifestos of what they wanted to see happening in their particular field of interest, and the problems faced by practitioners, and planned to invite the new ministers plus their officials, from health, justice and education for example, to discuss these at the start of the next parliamentary session.

Sir Alan Beith MP had been the only chair of the Justice Select Committee since the Ministry of Justice had been formed, and he had been an extremely distinguished one. He had never failed to tackle the issues of the day, and to indicate where progress was needed. He had been invited to reflect on where he thought the criminal justice system was, as he prepared to leave Parliament.

Sir Alan Beith began by congratulating the winners of the Robin Corbett awards for the year. He thanked the Chairman for his kind words, in which he wanted to include Gemma Buckland, who had been at his side throughout the creation of many of the Justice Committee’s reports. He continued:

‘It has been a real privilege to have been the Chairman of the Justice Committee, and very interesting. There are four parties represented on it, and people of very different standpoints.  But we have produced, invariably, unanimous reports. One report, not surprisingly, on the probation changes indicated that we were arriving at it from different standpoints, but that we had common ground on things that we thought had to be dealt with in the process of implementing those changes. One of the problems I have suffered from is that, although at the beginning of this Parliament the committee was 50% men and 50% women, every woman member of my committee, except one who is still on it, was made either a minister or an opposition front bench spokesman. That tells you something. Indeed that extends further to some of the men. The current Attorney General, and the Solicitor General were both members of the committee, in both cases for quite some time.

We have looked at a wide range of issues, the criminal justice system and one or two issues beyond it, because they were within the purview of the Ministry of Justice. When we started we inherited an inquiry on sentencing effectiveness from the Home Affairs Committee, and following the creation of the Sentencing Council in 2010 we performed a statutory function, scrutinising the guidelines. We have instituted a new way of doing that. We have seminars of stakeholders, and so we have some interchange. The Sentencing Council is always represented at those seminars and we have found that a very fruitful process.  There are some wider issues that the process raises: one of the things we have started to talk about is whether the sentencing guidelines process, by its very nature, creates sentence inflation, because attention is drawn to the need to give recognition in a sentence to this or that aggravating feature, and that pushes up the sentence in certain types of case. We are encouraging the Sentencing Council at least to consider that risk, because it is rare that even with reference to mitigating factors there is a compensating reduction elsewhere.

We have done detailed inquiries on the CPS, the prison system, and the probation service. We have examined the adequacy of provision for female offenders, older prisoners and young offenders. We reviewed the Government’s proposal to abolish the Youth Justice Board, and our report was used frequently in the interesting debates in which you took part, Chairman, and which led to the Board not being abolished but retained. We undertake pre-appointment scrutiny of key roles and we interview the Government’s preferred candidates. Today we had post-appointment hearings for Nick Hardwick and Mike Fuller, who had come to the end of their roles as Prisons Inspector and CPS Inspector. We conducted one–off sessions with the Victims Commissioner and the Parole Board. We see the Lord Chief Justice at regular intervals. We have had some particular specific issues that we have looked at more than once. Joint enterprise is an issue we have explored quite extensively, without seeking to be definitive. We as a committee were particularly struck by the problems presented by joint enterprise in cases where there is a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. By its very nature that combination leads some, particularly across the families of some of those convicted of joint enterprise, to feel that the limited role if there was a role played by their family member should not merit the same sentence as the person who wielded the knife or whatever in the murder. We are trying to encourage some further consideration of that.

We did two reports on women in the criminal justice system. One thing I will mention about the post-Corston efforts to do something about women in custody was how essential it was to get an impetus for change within the department and amongst ministers. We were very struck by the fact, and we found in evidence that under the previous Government several women ministers had got together to keep this thing moving and to push it forward. It was not pushed forward in quite the way that Jean Corston wanted, particularly in respect of the kind of small and local institutions she wanted. But to do anything at all really did require a lot of women to put their shoulders to the wheel. And we were concerned that there was not the institutional structure within government to provide that impetus. There was the Advisory Council, and since Simon Hughes came into office he has tried his best to push it further. But it is an interesting example, to show that if something is tending to fall off the agenda, you have to build into government some way to get it back there and to keep the momentum of change going.

What I would like particularly to talk about, though, are three things that have been matters of great emphasis for the Committee. One is justice reinvestment, which was the subject of a report in the previous parliament, the longest report we have ever produced. I was fascinated to find people in the criminal justice system with this report on their desks several years later, including people in the probation service, who were saying ‘we still use this as a guide to what we should be doing’. That was very satisfying. In the current Parliament we went back to review the work in that area. I also want to look at the concept of prison being a ‘free good’ in the system; and I want to look at the creation of a political space in which one can discuss criminal justice matters.

