Perspectives on breaking the cycle

Minutes of the All-Party Parliamentary Penal Affairs Group held on 1 February 2011 at 5.00 pm in Committee Room 5

Perspectives on ‘Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders’

Speakers: Eoin McLennan-Murray, President, Prison Governor’s Association
Sue Hall OBE, Chair and John Budd, Vice Chair, Probation Chiefs Association

Lord Corbett welcomed everyone to the meeting, especially the three speakers. He noted that the last time he had met Eoin McLennan Murray, President of the Prison Governors Association (PGA), he had just been fired as Governor of Blantyre House, as a result of a ‘coup’ by the Regional Manager. This had led to an Inquiry by the Home Affairs Select Committee, of which Lord Corbett was then Chair.

He was also delighted to welcome Sue Hall and John Budd from the Probation Chiefs Association, to discuss issues of immense topicality and high importance in the Green Paper. He noted that the group hoped to secure the presence of its author, Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke MP, to address a meeting in June or July.

Finally he apologised for the room change, which had been necessitated by the presence of 200 beds in the previously booked room, because of the proposed all-night sittings in relation to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

Lord Corbett then introduced the first speaker.

Eoin McLennan-Murray thanked the group most warmly for its invitation. He began:

I have been about thirty years in the Prison Service. I have worked in about ten prisons and they have all been very different: from maximum security to open, male, female, young offender – the complete gamut. I have been a governing governor of two prisons, for about ten years. One was Blantyre House, which was my personal career highlight, and the other was Lewes, in Sussex, which is wonderful place as well. About ten months ago I was elected as President of the PGA which is why I am here this afternoon. The PGA is a trades union. It is also a professional association. It was founded in the early eighties, and we represent in excess of 90% of the governors and senior managers in the Prison Service.

In terms of the Green Paper, ten or fifteen minutes is really not going to do it justice. So I thought I’d make a few general comments and put things in context a bit. Over the last decade and a half we have seen crime fall by about 30%. We have seen a corresponding rise in the prison population by something in the order of 25,000. So the population has shot up and the crime rate has fallen.

You might not be surprised by that because of the incapacitation argument. You have got people locked up in prison, and not out on the streets committing crime. So it makes sense in one way. However of that decrease in crime, only about 5% - a sixth of recorded crime - can be attributed to the rise in the prison population. So to get a 5% reduction in crime we have locked up 25,000 people: not a very cost-effective way of going about things.

Why are we in this position, with such a huge prison population and falling crime?  Over the past ten or fifteen years we have seen the political parties vying with one another about who could be toughest on the criminal.  We have seen some amazing legislation passed. It’s as if the populist vote is being chased by politicians. Unfortunately it reflects the lowest common denominator of public and tabloid opinion and so we have had some fairly bizarre outcomes. We have people believing that they are more likely to be a victim of crime today than they were fifteen or twenty years ago. So the perception of crime is far greater than the reality.

We then have this crazy situation where we are locking up hundreds, if not thousands, of men for life, on indefinite sentences, not for crimes they have committed but for crimes we think they may commit in the future. Preventative detention for public protection, an absolutely awful piece of legislation, has contributed to the increase in the prison population. So we are in this topsy-turvy world with low crime rates, a high prison population, and locking people up like it’s going out of fashion.  I am really pleased that there are a number of elements in the Green Paper which address some of these issues, particularly on sentencing reform. Hopefully the awfulness of the indeterminate sentence for public protection will be addressed and reviewed, and that will be a wrong which is put right.

Just to turn back to the prison population: it is not homogeneous. Prisoners offend at different rates, depending really on how long they are serving. Short term prisoners, the revolving door men, they commit the volume crime, and they have the highest reconviction rates. They commit the nuisance crime, irritating, but at the lower end of the seriousness spectrum. Longer term prisoners do not recidivate at the same rate. Recent results published by the Prison Service show that if you are serving in excess of four years, reductions in reconviction rates have been in the order of 13%, which is quite a respectable achievement. Between two and four years there’s about a 10% reduction. If you are serving between one and two years it drops to about 5%. I guess you can see where I am going with this, because, in one year we don’t make people much better but we don’t make them any worse in terms of reoffending. But, with less than a year, we actually make people worse. We increase the likelihood of them reoffending by incarcerating them, particularly compared to community punishments, which have a much better outcome. I am sure Sue will say more about that.

So really this Green Paper, because it wants to reduce reoffending rates, should be targeting that fraction of the prison population – quite a large fraction - that commits volume crime, very petty crime. What we have been doing with those individuals is sending them to prison for very short periods of time, where we haven’t touched them, in terms of reducing their reconviction rates. The Green Paper offers a number of very helpful suggestions which are welcomed by most people, particularly those of us in the PGA, about diverting people from custody wherever you have the opportunity. For instance the mentally ill, people with learning difficulties, drug users: these are groups that we should be diverting from prison rather than getting them into the system.

