Speech to Centre Forum/Prison Reform Trust Event


The full text of today's speech on prison reform can be found here

CentreForum / Prison Reform Trust event – 18 November 2014


Keynote Speech by Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP, Liberal Democrat Minister for Justice and Civil Liberties


I want to start by thanking Juliet and all of her colleagues at the Prison Reform Trust. Your work is essential and invaluable.

Speaking up against the imprisonment of those who have caused misery to others is not an easy place to be.

Speaking up for the humane treatment of people who have committed crimes does not easily find allies.

Politicians have too often found it easier to play to the crowd on prisons:

Policies driven by headlines, rather than what works.

Proponents of reform are labelled ‘soft on crime’, when the evidence suggests the opposite.

It’s because we need a new approach that I am so pleased that you have joined forces with CentreForum to hold this event.

CentreForum is proving to be a catalyst for new liberal thinking, all the more vital when we have Liberals in government able to take forward those ideas. So thank you also to Anthony, Stephen and the team.

Coalition reform

If we are to reduce reoffending and continue to cut crime, Liberal Democrats believe we must reform the use of prison in our justice system.

In Coalition, we have been able to make progress - winning arguments for reform:

We have abolished indeterminate sentences and reformed the release test.

We have reduced the use of remand.

We have reformed the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act to remove barriers which prevent ex-offenders from getting into work.

We have extended the availability of Restorative Justice.

We are ending the detention of 17 year olds overnight in police stations.

We have taken forward the key Bradley recommendation of a national liaison and diversion scheme, so that those with a mental illness receive the treatment and care they need.

And we have blocked proposals too.

When the Conservatives wanted to scrap the Human Rights Act and even threatened to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights, we said no.

When some Conservatives suggested doubling the maximum prison sentence which could be handed out by magistrates, we said no.

Of course, we have not always got our way.

I’ve said before that the current ban on sending books to prisoners is wrong, and I will continue to argue against it. Allowing friends and family to order books through an approved company, which would dispatch them direct to the prison, would be a perfectly sensible reform which would not undermine the completely understandable efforts to crack down on illicit items being sent into our prisons.

More significantly, the Tory pre-election flirtation with a more enlightened approach to short-sentences and drugs policy have come to nothing.

So, while proud of the reforms that we have delivered, I will be very honest with you: I am disappointed that it has not been possible to move forward across the Coalition on a more fundamental rethink of our use of prison.

The Tory/Labour ‘arms race’ on prisons

The sad reality is that the political consensus needed for real reform remains the victim of an arms race between the two largest parties on who can sound toughest on law and order.

Michael Howard’s 1993 declaration that ‘prison works’, contrary to all the evidence in so many cases of course, became an ideology which was then enthusiastically embraced by Labour Home and Justice Secretaries including Jack Straw, David Blunkett and John Reid.

That misguided consensus has been directly responsible for a near doubling of the prison population: from about 44,000 in the early 1990s to the 84,656 people in prison at the end of last week.

Of course there were advances in that period:

Action to deal with racist behaviour in our prison system;

The shift of responsibility for health to the NHS;

The Youth Justice Board, and halving of the number of young offenders sentenced to custody.

Vital reports were produced that should have been the blueprints for reform of our criminal justice system: Corston on women, Bradley on those with mental health problems and learning disabilities and Carlile on young people.

But far too little progress was made on implementing their conclusions.

At the same time, Labour became addicted to what became a relentless conveyer belt of new criminal justice legislation - including a raft of mandatory and indeterminate sentences. And they bought into the ‘predict and provide’ approach to prisons.

You’d think from the criticisms of today’s Labour front-bench that the problems in our prison system began in 2010.

Or were simply the result of the difficult public spending decisions we have been forced to make to clean up their economic mess.

The truth is that Labour is as responsible as the Conservatives for the doubling of our prison population and its consequences.

Just like David Cameron before him, Ed Miliband appeared open to new thinking. In his first conference speech as Labour’s new leader, he said – and I quote -: when Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison because of high re-offending rates, I'm not going to say he's soft on crime. …. this new generation must find a new way of conducting politics.”

Frustratingly, in the subsequent four years, we have heard nothing of substance on the reform of sentencing and the reduction of the use of prison from Ed Miliband and his front-bench team.

In fact, they continue to revert to knee-jerk populism on prisons, whenever they see an opportunity for political point-scoring.