Key to justice reinvestment of course is the wish to transfer money from dealing with the consequences of crime to preventing crime from happening in the first place. We have a system which is currently loaded towards dealing with the consequences of crime and all governments seem to feel that that they are trapped into doing it this way. If they are to find any money at all to do good things which prevent crime they have got to find it from somewhere else. We have got to carry on spending money at the other end of the criminal justice system. There have been justice reinvestment pilots, incentivising local partners to adopt approaches reducing demand on the criminal justice system and therefore cost to the system which came after our first report and they were promising; they resulted in significant reductions in demand on the adult and youth justice systems and about £8 million in combined payments via the payment by results mechanism. I think we would also readily concede that youth justice policy has been heavily influenced by the justice reinvestment approach and as a result there has been a substantial drop in the numbers of young people held in custody.

Both of these initiatives have lessons. We have the Troubled Families programme – not financed by the justice reinvestment route but one of the components in preventing crime from happening in the first place. The Committee remains of the view that there is a strong financial case for investing substantial resources in more preventative work: with former offenders, with people with drug and alcohol problems, with people with mental health problems, and also with potential offenders before they drift into crime. We concluded that a rigorous assessment was required of where taxpayers’ money can most effectively be spent in cutting crime. We found no evidence that this had characterised the policy of any government in recent times.

Where was the Treasury in all this? The Treasury is supposed to say to departments: why are you spending the money in this way, when you are not getting the results that you ought to get from it? If we compare the investment in drug and alcohol treatment, mental health schemes and early intervention it does look difficult to justify the balance. Violent crime: 44% alcohol-related. It costs nearly £30billion, including nearly £3 billion in cost to the NHS. Crime by people who had conduct problems in childhood: £60 billion; drug-related crime: £14 billion. The annual budget for prisons and probation amounts to £4 billion. Something is wrong somewhere.

Associated with this is a concern that I express as prison being treated as a ‘free good’ in the system. Every custodial sentence is a massive commitment of public resources, and therefore it has to be justified. In many cases it will be justified by the need to safeguard the public by locking up a dangerous person, or the need to use of custody as the only way of providing a basis to engage in effective rehabilitation with certain types of offender. But that does not cover all the prison population. When I was elected in 1973, the prison population was 36,000 and everybody thought it was a bit too high. It is now over 84,000, and of course most of us still think it is too high. Prison is the default option for society in expressing disapproval of criminal behaviour. It is quite right that society wants to express disapproval of criminal behaviour, and relatively greater disapproval of worse criminal behaviour. But if the only mechanism you have for that is to add six months or a year onto the sentence then you are not really proceeding by a particularly logical course. You are playing one-club golf in expressing society’s disapproval. You have to have some other mechanisms which society recognises as demonstrating that it will not put up with this crime and will take serious action if it happens, and more serious action in other cases. But that cannot simply be in terms of longer custodial sentences, because if it is that sucks the resources into a process which is not necessarily helping you to tackle the problems that society faces. The ultimate objective is to keep people safe. We need to ask the broader question of how you do that effectively.

In our examination of why we seem to have such a reliance on prisons as a means of dealing with crime, the fact that keeps hitting me is that prison is an unquestioned free good in the sentencing system. If a judge or a magistrate has an offender in front of them, considers that that offender might better be dealt with by a community sentence, an order with certain aspects to it, say drug or alcohol treatment, it first has to be established that that is available. It will not be available everywhere. It may not be available at the time or in the form necessary. He does not have to ask the prison system: can you take this man? There are some countries where that does happen. In Sweden for example they may say: not just now. We can take him in six months’ time. We certainly don’t do that and nor do I recommend that approach. But if someone is sent to prison here, a van comes along and takes them away, and it is somebody else’s job to find a prison place somewhere. That’s not the same as any other disposal that the court may make.

One of the things we know, because we have ex-offenders in front of us and we question them, is that many offenders are less challenged by custody than they are by a community order. We have had offenders in front of us who have said ‘I just got fed up with all that stuff and I committed another offence knowing that I would end up in prison again, because prison is much easier’. Although there are some categories of people, normally law-abiding people, who are affected by the knowledge that if they fail to carry out certain things or they do something wrong they could end up in prison; people like me for example, that does quite worry me. But it is part of the stuff of life for some offenders, and as we all know the deterrent effects of prison are hugely exaggerated by many of the people who comment on it.