The paper is quite aspirational.  If you divert these groups and you stop them going to prison that is great. But what do we then do with them? There has to be something in the community that is going to support those individuals. The Green Paper is short on how we are actually going to provide interventions on the scale to address the numbers of people that need them. I don’t fault or disagree with the sentiment. I am just concerned about the practicality and the do-ableness of delivering what is wanted there. For those people who do go to prison for a short time – and there will always be some, as Ken Clarke has made clear – they want prisons to be places of hard work and discipline. But how you inculcate the idea of work, if you have only got people in prison for a short period of time,  is something the Green Paper does not address.

We in the Prison Service have spent a long time building and developing purposeful regimes. We understand the importance of having a constructive regime in a prison, and we try to maximise that wherever we can. However the Green Paper talks about a forty hour week. Our staff don’t work a forty hour week. Maybe prison governors do, but officers don’t. To have prisoners working a forty hour week would require an injection of resources because you need to supervise those individuals. You will only have the hard work and discipline mentioned in the Green Paper if you have the staff to supervise. It’s possible in some prisons to have a long working week. That’s easy to do in those prisons which are less secure, the open estate, resettlement prisons. But a lot of our prisons are secure closed prisons and it is very difficult to extend the working day unless there is an injection of resources. There are lots of practical issues that have got to be overcome, and the Green Paper does not address any of those.

If offenders don’t go to prison for six or eight months, and they receive a community sentence, it’s clear from the Green Paper that this is about punishment. And it is important that offenders are seen to be punished because that appeals to the public. It has that punitive element which it is believed is so necessary if the public are to accept disposals to the community.  But I have not seen any research anywhere – and maybe people in this room will correct me on this - which says that punishing people will reduce their likelihood of reoffending. If they are thinking of just punishing people by making them work hard, painting things and doing things in the community – all very worth-while -  there still needs to be an input of something else if it is to touch reoffending rates. There has to be some intervention, some intensive work done with people, or reoffending rates will not fall, and that target group, the volume crime people, will not reoffend at a lower rate. There has to be a balance between the punishment bit and the intervention. The Green Paper talks about those things but it does seem to emphasis the punishment more. We need to be very cautious about that.

I would like to finish by saying something about prison stability. The bedrock of everything we do in prisons is based on running a decent, secure, safe regime. Recently we have had a spate of prison disturbances, some of them quite serious. Probably the most serious was the Ford open prison disturbance. There isn’t a common theme that unites them. But I think that perhaps, in the current climate where people are very anxious, when prison staff are facing redundancy – we’ve always thought we had a job for life – facing the threat of privatisation, a pay freeze for public servants, prices rising, things are very difficult and people are very anxious. The anxiety that staff feel is transmitted to prisoners and it may well be that that anxiety lies at the base of these disturbances that we have been seeing. I really hope that isn’t the case, but there is a very sensitive dynamic in prisons in the relationship between staff and prisoners, and if things change and it alters, behaviours can change as well.

So what is in the Green Paper we welcome, by and large.  Although it is aspirational, it may be good to aim high. But not enough attention has been paid to the detail about the practicality of implementing some of the things that have been suggested. And I think we need to be very clear about the role of punishment as opposed to the role of rehabilitating offenders, in trying to reduce reoffending. Thank you.

Lord Corbett thanked Eoin McLennan-Murray and introduced Sue Hall.

Sue Hall introduced herself as Chair of the Probation Chiefs Association (PCA) and also Chief Executive of the West Yorkshire Probation Trust. She also introduced her colleague John Budd as Vice Chair of the PCA and Chief Executive of the Peterborough and Cambridgeshire Probation Trust. She continued.

The reason that the PCA came into being is to try to provide an authoritative probation voice within public affairs. One of the unfortunate by-products of the merging of prison and probation in the National Offender Management Service has been the loss of a strong probation voice at the centre. We find increasingly in debates around how you manage offenders in the community that probation does not have a strong enough voice and there is not enough information or understanding about what we do and how we contribute. So I want to give a little bit of information around probation, and then I want to talk about what we know about what helps people stop offending, and how we find that reflected within the Green Paper.

There are 35 probation trusts, and approximately 20,000 probation staff, across England and Wales, and together we manage 239,000 offenders at any one time. That was our case load at the end of June 2010. So we are a major player at a local level in terms of managing adult offenders. We have a long history of doing so, and we are extremely experienced in the management of offenders. We have a budget of something like £900 million, which is very small in criminal justice terms, but I think with that money we provide a good deal of value in the number of people we deal with.

What do we know about what stops people offending? I want to point to three main types of research that are done, which overlap with each other. The first lot of research is MoJ research around the effectiveness of sentences, and that looks at the reconviction rate of people on community sentences and custodial sentences.  You will have heard Eoin quoting the rates for prisoners serving different lengths of sentence. Where adults on community orders are concerned the most recent results show that 36.8% were reconvicted within 12 months. The reconviction can be for any offence, from a very minor to a very major reconviction, so it’s a pretty blunt instrument. However it does show that over 63% of offenders on community orders do not reoffend within a year.

