3 Feb 2007

"Race after failure" - "Government have not been tough on the causes of crime"

Hard on the heals of the resignation of Professor Rod Morgan, chairman of the Youth Justice Board, comes a debate in the House of Lords [1st February 2007] on 'Reoffending'. A common theme is 'family breakdown', expressed particularly by Conservative Peers.

But when will they get the message that no one is going to believe in 'compassionate Conservatism' until the Party commits to having 'social and domestic cohesion' measured in an index by neighbourhood like the other 7 indicators of social exclusion? People take the trouble to measure and maintain what they really value.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone [Liberal Democrat] who initiated the debate asked:
What is the cost? The Social Exclusion Unit has estimated that the cost to the country of current reoffending is at least £11 billion. The Government have promised 8,000 more prison places to meet this crisis, which will take several years to bring on stream, by which time that, too, will be inadequate. Building the promised new prisons will cost the country £1.5 billion, and each place around £100,000. This is a huge price to pay when building more and more prisons does not and cannot solve the problem. It is merely a race after failure......... Broken families and relationships, and lost jobs and housing are so often the outcome of imprisonment, yet they are the very things on which going straight depends. We further disable people with this form of punishment which in turn creates the very conditions for the ever-increasing reoffending rates.

Lord Ramsbotham said: For years, the received wisdom has been that being near home, a job and a stable relationship are the three factors most likely to prevent reoffending, all of which are put at risk by imprisonment.

Viscount Bridgeman summed up for the Conservatives: This could not be a more timely debate. The prisons are full; potential prisoners are walking free following the Home Secretary’s instructions to the judiciary; Professor Rod Morgan, chairman of the Youth Justice Board has resigned, stating that children’s prisons are being swamped; Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, has stated that the Home Office has failed to carry out proper planning; and the police have recorded violent crime increasing year on year......... the Government often fail to take account of the research evidence that they have themselves sponsored...... Perhaps that explains why, at present, 60 per cent of adult offenders are reconvicted within two years of being released from prison or commencing a community sentence. As we have heard today, for those released from prison, the reoffending rate is higher at 66 per cent and, embarrassingly for the Government, the reoffending rate for those on drug treatment and testing orders stands at an astonishing 89 per cent....... I am sure that we all agree that custodial sentencing is not necessarily ideal. Prison can break up families, impede resettlement and place children at risk of an intergenerational cycle of crime...... The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has previously said—I hope that I cite him correctly—that the three things that are most likely to prevent reoffending are a home, a job and a stable relationship. Programmes that help prisoners to develop skills and maintain contact—that enable all three while providing justice and a deterrent—seem to be the ideal to be aimed at. This House also often comments on young offenders, more than 70 per cent of whom come from broken homes. This is one area in which the Government have not been tough on the causes of crime. The report of the Social Justice Policy Group, under the chairmanship of my right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith, entitled Breakdown Britain, concludes that government thinking here, as on prisons, has been short-term. It says:

“The narrow focus on a wholly inadequate poverty target, followed by complacent trumpeting of supposedly major reductions in poverty, has obscured the scale of the problems that have yet to be tackled”.

Poverty, family breakdown, mental health and drug or substance abuse are all undeniable factors in the lives of those who offend and reoffend.

Lord Bassam of Brighton closing the debate for the Government said: We have done much to ensure that family ties are kept up when people are imprisoned. We are developing a cross-government approach to improve support for children and families of offenders to reduce the risk of reoffending, because we understand the important part that family life plays for many of those who have to be incarcerated. That work is being overseen by a joint DfES/Home Office steering group, which will report, as I said earlier, to the inter-ministerial group chaired by my noble friend Lady Scotland and Phil Hope. We have committed a considerable sum of money to ensure that that important work with children and families is undertaken.

So why do members of the Government keep repeating the mantra "We shall not promote one type of family structure as opposed to another" when the evidence shows - as they know it does with teenage motherhood - that the outcomes for children are generally better when the parents are married?

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