The third thing I want to mention is the creation of a political space for rational discussion of criminal justice policy. As I said earlier, we are a cross-party committee and we come at things from different angles, but our fundamental purpose has been to have rational debate about criminal justice policy, and we have introduced members who join the committee to that evidence-based way of doing it. All of you here know what we are up against. We are up against the media, or certain sections of it, particularly in their attitude to sentencing. You know the headlines. I almost feel they are sitting there in the computer waiting for the button to be pressed and the figures to be put in. ‘Walked free from court’ after such and such, or ‘Will only serve two years’, and of course you can use that in all circumstances; just put ‘only’ in, to demonstrate the courts are soft, and are not treating crime seriously enough. It is a story they cannot seem to resist running in that form, rather than assessing whether or not it is an effective way of dealing with that particular offence. And then you get the political arguments. Politicians have become frightened of being seen as ‘soft on crime’ and that infects both of the main parties very significantly. As a Liberal Democrat chairman of the committee, people might think that I was trying to push the approach of the committee in my own particular political direction. But my objective has been to try to free the committee members from looking at criminal justice policy in that light, giving them at least a context in which they can address these issues in a more objective and rational way.

There are very different views in the committee, for example about the role of the  private sector in the justice system, but we tend to agree on the kinds of things I have described to you, and on the rational approach that has led us to those kinds of conclusion. Even in the remaining weeks of this parliament, and there are only three and a half weeks to go, you will see more reports coming from us. We have a report on the prisons estate, which is coming out shortly; we have a report on the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and we have a report on the civil legal aid changes. We are still pretty busy, and I depend on a core group of members, who have consciously devoted a lot of time to the work of the committee and have carried the burden: there are other members who have got themselves into too many other committees and responsibilities. It has been a privilege to work with colleagues from very different political backgrounds. For example, Elfyn Llwyd from Plaid Cymru, who I always treat as my de facto vice chair – I have no power to create a Vice Chair, but he does very helpfully fulfil that role in practice. I have Conservative members, and Labour members, who are now predominantly from the left and trades union elements of the Labour Party. So there is a very big gulf between some of our members, but that has not prevented us from having a rational debate about criminal justice policy. Why should we not have that rational debate at a wider political level? That’s one of the things that we want to say.

Working from the evidence does mean that people can arrive at similar conclusions from very different points of view. One of the most illuminating things you can do is go to Texas, and I strongly encourage this – fortunately I am also Chairman of the Liaison Committee which decides which committees can go where. So we went to Texas, where they electrocute people and are generally extremely right wing, to find out why the right had got together with the left in Texas politics, to say ‘These are taxpayers’ dollars we are wasting on ineffective policy, particularly for drug-related crime. We ought to be sending fewer of these people into expensive custody and doing more nurse-led partnerships and other kinds of initiatives, and also dealing with those who have come into the criminal justice system through problem-solving  in courts’. The right came to these conclusions because they cared about not putting taxes up too much and about saving the taxpayer’s dollar and using it more effectively. Others on the democrat side came to the same conclusion from a different standpoint. Rational debate can be achieved, even in very divided political contexts.’

Lord Ramsbotham thanked Sir Alan Beith most warmly, and said that he thought the final point, about creating a rational debate, had marked each of the reports coming from his committee.  He then threw the meeting open for discussion.

Baroness Masham commented on the regrettable closure of the prison in Northallerton. Did the speaker know why this had been decided?

Sir Alan Beith MP responded that his Committee had not looked at individual prison closures.  They had looked at ‘new for old’ policy, the efforts being made to release prisoners into their local communities, and at training prisons.  It was very important to keep prisoners near to their home communities. In his own local prison, HMP Northumberland, a third of the prisoners came from the Manchester and Liverpool areas, which caused significant problems, for example making various kinds of disruption more attractive because prisoners hoped for a move. The more he looked at prisons, the more he appreciated that it was the simple basic things that made the difference to whether you could run a prison effectively or not.

Catherine Jago JP reported that she had visited a women’s open prison near Manchester, also threatened with closure, which she had found most impressive. Most of the women had jobs outside the prisons.  However, she was struck by the fact that the women were not allowed handbags, or to wear white blouses and dark trousers. These simple things mattered a lot.