The MoJ in their last statistics bulletin (‘Compendium of Reoffending Statistics and Analysis’) published in November 2010 looked at cohorts of similar offenders subject to short prison sentences (under 12 months) and community sentences, and concluded that court orders were more effective by 7 percentage points in reducing one year proven reoffending rates for similar groups of offenders. That’s the first authoritative statement we have had from the MoJ that community sentences really do make a better impact on reducing reoffending than short prison sentences. So that’s one set of research that is around.

Another set of research is around evidence based practice: ‘What works’ research looking at which interventions make a difference? We now have really good evidence that cognitive skills programmes, particularly those that are mixed with skills training, if used for the right offenders, in the right levels of intensity, can make a difference in reducing reoffending.

More recently there is a very interesting set of research which we refer to as desistance research, longitudinal research which follows individual offenders across their criminal career and asks the question: when, how and why do offenders stop offending? And what that shows us is that those who have a history of offending don’t stop overnight. It is not a one-off event, it’s a journey. The sorts of things that can influence offenders to stop offending – and some of this may seem like absolute common sense to you – is getting older and maturing, forming strong and intimate bonds with their family.  It’s recovering from addiction, having steady and consistent employment, having hope and motivation for the future, having something to give to society. It’s having a place in a social group where they feel connected. It is not having a criminal identity – moving out of having a view of oneself as a criminal to having a view of oneself as an ex-criminal, and being believed in. And if you bring all those things together, effectiveness of sentencing, effectiveness in intervention, and what actually happens in people to stop them offending, what that tells you is that if you want a criminal justice system that really makes a difference, one that really rehabilitates and reduces reoffending, what you would do is design a system that had the offender at the centre, which looks at their specific circumstances, which helps to build a stake for them in society and which also involves work with their families and within their communities to enable community integration. As Eoin said, it’s not just about punishing offenders.  It’s about having that whole picture.

There are some promising things which are happening, and have been happening over the last few years, around work with offenders.  They are referred to in the Green Paper, which provides a fair analysis of where we are with the research at the moment. One of those initiatives is the Intensive Alternative to Custody pilots that are happening currently in five trusts in Great Britain, two in my own trust in West Yorkshire. These are targeting offenders absolutely on the cusp of going into custody and replacing short term custodial; sentences with very intensive alternatives, where people have daily contact, where they have access to a whole range of support, and also to programmes which tackle their thinking and their cognitive skills.

The other promising initiative I would like to mention is Together Women, which looks at the one-stop-shop approach to dealing with women offenders, dealing with all their needs. Both of these are cited in the Green Paper, but sadly, both initiatives are currently at risk because of the funding cuts. So whilst they are seen as working, the Green Paper in itself does not recommend particular funding to sustain either initiative.

The Green Paper I feel has been disappointing. We support the notion of reducing reoffending; we support the notion of rehabilitation; we certainly support the idea of reducing the prison population and working with people in the community. But what the Green Paper does not provide is a vision of how we make that happen. It proposes two mechanisms, one is competition and the other is payment by results. But it doesn’t clarify how that will build the sort of holistic, integrated approach to dealing with offenders that experience shows us will work. There isn’t a vision within the Green Paper about where accountability lies for making that happen. I would just like to give a couple of quotes, and then open it up for discussion.

In terms of competition, the Green Paper talks about probation trusts having an important and continuing role to provide local strategic leadership for managing offenders, but it also talks about everything we do, with very few exceptions, being competed over the next four years. The only things that are reserved to the public sector are professional advice for the courts and potentially some of the highest public protection cases. Everything else is potentially up for competition. There is no clarity about who will commission the services, whether it is police and crime commissioners, whether it is local authorities or probation trusts. It’s not clear who is going to hold the ring in pulling all this together.  The Green Paper talks about the transition of the public sector to a payment by results model. The evidence report that comes with the Green Paper has a very small section on some payment by results models that have been tried internationally. It’s a very thin basis on which to build a system of funding all the work that we need to do with offenders.

What I am left with, I suppose, on reading the Green Paper is a lot of questions. Are we going to end up with a system that is being competed, with lots of providers in the system, with nobody clearly holding the ring; a rather fragmented system? Are we going to end up with a new commissioner coming in who will manage local criminal justice? Would that be a probation trust or will it be someone else? Are we going to move to a system of payment by results that is very large scale, and actually how will that work? Where will the cashable savings be made which will enable the funding of the payment that will go to the investors who provide the money for the projects?

What the PCA would say is that in the probation trusts you have got ready-made bodies that are able to make the will of the Secretary of State work on the ground. We are well embedded in communities; we are well embedded with community safety partnerships, and with local criminal justice boards. We work with our police in terms of integrated offender management.  We would be a good mechanism for commissioning services on a local level to fulfil government policy. Our fear is that the Green Paper is not forward thinking enough in terms of how the criminal justice system will work in the future.

Lord Corbett thanked Sue Hall for her presentation and invited John Budd to comment. However he said he would like to let the discussion flow. Lord Corbett then opened the floor to questions and comments.