Just look at Labour’s decision to vote with the Tories for greater use of mandatory minimum sentences.

Or their frankly pathetic response to Nick Clegg’s courageous but vital decision to challenge the failed consensus on drug policy.

I am therefore sceptical that a government which included Labour rather than the Conservatives would be any more willing to engage in serious reform of sentencing and the use of prison.

My real challenge to Labour – just as much as to the Conservatives – is this: it is time you stopped ducking the real issue of how many people we send to prison in the first place.

Liberal Democrats are clear: it’s time for a serious rethink of prison use and purpose.

Only when there is a consensus behind an evidence-based approach to the use of prison and what works to cut reoffending will we address the problems in our prisons and reduce the number of victims of crime.

The case for rethinking our use of prison

I don’t need to tell this room why we need prison reform.

We lock up a higher proportion of our population in prison than anywhere else in Europe except Azerbaijan and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

That is not a record to be proud of.

It’s unsurprising that our prisons are overcrowded. We can debate the precise definition, but the fact is that there are more people locked up than the system can comfortably manage.

We know the consequences:

Pressures on prison staff.

Prisoners locked in their cells for longer.

Less physical activity, education and rehabilitation.

Creating a vicious circle as prisoners make less progress, and are kept inside for longer.

The consequences go beyond the prison gate too, not least the impact on an estimated 200,000 children in England and Wales with a parent in prison.

There is not just a social cost, but an economic cost too. An average of more than £36,000 for each prison place each and every year.

As a result of the deficit we inherited, we have had to reduce the Ministry of Justice budget by nearly a quarter across this parliament. Labour now say they back the Coalition’s spending limits for this parliament and no party will go into the election pledging to ring-fence the MoJ budget.

Prison will of course continue to be necessary for the protection of the public. There are people who commit horrendous crimes, ending and destroying lives, who should be locked up and some for a very long time – for life, if necessary, if they continue to pose a risk.

But if there is to be no more money, and most likely even less in future, then we will have to use prison less for those who are not a danger to society.

The alternative is a prison system which becomes less and less effective at rehabilitation, meaning more crime and more victims of crime.

So, even if the other parties are unwilling to confront this challenge, Liberal Democrats are clear that we need a new approach.

Alternatives to short sentences

At the heart of our plans for reform is the recognition that short prison sentences have proved to be serially ineffective when it comes to ending reoffending.

Most people sentenced to prison spend only a few weeks or months inside. In fact, nearly six out of ten (57 per cent) of all sentences handed out to men and more than seven out of ten (71 per cent) of those to women are for less than a year. Yet nearly six out of ten prisoners (58 per cent) will go on to reoffend at a cost of billions to the economy.

In many ways, it’s hardly surprising. Locking someone up for a few weeks, or even a few months, doesn’t in itself mean an offender confronts the issues that led to their criminal action.

In a stretched prison system, opportunities to work effectively with those in prison for a short period of time are few and far between.

Too often, underlying issues – whether addiction or mental illness – go undiagnosed and untreated.

Yet at the same time, a short prison sentence increases the likelihood of employment being lost - and certainly makes it harder to secure employment on release. It can see homes lost, and harder to obtain on release. And it can put severe pressure on family and relationships, leading to estrangement and break-up.

In fact, all the things that can contribute to a chaotic lifestyle and a downward spiral which can lead to a return to offending.

I believe that it is time for a statutory presumption against custodial sentences of under 12 months.

And, where a court decides that there is a justification for their use, they must have to set out the exceptional circumstances which warranted the sentence.

Instead, we need alternative, more effective ways to punish those who break the law in the community.

This is not about soft options.

Forcing someone to confront their behaviour – and, where appropriate, make amends to those directly affected by their offending – can be tougher than languishing in a prison cell for days on end.

Forcing someone to pay back to their community through tough unpaid work is far more effective than hours spent in the prison gym.

And there is no reason why community punishment cannot include wide-ranging restrictions, including electronic monitoring.

Most importantly, we know that Community Orders and Suspended Sentence Orders have a better success rate at reducing the numbers who reoffend within a year compared to those who have been in prison.

Restorative justice also works, with 27 per cent fewer crimes committed by offenders who had experienced restorative conferencing, compared with those who hadn’t.

