Michael Tomlinson is Member of Parliament for Mid Dorset and North Poole and a member of the Bill Committee for the Prisons and Courts Bill.
A little bit like Brexit, contributors to prisons debates are often caricatured as being either hard or soft. Hard, like Michael Howard, or soft, like his predecessor and then successor, Ken Clarke (Home Secretary 1992-1993, and Secretary of State for Justice 2010-2012).
But whether you are “hard” or “soft” (or neither), the reoffending rates are horrific. Young offenders released from prison reoffend at the rate of 68.7 per cent. Sixty per cent of prisoners sentenced to less than a year in custody go on to commit further crimes and the overall reoffending rate is 44.7 per cent. If your measure of success is the number of people who come out of prison a reformed character, ready to re-join society and sin no more, then at present prison does not work.
Whilst our reoffending rate is comparable to France and Germany, I believe that we should aspire to be among the best in the world. We should look to countries like Denmark (29 per cent); Singapore (27 per cent); Iceland (27 per cent); and, best of all, Norway (20 per cent) to see what lessons can be learned.
Thanks to the encouragement of Guy Opperman, I visited a young offenders institution in Norway (interrupting a family holiday – thank you Guy!) to find out more. In particular, I wanted to understand why their rates of reoffending are so low.
Unsurprisingly, some on the “hard” side of the debate have compared prisons in Norway to holiday camps. But given Norway’s success of getting ex-offenders back on the straight and narrow, it would be churlish to ignore what it does so well. Smaller prisons; higher staff to prisoner ratios; and better training for prison staff are all features of the Norwegian prison system. The Deputy Regional Director of the Norwegian Correctional Service, Leif Waage, a psychiatrist, whom I had the pleasure to meet in Bergen, is passionate about rehabilitation. And he himself has not been blind to what Norway can learn from our system; praising to the hilt the success of the sex offenders scheme, for example, in Brixton.
Closer to home, when reform prisons were launched, I questioned how they would make a difference and what “empowering governors” would actually mean in practice. I have recently visited two reform prisons: HMP Wandsworth and HMP Coldingley. At Wandsworth I was informed about the admirable aim of linking the work that prisoners do with relevant courses and qualifications. This integration of education and skills is key to gaining employment upon release.
At HMP Coldingley every prisoner works, and I had the opportunity see their rather splendid factories, including a fully kitted-out printing press. The Governor gave me two clear examples of what being a reform prison means in practice. Firstly, she was able to increase the food allowance from its minuscule sub-£2 per prisoner per day. It was only a small uplift, but it was done in recognition of the fact that every prisoner works. If nothing else, it has made a dramatic difference to prisoners’ morale. The second example is the appointment of a key position within the prison. Previously, the Governor simply would not have had the flexibility and control over staffing and budgets which allowed her to appoint a skilled professional and prioritise rehabilitation. Those two small examples paint a bigger picture and brought home to me the importance of giving governors greater autonomy.
But what about the victims? At times, the hardliners say that there is too much concentration on the prisoner and rehabilitation and not enough on the victim. For me, this is a false dichotomy. It is not a choice between either victims or prisoners, but it is about finding a prison structure that works. Let me be clear: victims should always be front and centre. But victims, whether in Norway or in the UK, say that the top priority is to ensure that what befell them does not happen to other people. How do we do that? One of the best ways is to reduce reoffending. Then there will be fewer victims in the first place.
It is right to look at victims and the human cost of reoffending first and foremost, but it is also important to recognise the economic cost of reoffending. At present, the cost to the UK of ex-prisoners committing further crimes is around £15 billion annually. There is therefore a sound, conservative, fiscal reason to ensure that we take this subject seriously.
My final point is about family. This week, Parliament has been debating prison reform and the Prisons and Courts Bill. I tabled an amendment to the Bill, which was debated yesterday, about encouraging prisoners to stay in touch with families and maintain healthy relationships. Once again, the statistics are compelling. Reoffending rates are 39 per cent lower when a prisoner receives regular visits from a partner compared to prisoners that do not receive such visits. Maintaining family links encourages prisoners to face their ongoing responsibilities to loved ones upon release and it is vital for rehabilitation. Family support works alongside employment and education in providing the much needed stability that helps end the chaotic cycle of crime.
It is clear from the second reading debate in the House of Commons and from the start of the Bill Committee that there is much consensus on the broad principles, but some dispute as to the right solution. I know that Liz Truss, the Secretary of State and Sam Gyimah, the Prisons Minister, share my passion for rehabilitation, and, dare I say it, redemption. It is good for victims; good for ex-offenders; good for society; good for the economy; and the changes we are making create the foundations for further reform.