Sir Alan Beith MP commented that this illustrated the restricted discretion of Governors and Directors to allow such things.  He agreed that small things could make a big difference to what could be achieved, especially with what was increasingly, given recent successes with reducing the numbers of young people and women in custody, a disturbed group of inmates.

Lord Ramsbotham added that he recalled a visit to Drake Hall and seeing a photograph of what looked like an elderly women.  She was in fact a young woman prisoner, at the height of heroin withdrawal.  The prison governor had tried unsuccessfully to gain permission to take her out to schools, to show the impact of drug use.  He was able to use his influence as Chief Inspector to achieve this.

The Bishop of Rochester wondered why exactly it was that it seemed impossible to create the space for rational debate about criminal justice.  It sounded so obvious.

Sir Alan Beith MP thought that some of it was about politicians’ fear of the media. Some of it came from their hope of gaining political advantage amongst certain voters. Some was about not having found alternative ways of addressing the proper public concern to register the relative seriousness of different offences.  A better way than increasing custodial sentence lengths should be found, and research showed that members of the public were inclined to greater leniency than the courts when presented with real examples. The main institutional obstacle to making such a fundamental change was the size of the prison system, and the shift of mind-set that would be required. However he had noticed that you could maker bigger changes when there was no money around.

Giles Ridley of the Weavers’ Company asked whether the current financial situation could still be a catalyst for change.

Sir Alan Beith MP responded that it was still possible, but he feared we might have lost that opportunity.

Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons wanted to thank the speaker for the support he and his committee had given the Prisons Inspectorate in its role, especially in attending to the evidence presented. He wondered if Sir Alan could say a little more about the role of prison governors, which he and his team had perceived as diminishing in authority as a result of the increasing fragmentation of the service.

Sir Alan Beith MP replied that he had certainly picked up that message from governors, and from the Inspectorate’s reports. Some of this loss of authority had arisen for good reasons, however, such as the provision of health care through the NHS for example.  He also thought that in some respects it was easier for directors in private sector prisons to gain investment for innovations than it was for their colleagues in the public sector.

Lord Woolf asked what single change the speaker would request, if a grateful government said it wanted to reward him for all he had done.

Sir Alan Beith MP said his request would be that criminal justice policy should no longer be used to score political points, and that future governments should look at the evidence, requiring departments to come together to see where money could be spent more effectively.

Gina Miller asked whether the Committee had looked into the issue of prisoners with special needs.

Sir Alan Beith MP responded that the Committee had not done a report on this subject specifically, although he agreed it would be a helpful topic for future consideration.  The Committee had, however, looked into the issue of older prisoners, and assessments for brain injury for example.

Baroness Masham added that Leeds Prison had had a good record of taking prisoners with physical disabilities that other prisons could not take.

Lord Ramsbotham endorsed Leeds’ prison’s record in respect of brain injury and the Disabilities Trust had introduced a very good link worker scheme there.

Evelyn Wendleken, a teacher at HMP the Mount, said that she taught sentence planning. The increasing numbers of short term prisoners did not engage, whilst the longer term prisoners were desperate for places.

Sir Alan Beith MP responded that in his view, short term sentences were one of the great mistakes of the criminal justice system. They were almost invariably an inefficient way of using scarce resources to change people’s lives.

Baroness Howe asked about how much, in the speaker’s view, might have been achieved by earlier interventions with troubled families.

Sir Alan Beith MP said that some figures were already available for the effectiveness of the Troubled Families programme, and things would become clearer in time.

Juliet Lyon of the PRT added her thanks to the speaker for proving a rational space to discuss criminal justice policy throughout his chairmanship of the Justice Committee.  PRT had been involved with public opinion polling following the riots, which had strongly endorsed the imposition of community penalties; another poll had suggested that the top three solutions to crime were: treatment for addicts, community sentencing and treatment for mental health. Could the Justice Committee do even more to provide checks and balances in the future, and would it be appropriate for the Chief Inspector of Prisons to be accountable through the Justice Committee to Parliament?

Sir Alan Beith MP thanked Juliet Lyon for her kind words, and agreed with both those suggestions.

Lord Ramsbotham thanked Sir Alan Beith MP most warmly for his presentation, and also for everything he had done in his role as Chairman of the Justice Committee.  He conveyed the meeting’s very best wishes for the future. He congratulated the winners of the Robin Corbett awards once more.  He looked forward to seeing members again after the election.  The new Chairman of the Justice Committee would have a marvellous example to follow in his or her retiring predecessor.