We have now introduced a legal right, in the Crime and Courts Act 2013, for victims and offenders to be offered pre-sentence restorative justice. It must always be a choice for the victim to make, and it is absolutely not appropriate for victims of particular offences such as rape or sexual violence.

But giving victims a greater voice in the process, while requiring criminals to come face to face with the consequences of their actions, is an important reform. The Government’s own research found that 85 out of every 100 victims were either ‘very’ or ‘quite’ satisfied with their restorative conference.

Restorative Justice Council projects have saved nine times what they cost to deliver, and keeping just one offender out of prison for one year would cover the costs of more than fifty restorative justice conferences.

I want to see that right to restorative justice become a reality in all appropriate cases and at all stages.

There is also real scope for empowering local communities to deal with antisocial behaviour through Neighbourhood Justice Panels – an early intervention which can divert people away from the criminal justice system.

Bringing offenders, and if they are young people their families too, together with victims and others in the community can be a hugely effective way of getting offenders to appreciate the consequences of their actions. And requiring them to work with the community to repair the damage caused.

Transforming our approach to the use of short sentences is, in my view, the single biggest change we could make in cutting reoffending, crime and the victims of crime.

There are four specific groups of people for whom I believe we need an even greater focus on reducing the use of prison: women, young people, those with mental health problems and those addicted to drugs and alcohol. I just want to say a few words about each.

Female offenders

As the Minister responsible for women in prison, I am even clearer than I was when I was appointed nearly a year ago that we lock up too many women.

Although the number of women in prison has come down significantly from its peak in 2002 under the last government, there are still 3,959 in prison today - an increase of 80 per cent compared to twenty years ago. Let me be frank: we can reduce this number without compromising public safety.

More than eight out of ten (83 per cent) women entering prison have committed a non-violent offence, two-fifths for theft or handling stolen goods. Last year, six out of ten (60 per cent) women sent to prison were given a sentence of six months or less, with women twice as likely as men to be serving short sentences.

We know that women in prison have often had appalling experiences in their lives – nearly half (46 per cent) had experienced domestic abuse while more than half have suffered emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child.

The impact on children of their mother being sent to prison can be severe, and we are not talking about small numbers who are affected. It is estimated that more than 17,000 children are separated from their mother by imprisonment each year.

When you consider that fewer than one in ten (9 per cent) children whose mothers are in prison are able to be cared for by their fathers, you can begin to get a sense of the impact on these young lives. We know, for example, that children of prisoners have three times the risk of mental health problems and anti-social behaviour.

One of the consequences of the lower numbers of women in prison, and therefore the smaller number of prisons for women, is that many women are held a considerable distance from their home – an average of sixty miles in fact. That is hardly conducive to maintaining relationships with children, partners and wider family and friends – the networks of support that can be vital to rehabilitation.

And we know that over 30 per cent of women lose their accommodation while in prison, removing yet more stability and increasing the likelihood of reoffending.

The Coalition has made some progress in this area. I chair a Ministerial Advisory Board. We have published clear strategic objectives to reduce the number of women in prison and we have women-specific services now on a statutory footing.

Last month I announced a new focus on education and skills to make sure that we do all we can to reduce the likelihood of reoffending. So all women entering the prison estate will now have their education and skills needs assessed within a week and a relevant programme of support available within weeks. And, an important reform, I’ve made sure we do more to help women to continue their courses once they are released back into the community.

However, I am clear that we must also reduce the number of women going into prison in the first place.

The reforms I have advocated to introduce a presumption against short sentences would therefore have a huge impact on reducing the number of women we lock up every year.

However, I believe we can also learn lessons from the huge success achieved by the Youth Justice Board in halving the number of young people in prison in just a few years.

We now need an equivalent body for female offenders, to coordinate action and make sure there really are credible alternatives to custody. Courts should also be given a legal obligation to consider the best interests of the children of women prisoners when determining sentencing options.

There is strong public support for a new approach. ICM found that nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) did not think mothers who commit non-violent crime should be sent to prison, while 80 per cent backed the concept of local women’s centres and compulsory work in the community as alternatives to custody.

Young offenders

The number of young people locked up has been halved. However, I am also convinced that we can also go further in reducing the number of young people still in custody: 1,150 aged 18 and under, as of last month (197 lower than a year ago).

The Coalition has taken forward important reforms.

We have ended the degrading automatic strip-searching of young people on arrival in the prison estate.

