Last autumn, the Government published a consultation paper setting out proposals to reform the punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders. Yesterday, Ken Clarke announced its response to this consultation.
Under Labour, most prisoners spent their time idling in their cells with ready access to drugs. It is hardly surprising then that half of all prisoners were reconvicted within a year of being released. The Government is quite rightly proceeding with plans to ensure inmates work while in prison, to reduce drug use and to tackle mental health problems and prisoners' lack of skills.
Crime is the number one issue in my constituency. I am quite clear that the people who elected me wanted to see a tougher approach to crime. But there is nothing 'soft' about making prisoners work, improving their skills, getting them off drugs and treating their mental health problems. A recent study of prisoners found that 47% said they had no qualifications, 24% said they had been taken into care as a child and 12% said they had mental illness. Another study found that 64% of newly sentenced prisoners reported using drugs during the four-week period before they were sent to jail. If you just lock people up and don't do anything to address these underlying problems, they are going to re-offend when released. A disproportionate amount of crime is committed by a relatively small number of prolific offenders. Addressing the problems that lead to them committing offences is the best way to cut crime.
But the consultation paper also contained proposals on sentencing that did send the wrong message. I am delighted that the Government has dropped plans to increase the discount for an early guilty plea. It is also going to:
- introduce a mandatory minimum offence for adults who use a knife to threaten and endanger;
- look at criminalising squatting;
- clarify the law on self-defence; and
- ensure that serious sexual and violent offenders spend at least two-thirds of their sentence in prison, rather than being released half-way through.
All welcome measures. I have said before that we don't have to choose between punishing offenders appropriately and trying to ensure that when they are released they don't re-offend. It's good to see that the Government has listened on the sentencing issue and we now have a good, balanced package.