We are working to double the amount of education received by young people in prison.

And we have developed an alternative to existing options of custody, one modelled more on a college than a prison with education and skills at its core.

But I make no secret of the fact that I would prefer there to be fewer young people in custody in the first place.

With nearly three-quarters of young offenders sentenced to custody going on to reoffend, this is not a system that is working.

In many, many cases, the children and young people sentenced by the courts to secure accommodation have faced challenges that don’t excuse, but can help to explain, their offending.

Looked-after children make up a third of all boys and nearly two-thirds of all girls in custody.

A quarter of all children in the youth justice system have special educational needs, while almost half were underachieving at school prior to conviction.

And Prison Reform Trust research found that one in eight children in prison had experienced the death of a parent or sibling, over three-quarters (76 per cent) had an absent father and nearly four out of ten (39 per cent) had been on the child protection register or had experienced neglect or abuse.

I am clear that we need further reform.

I believe that local authorities are better placed to determine and commission providers to care and deal with the needs of young people who have found themselves in the criminal justice system. So, having devolved remand budgets in the LASPO Act, Liberal Democrats would devolve the entire youth custody budget. I want to see local authorities having the freedom to pool criminal justice and community safety budgets, and invest in effective alternatives to custody. 

We need to do much better at identifying young people with mental health needs and divert them away from the youth justice system and into appropriate mental health treatment. I want to explore how we can give the Youth Justice Board the power to commission mental health services, enabling them to address some of the causes of offending and intervene early in problems which may lead to a long-term cycle of reoffending.

We need a greater focus on those aged 18 to 20 who make up just 4 per cent of the general population, but 13 per cent of the prison population. Just under two-fifths are locked up for non-violent offences. I would therefore also support extending the remit of the Youth Justice Board to all those aged under 21 to see if we can mirror the success achieved with reducing the locking up of young people.

Finally, I am particularly keen to see a much greater use of restorative justice for looked-after children who disproportionately end up in the criminal justice system.

There are too many occasions where situations arise which would not have resulted in criminal proceedings if they had occurred in a family home. This is about better guidance for staff and the police, but it is also about promoting and providing effective options.

These are often children and young people going through a chaotic period in their life and we must do all we can to make sure they do not add a criminal record to the additional burdens which they already carry with them into their adult life.


A serious plan for reform must also focus on treating those with addiction.

While 14 in every hundred prisoners are serving sentences for drug offences, more than half of all prisoners report that their crime was related to drug taking – of course, most usually needing money to buy drugs. Just under two-thirds of all prisoners say that they used drugs in the month before going into prison.

Alcohol is an issue too: with nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of men and over half (58 per cent) of women saying that drinking contributed to their offending.

Those convicted of drug offences have a six in ten (62 per cent) reconviction rate, more than double that of those who did not use drugs in the four weeks before custody.

Liberal Democrats have set out proposals for a more sensible approach.

Dealing in illegal drugs fuels organised crime and we agree that the penalties for manufacturing, importing and dealing must remain severe.

However, it makes no sense to keep on sending to prison those who have been caught in possession of small amounts of drugs for their own personal use. Instead, the focus should be on support, education and treatment where needed.

The decision as to whether a person is a dealer or not would be, as now, for the police. If an arrested person is thought not to be a drug dealer but rather an abuser and dependent, that person would be directed towards appropriate treatment in the Health Service, and possibly supervision by the probation service under civil court orders. 

Liberal Democrats want see us take an evidence-based approach to identify the most effective interventions to reduce drug use and the harm it can cause.

However, as a first step, we need to change the law to stop the imprisonment of people for the possession of drugs for personal use.

We also argue for two other changes which we believe would help refocus government efforts on drugs.

While of course keeping law enforcement within the Home Office, we would move the lead on drugs policy to the Department of Health; and we would legislate to make the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs independent in setting the classification of drugs, with a vote in parliament required were the Government to reject its recommendations.

Mental health

We also need to address the disproportionate number of people with mental health problems in our prison system.

I’ve already set out a proposal which would reduce the number of young people with mental health problems in prison. But we need a new approach for adults too.

More than a quarter of women and 16 per cent of men received mental health treatment in the year before being detained and a quarter of women and 15 per cent of men reported symptoms indicative of psychosis - compared to just 4 per cent across society as a whole.

Almost half of all women and nearly a quarter of all men in prison have been assessed as suffering from anxiety and depression, more than double the general population.

So it’s no wonder that we have the scale of self-harming in our prisons that we do – more than 23,000 incidents last year, more than a quarter in the first month inside, and women most at risk.

And the tragedy of 74 self-inflicted deaths in custody last year.

Of course, our first duty is to keep the public safe and there can be no compromise on that.

But simply locking up people with mental health problems, rather than prioritising the treatment of their illness, is a fast track to further offending on release.

And a treatment first approach would be a huge potential cost saving not just to the criminal justice system but, in the longer term, to the NHS.

The Coalition has taken an important first step with our commitment to fund liaison and diversion services at police stations and courts to divert offenders with mental health needs and learning disabilities away from the justice system and into treatment and care. An initial £50million will be spent this year alone, with further expansion between now and 2017.

And I want us to go further.

Nick Clegg has been clear that mental health is a priority for the Liberal Democrats. It will be a front page manifesto commitment for us at the next election. We have already announced our commitment to maximum waiting times for mental health, just as we have for physical health problems. We have secured funding this year to make that a reality.

I believe that, in itself, could have a real impact on reducing offending and reducing the large numbers of people in our prison system whose behaviour had an underlying mental health element.

But I also want to see good quality rehabilitative options available within community sentences to give greater confidence to the courts.

And it’s not just those with mental health issues who are over-represented in the prison system, but those with learning difficulties too – up to a third of all offenders according to some estimates.

And we know they face a tougher time: they are more likely than other prisoners to have broken a prison rule, five times as likely to have been subject to control and restraint, and over three times as likely to report having spent time in segregation.

So we need early identification so that appropriate action can be taken, including support for vulnerable defendants and making sure that sentences do not impose unreasonable expectations and an assumption in favour of community sentence options over the use of custody wherever possible.

Prison governance and accountability

I believe that a combination of ending the use of short sentences in almost all cases, measures to reduce the number of women and young people in prison and diverting those with mental health and addiction problems into treatment would reverse the massive expansion in use of prison we have seen since the early 1990s. The prize is the potential to halve the current prison population.

Of course, that also means that, for many thousands of people, prison remains necessary and appropriate.

So hand in hand with reducing the numbers we lock up, which I’ve focussed on this evening, we also need to improve the governance and accountability of the prison system.

Liberal Democrat would replace Police and Crime Commissioners with Police Boards. I believe there is a strong case for extending that model to prisons. And we would look to strengthen the independence of the Chief Inspector of Prisons through directly accountability to Parliament. And a new statutory duty on the Ministry of Justice to respond to reports of the Inspectorate with a detailed action plan, regularly updated.

I believe that we should better incentivise prisons to improve, and reward good governors so that they stay long enough to make a real difference, by enabling good prisons to earn greater freedoms over their budgets and contracts. To enable us better to determine what that success looks like, I would like to see a new value added measure for prisons, not just on reoffending but also on how well education, addiction and mental health issues have been addressed.


So that is the Liberal Democrat plan for reform.

An end to ineffective short sentences.

Replicating for women the success we have had in halving the number of young people in custody with a Women’s Justice Board.

And going even further to cut the number of young people in prison by extending the role of the Youth Justice Board to older youngsters.

Diverting those with mental health and addiction problems into treatment.

Improving prison governance and accountability.

With fewer people in prison we can not only address the pressures in our prison system and save money, but better make sure that those who do need to be detained have access to work, training and proper rehabilitation that will effectively reduce reoffending.

And the really encouraging news is that there is public support for reform.

The Prison Reform Trust’s own commissioned polling, carried out by ICM just after the riots in August 2011, showed that more than nine out of ten (94 per cent) people surveyed said they supported unpaid work in the community for those found guilty of theft or vandalism. Polls suggest a similar number (88 per cent) believe that offenders should have opportunity to see the harm and distress they caused.

This all makes the timidity of the Conservatives and Labour on these issues so frustrating.

I fear that timidity will continue. But I hope that, in the end, they will end both the policy and the rhetorical arms race on use of prison.

What I can absolutely assure you is that Liberal Democrats are clear about the need for reform, clear on what the priorities for reform must be, and clear also that we will continue to make the case for reform in government before – and, I hope, after – the next election.


Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP is Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties